Is Young Adult Fiction Too “Adult?”

The Hunger Games

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On June 4, 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon from the Wall Street Journal wrote “Darkness Too Visible,” in which she bemoaned that young adult fiction was chock-full of vampires, self-harm, drugs, and violence. She blames the 1960s, and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) in particular,  as what unleashed the downward spiral. Now the shelves are lined with such books “immersed in ugliness” as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

She ends with this:

So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books relevant for the young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of melodramatic, “mommy on a mission” journalism never goes over well with readers. In fact, 89% of voters who answered the WSJ’s poll thought that dark themes in YA fiction were actually helpful, not harmful, to teenagers.

Chris Crutcher of The Huffington Post responded yesterday with “Young Adult Fiction: Let Teens Choose,” which I thought hit the nail on the head:

I went to my local Barnes and Noble and stood in the teen section, as purportedly did Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three. And guess what? I saw a lot of the same “dark” literature Amy saw. And I saw a boatload of literature that was not dark, and a boatload more for which it was impossible to tell standing there staring. She would have had to open some books. I’m guessing Amy Freeman, 46-year-old mother of three, wasn’t as interested in finding her daughter a book as she was in making a statement that fit her philosophy.

So here’s what I’d add to the whole YA is dark and dangerous debate:

  1. Yes, there’s some serious stuff in some YA novels. But guess what? There’s some serious stuff in life. Drugs, sex, and violence are real, and most teenagers have not only seen them, but experienced them as well. Adults don’t give teens enough credit: they’re smart, and reading about mature themes allows them to form their own opinions and become mature human beings.
  2. When I was a teen and I felt uncomfortable with a book’s subject material, I stopped reading the book. I’ll admit that I used to be enthralled with Lois Duncan’s YA suspense novels, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer. Once I started having nightmares, I knew that I was too much of a scaredy-cat, and moved on to other books. Reading what I didn’t like made me realize what I did like. And no, I wasn’t traumatized, and I didn’t grow up to be a serial killer–imagine that!
  3. Some parents are straight-up wrong about books. The uber-religious want to ban the Harry Potter series for containing witchcraft. Even my mom didn’t want me reading them when I was 11. HP didn’t teach me dark magic, but it did teach me about friendship, bravery, and equality. And you know what other stories have witchcraft and other no-no’s in them? The literary classics, including Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Euripides’ Medea, which–omigoodness clutch your pearls–I read in high school. Crazy, right?
So, yes, be involved in what your child reads, but never judge a YA book by its poorly designed, emo-looking cover. There’s some great YA books out there, dark or not, and they should all be valued for getting teens interested in reading. Books generate discussion, so parents should get off their high horses and join the conversation.
PS: I finally jumped on The Hunger Games band-wagon yesterday, and I’m loving it! Nothing like child gladiators to spice up your summer!
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4 thoughts on “Is Young Adult Fiction Too “Adult?”

  1. Pingback: What’s the best selling children’s book of all time? « An embellished memoir, in short spurts.

  2. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I like to think that there’s a literature out there reflecting the difficult times contemporary adolescents face. We’re talking about a group of young adults that faces 25% – possibly permanent – unemployment; catastrophic climate change, massive public and private debt plus a host of other critical social and political problems. If young adult literature is all sweetness and light, a lot of teenagers I know are going to think there is something terribly wrong with them for worrying about such things.

    I have done my own small part with a new young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW: A FABLE (www.stuartbramhall.com) about a 16 year old girl who gets arrested for participating in the blockade and occupation of the US Capitol.

  3. Pingback: Should books be given ratings like movies? « Book Club Babe

  4. Pingback: Happy Banned Books Week! | Book Club Babe

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