I love the dialogue that the internet allows, between blogs and news sources and twitter and facebook and all the other outlets. My thinking is spurred every morning when I check my google reader and the headlines. Usually, though, those musings are kept under wraps, maybe informing a blog post someday, but not immediately shared.
Today is different. I had to react to this post by the inimitable Ms. Janet Reid, Sharky agent extraordinaire and to other impassioned posts floating around the interwebs. I fear I must disagree--or at least expound a bit on--this and many other eloquent assessment of Young Adult fiction and the place of dark themes within YA.
The post was in reaction to this article on YA fiction from the Wall Street Journal. In essence, the article bemoans the fact that the shelves of the teen section in bookstores are filled with dark, heavy topics. So, is that all right? And even if it is not detrimental, is it desirable?
Here's my thought. I agree with Ms. Reid that the dark stuff--the drug addiction, cutting, rape, and suicide on the contemporary side--is realistic and part of the world teens live in. I agree that they should be able to explore the challenges and nuances of their world through books. I agree that most YA spreads messages of building strength and character, and learning agency, as Ms. Reid says.
I also agree with the original article--entertainment does more than satisfy current tastes, it creates tastes. Perhaps the ever-increasing darkness of YA lit is testament to this. YA readers grow to like dark subjects, more dark subjects sell. Here's the thing. I don't think that books about cutting will make teenagers cut, or that books about homicide will make readers into murderers. However, I do think that books about dark subjects to the exclusion of other--very normal, also very "real" if we must use those terms--subjects will create a view of the world that is darker and less inclined to seek humor, beauty, joy, and any other number of, albeit dorky, nouns.
My own perusal of the teen section at my local B&N left an impression nearly identical to the woman quoted at the beginning of the article. Yes, I found books that I would give to my teenaged acquaintances to read. Yet the overwhelming impact--even merely visual impact--of the shelves was dark. From my own adolescence, I recall bright, colorful, inviting book covers with optimistic storylines and rich fantasy worlds. There were dark stories, sure--I didn't gravitate toward them. But there was always something for me on the shelves, too.
Today? I'm not so sure. A teenager who wants to find a positive, escapist story has to wade through mountains of dark books--literally dark, with piles of black book covers. I appreciate that teenagers have fears about their world and want to explore those uncertainties through books. Most of the books on the shelves speak to those fears. Yet, they also have hopes and--dare we admit?--the need to escape occasionally, too. Where are the books appealing to those desires?
I don't think, of course, that this is exclusive to YA lit. It seems that the darker the subject of a "grown up" book or movie, the more likely to receive attention and accolades. And yes, great art and great literature can come from dark subjects. Yet it can also come out of light, joyful subjects. I fear that we're focusing on the dark side of realism to the exclusion of the bright.
It is incredible to me that those in the bookish world can continue to defend the gritty, the dark, the violent, the sexual, and the provocative against censorship without realizing that, by their permission and their choices in the business of buying and selling, they have censored by elimination the other side of the coin--the light and, often, equally provocative. I don't suggest censorship of the gritty, but I do suggest that, whether we like it or not, we're shaping the tastes and mindsets of the consumer by what we put out there. That responsibility is great enough for the general masses, but even greater for young people.
Because in the end, here's the thing--young adults aren't stupid. They're savvy. They're smart. They don't need to be spoon-fed sensationalism in order to find enjoyment in a book. Perhaps it's time for everyone involved in publishing young adult lit to step down from the vantage point of both yellow-journalism-esque lurid trend-chasing and overprotective parental censorship and do what we should be doing for everyone: Publishing good, meaty, provocative books on every end of the spectrum. (Edit--Which, I meant to say, I think is the goal of pretty much everyone involved, barring the assumed ever-present evil sub-minority.)
And for me? Writing YA for the first time? Writing, even a post-apocalyptic novel that's inherently NOT dark and depressing, but hopeful? It only reinforces my desire to keep writing what I'm writing--real, honest, yet not dark. Because I think there's a place for it.