Darkness and Light in Young Adult Books
By Adam Burgess
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Steven Kloves
Recently, an article was posted by the Wall Street Journal which set the Book Blogging world abuzz, even generating a new Twitter tag “#YASaves.” As a reader of primarily literature, literary fiction, and the Classics, I little expected to get involved in this debate – until I read the article.
The article, called “Darkness Too Visible,” was written by Meghan Cox Gurdon. It begins with a clever-cutesy tale of a mother who goes to a bookstore to find a gift for her 13-year-old daughter, only to become overwhelmed by the mass of “dark” and “dangerous” YA books. This story reminded me of an event from just a few months ago, when I witnessed something similar at my bookstore. A mom and her 12-year-old son were browsing the Young Adult section. The boy had chosen a couple of books, such as Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Infinity. The mother, looking utterly exhausted, sighed heavily, took the books away from her son, and said aloud, “do they carry nothing but garbage these days?”
I immediately approached her, civilly, and began to rave glowingly about the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series – its literary and historical benefits, its masterful retelling of Greek mythology, and its incredible way of making ancient stories accessible to a new generation and inspiring many of those new readers to seek out the originals. I could not speak to Infinity, as I hadn’t read it, but I imagine any of its readers could have stood up for it as I did for The Lightning Thief. I do believe that boy was lucky enough to go home with the Riordan book, at least, in addition to some others (his mother was trying –no joke- to get this 12-year-old boy to be interested in Little Women).
This brings me back to the substance of the article itself, and what it has to say about “dark” YA and its writers, such as Andrew Smith, Lauren Myracle, and Cheryl Rainfield among others. Even Sherman Alexie and Suzanne Collins do not escape Ms. Cox Gurdon’s rant – which goes so far as to belittle the fight against censorship. Isn’t censorship something a true journalist would fight tooth-and-nail to reject and destroy? Instead, the article goes on and on about the seeming self-righteousness of authors who would expose youths to foul language, scary ideas, and haunting episodes, not, apparently, aware that these words are said in real life – even on the school yard, and that these terrible events do take place, even against our children.
Does the author believe that sheltering our children from the bad things – refusing to acknowledge and confront them- will truly aid young people’s growth and development? And those who must suffer these monstrosities – those kids who do fall into drug use or who are raped, abused, bullied – where else do they learn that this is not their fault, that others have come through it, and that they can be okay too? Is it the job of parents to help teach these lessons? Yes. Do most parents manage this job well, or at all? No. The reason is the same as the reason to censor or ban “dark” and “dangerous” books – the subject matter is uncomfortable so we avoid it and hope for the best.
Ms. Cox Gurdon makes a valid point near the end of her article, which speaks to the same effect. It is the parent’s responsibility to monitor and approve of their child’s reading, as with most other aspects of their young lives. How, though, does that warrant an attack on the genre in general? Do we not print the realities of dangerous events simply because it takes parents a bit more time at the bookstore to find something they would be more comfortable with? What about the parents who do believe their children can benefit from books like Go Ask Alice, which warns against drug use and premature sexual acts? Many parents use such books as teaching examples, as librarian Amanda Hopper stated. Should we punish the responsible parents who do the right thing by reading books first, then discussing the subject matter with their child to ensure proper understanding and meaning, by eliminating the “dangerous” altogether? If we pretend it does not exist – have we really done our children any favors?
Many youths live in abusive homes, but every child in that situation feels she is the only one. Many youths have siblings who are addicted to drugs, sinking further and further into that abyss, but every child feels he is the only one. Many youths have lost parents, grandparents, best friends and are struggling under the weight of their grief, but every child feels that feeling as if she was the only one. These books help young adults to realize they are not alone and, most importantly, that it is not their fault.
As I mentioned at the start of this response, I am not an avid Young Adult reader. I have been made a convert, though, to the benefits of Young Adult literature, and this conversion was largely due to books that Ms. Cox Gurdon might claim are “too dark.”
I speak, for instance, of books such as I am the Cheese and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. The former, I read as a youth and devoured because I had very real experiences with mental depression, anxiety, and loss – and I felt I had no one to talk to about it. The latter I read as an adult – while I was a bit shocked at how dark the book was, I was also well-aware of the realities exposed by that book: hatred, fear, bullying. These things exist in school systems across America and the world, and kids should have a safe place to learn that they are not to blame and that they can find help – even if that “safe” place is a “dangerous” book.
I speak, too, of Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy, which recounts a horrifying teenage-boy-on-teenage-boy rape episode. I read this book multiple times as a high school student, not because of the dark themes, but because the book also spoke of redemption, recovery, and forgiveness. It helped me to put my own “problems” into perspective and to realize that, no, the world does not revolve around me and, yes, I can do better – and I can help make sure others are never feeling as alone and confused as I am.
I speak of Tricks by Ellen Hopkins and Stick by Andrew Smith. These books speak to dysfunctional families, dangerous situations, and survival against all odds. They are masterfully crafted so as to expose real situations – things that actually exist, no matter how some may try to deny or avoid them- and they teach their readers lessons about courage, love, and truth in the face of the most unthinkable circumstances.
Finally, I speak of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Looking for Alaska by John Green. These are the first two Young Adult books that I read as an adult, but when I still needed the messages they bring. They deal with coming-of-age in unusual places and under unusual circumstances. They expose the tragic effects of the death of loved ones on our minds and souls. They speak to the strength of friendship, the power of self-worth, and the beauty of discovering what is most important to us, be it music, art, or another individual. And, most importantly, they let us know – though there are dark times- it is okay to talk about those times, it is okay to think and feel about those times, and it is okay to begin to recover and even forget those times, though it sometimes means letting go of someone dear to you.
I cannot express enough my gratitude to these Young Adult authors – the chroniclers of real life. You are courageous and talented, fearless and needed. You are inspirations to those of us who read for a living and to those of us who strive to write the stories residing within our own marrow.
Thank you, Robert Cormier, Jim Grimsley, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Melvin Burgess, Andrew Smith, Ellen Hopkins, Stephen Chbosky, John Green, David Levithan, Lois Lowry, and so many others.
I stand by you.