Apparently, it’s potentially my fault.
Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (as news) examining how contemporary YA books had grown dark and whether or not it’s a good idea to be feeding teens a diet of kidnapping and incest and self-mutilation. The kidlit community went all a-Twitter as a result and began a counter campaign called #YAsaves* to prove that these books did more good than harm. Which has all been well and good, but I can’t shake off the guilt at my alleged contribution to the problem.
As an unpublished writer of contemporary and historical YA, I have had bad thoughts and included them in my writing.
I have written about a teen boy who has accidentally burned down a portion of his school while presenting an ecology project, vividly fulfilling a secret fantasy in the hearts and minds of many readers. Never mind that they haven’t yet read it, I have committed the words to the digital page and thereby one day shall be accused of having pushed that evil influence into the world. In that same story I have included characters of deeply questionable moral character – a teacher who dropped acid in the 60s and is implicated in drug dealing, a former student who became a radical socialist, another student who became a law-breaking monkeywrenching activist.
I have also written an outline for a future project where an abused teen boy runs away from home and finds life out on the streets can be harsh. Teen prostitution and petty theft, though not the main issues of that story, make an appearance. I have another story where a girl runs off to meet a man she’s met online, who steals a credit card to do so, and who at a young age in order to get attention falsely accused an adult of molesting her.
And I am currently involved with a contemporary story where a teen boy discovers through a series of summer jobs that some employers mistreat employees, break the law and take advantage of the elderly and disabled, and generally exploit teen ignorance of their own rights in order to save or make a buck. In these books I have included teens getting drunk, or high on marijuana, having or talking about sex, or breaking the law (sometime inadvertently) in my attempts to present a world a teen reader might find resonance in.
Yes, I have committed these thought crimes, and worse: despite how they sound above, some of these stories are comedies.
Would you like to hear some real tragedies?
As a public school teacher I once had a student who lived in or next to (it wasn’t clear) a crack house where the windows had been replaced by plywood because the glass kept getting blown out in drive-by shooting. That student came to school maybe once or twice a week and spent the rest of his time riding the city busses everywhere looking for someplace he could run away to.
I saw a fourteen year old girl who stopped doing her school work, stopped coming to class, and eventually dropped out before anyone could figure out that she had become pregnant and suicidal over the fact that her father had raped her.
And there was another student, a sweet kid who wouldn’t harm a fly, one day brought a gun to school because he’d been goaded to by other kids and ended up getting expelled as a result of a zero tolerance policy. After that, no public school would take him, and his parents couldn’t afford to put him in a private school or to do homeschooling, and who knows what happened to him after that.
And there was the girl who even on the hottest days of the year insisted on wearing heavy jackets because they were the only thing she owned that covered the welts and bruises from the beatings she received at home. When Child Protective Services was brought in the girl cussed out the teachers and administrators who were responsible for breaking up her family and preventing her from taking care of her younger brother.
If these stories are dark it’s because not all teens live in the light of happy narratives. Teens living in these dark situations need to know they are not alone in the world, and they need to see how others have come to articulate and cope with these issues. And for the teens who don’t live these dark stories, they, too, need to see what the world is like in order to gain understanding and empathy.
But while I’m apparently contributing to all this darkness in teen literature I have to ask the question: Why, when I talk to so many adults, do they say that high school was the worst time of their lives? Why do they say this and then as parents and guardians for the world of teens want to deny current teens the opportunity to realize they aren’t suffering alone?
Unlike “reporters” for the Wall Street Journal (and The New Yorker and The New York Times who have also done their share in the name of protecting the children) and all those ostrich parents with an unrealisitc view of the world, I remember what I wanted to read when I was a teen and why. I didn’t want Horatio Alger stories of lifting myself by the bootstraps into a better life, or fluffy fantasy tales that reinforced a Harlequin Romance view of finding a perfect soul mate (I’m looking at you, Twilight, and all the adult readers who love you), I was looking for a window onto the world that showed me what I suspected was true: that adults didn’t know everything and that the world wasn’t the perfect place the adults wanted me to believe it was. I wanted to know what to expect out in the world, I wanted to know the entire range of human experience beyond the scope of my home town.
And just to cover the bases here for those who worry about the dystopic nightmares kids are reading about today, they were there when I was a teen and I gobbled them up just as readily. My favorite in high school was Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, a story about what happened before and after a comet slams into the earth. There was also Stephen King’s The Stand, a jaunty little good-versus-evil story that covered the entire spectrum of human behavior. And if I really wanted to see the folly of human behavior on parade I went to Vonnegut, and his stories were funny.
So, yes, the world of literature aimed at teens and young adults is full of darkness. As a writer of stories for that audience I feel there is a sense of duty in sharing with readers a world that they can identify with, including the ugly parts. I make no apology for those adults who prefer to ignore their own past and would rather shove their kids heads into the sand when it comes to deciding what they should read.
Hey, do you believe in freedom of choice? More importantly, do you believe in teaching young minds how to exercise that freedom of choice by giving them opportunities to do so?
Essentially, do you trust your kids? And if you do not or cannot not, whose fault is that?
Stop blaming books.
* a collection of others looking at this situation can be found at Bookshelves of Doom.