(Disclaimer: This blog post reflects the opinions of the author, not of Turtleduck Press as a whole.)
This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article arguing that YA fiction has become too dark. It’s too violent, the author writes. It deals with situations and behaviours that could negatively influence young minds (she gives the example of self-harm, arguing that if a teen reads about it, s/he may want to try it – say what?). It’s too explicit. It uses too much “foul language”. The vampire trend is only another example of this depravity.
The blogosphere and Twitterverse (at #yasaves) exploded with rebuttals as readers and writers of YA weighed in. Today’s teenagers are already facing these issues. Statistics. More. Anecdotally, I know young people who struggle with mood disorders, with whether to come out to their parents, with the extreme pressures placed on them in today’s world. And I don’t know that many young people. Turtleduck Press’s own KD Sarge works in a school, and she sees a lot more than I do. Books aren’t putting ideas in their little heads, but giving them tools to deal with their realities. Books tell them that they are not alone, that #ItGetsBetter. Laurie Halse Anderson says it better.
I agree with these arguments. I believe in the importance of talking/writing/reading about self-harm, rape, abuse, bullying, homophobia. I reject book-banning (others have pointed out the irony of the sidebar accompanying the article, which recommends, among others, Fahrenheit 451). I support the bravery of these authors in writing the stories that so many teens need to hear, and continually fighting the banning and harsh criticism of their books.
When I was a young teen, I went through a dark period. In retrospect, my struggles were fairly typical and relatively mild – the divorce of my parents, the cruelty of junior high school (I went into school for the first time in Grade 8 after unschooling up to that point…the same year my parents separated), the lack of people I could identify with, the strong self-doubt that came along with these things. Later I faced depression and the premature death of my father. All along, I read books that dealt with these issues. But they weren’t the ones I turned to for comfort.
At 12, I fell hard for Star Trek – episodes, books, movies. I wanted to be the android Data – an outsider, struggling to understand humanity, unable to feel emotion. (There was even an episode about a young boy who, feeling himself responsible for the death of his parents, decides to become like Data. But I didn’t see that episode until much later.) The Star Trek of that period – pre-Deep Space Nine – was fundamentally innocent. Gene Roddenberry believed that humans were essentially good, that adversity could be overcome and mutual understanding achieved. Add to that the thrill of exploration and discovery of brave new worlds, the celebration of the intellect, and the visual trappings such as the clean lines of the Enterprise and the intriguing alien-ness of the beings they met. I was hooked. Star Trek was exactly what I needed.
Since then, I’ve grown up, and I think there’s no denying that the world has gotten darker. Nowadays, I like bittersweet books, or books that drag the characters through a lot before letting them win. Maybe if I were 12 today, I would need books that acknowledge the darkness. It’s just that I’ve seen a lot of arguments for the darker books, and nobody (beyond the universally panned original article) acknowledging that the brighter ones are needed too. Maybe that’s assumed…but doesn’t it still belong in the discussion somewhere?
Back then, I didn’t want to read about girls struggling with junior high and divorce. I wanted reassurance that there were worlds beyond my own. I wanted to read about strong girls overcoming adversity and expectations to find a place where they fit in, or to go off and have exciting adventures and find freedom. I wanted to see them getting stronger, learning their self-worth, learning to hold their heads high. I wanted to see them face their demons and struggle through and win in the end. This is what I needed to learn – and the books didn’t need to be dark to teach me that. This is what I still want to write. I hope that some other young girl out there needs to read it too.
I’ll close by recommending some of my favourites from around that age (both YA and middle-grade) that reflect what I’m talking about:
Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy is about a girl who escapes a limited, misogynistic home life – but the focus is on her adventures once she’s free of it, and how she finds a place where she and her talents belong. (More misfits: Jean Little and The Hobbit.)
L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is about an awkward orphan who has never been loved – until she arrives at Green Gables and starts to win over everyone around her with her quirky, imaginative ways. (More orphans: Monica Hughes, Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles.)
Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series is about two families who are missing their fathers (one is in the navy, the other is dead) – but the plots revolve around their adventures sailing in small boats and camping on islands, all under the direction of a fiery, fearless girl pirate. (More fiery female protagonists: Pippi Longstocking, Lloyd Alexander’s Vesper Holly and Westmark series.)
Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician is about a street kid who’s in danger of being forced into prostitution – but the focus is on her uneasy alliance with a magician and the mystery they pursue together. (More mysteries: the Trixie Belden series and Enid Blyton’s several adventure series.)
What do you think about my take on the controversy? What kind of YA books are the closest to your heart?