YA Saves: The Wall Street Journal YA Controversy

(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.

And yet.

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?


  1. I agree with you, Siri – while I have nothing against the darker books, I’ve always preferred the lighter ones, especially when things have been tough.

  2. Not me. Light books irritated me when things were bad, like a comedy does when I’m hurting. Both just make things worse.

    I have been thinking about this, and I think the book(s) that meant the most to my teen years were the ones I’ve been gushing about on my blog today, ElfQuest.

    People think “Elves, oh, sweetness and light” but ElfQuest could be brutal. It also had life and joy and hope and jealousy and betrayal and scheming and beauty and drama and compassion. ElfQuest sucked me in and showed me heroes who overcame themselves before they could take on anyone else. Some of them failed. The bad was not hidden off-screen. No one was exactly what you thought they were. It was amazing, and here I go [url=http://www.kdsarge.com/wordpress/archives/5300]gushing again.[/url]

  3. I can see both sides here. I usually prefer something lighter when I’m in a bad mood, both to remind me that there’s something better out there and because sometimes the darker stuff hits too close to home (like when I couldn’t listen to the song “Heading to Nowhere” for about eight months). But there are also times when I feel like KD, that trying to make light of my misery belittles it.

    I think the key to keeping the darkness balanced is how it’s portrayed. Is it an obstacle to be overcome, or something to succumb to? That’s what I worry about when they talk about “glorifying the darkness”. And I don’t mean the superficial labels, but the underlying values.

    Almost tangential, but my favorite music to listen to when I was feeling depressed this past year was a blues-ish album; blues might lament and cry out woes, but even a cry for help includes the hope that someone will hear that cry.

  4. I agree on keeping the darkness balanced, and that was a big problem with the original article which was, I think, a reason for the ensuing emphatic response. The article-writer didn’t see books about survival and coping–she saw books reveling in depravity and teaching it to our kids.

    Or so I thought as I read, anyway.

  5. Kay, you’ve hit on one problem with this whole discussion — what do we mean by “dark”? Does it require a downer ending (succumbing, as you say)? What if the protagonist is dragged through hell and back but then gets to live happily ever after — is that “dark”? Does language or violence alone make it dark? Are we even all talking about the same thing?

    KD, that’s a good point. If she’d written a well-reasoned article about [i]why[/i] the darker stuff is popular / has become more popular, it could have been quite interesting and wouldn’t have generated such a strong reaction.

    She may also not have been aware that the authors of the darker books are constantly having to stand up for the right of their books to be available to teens. Nobody’s arguing that [i]all[/i] YA should be dark, but it almost seemed like that’s what she was pushing back against — an argument that didn’t exist.


  6. How about a Parental Advisory on the cover of the books? “PG-14: May Contain Dark Matter”? Bonus points for putting this on a sci-fi novel.

    Or “Warning: This book may contain language!”

  7. Look at the classics of film and literature, and see how dark they are. The things we cherish: Roald Dahl did not pull punches. C.S. Lewis did not either. Bambi and Pinocchio were no bright, cheery, festive things, either. The greatest stories are those thing include a little risk, a little danger, something actual, worthwhile, utterly unfluffied. The forgettable is what does not make someone truly fear for a character, which does not make someone cry out “no!” for what occurs. The timely political stab, the silly pop-culture comedy will not last, like milk in a refrigerator. The classics hit us where we have always hurt and healed.

  8. Good point, Plotspider. Darkness isn’t exactly new to children’s/YA stories — we can, of course point to fairy tales too.

    G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

    (If that looks familiar, it’s because Neil Gaiman quoted a paraphrased version in Coraline: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *