There’s been a lot of talk lately about how young adult (YA) literature is too dark and violent for teens to read. Not only is this silly in terms of what we’ve historically taught children in both schools and in life, it’s also ironic, considering that we are happy to send 17 and 18-year-olds to their deaths in war, which is often the point of many of these YA stories.
YA lit is quite possibly my favorite genre. It’s almost guaranteed to not be boring, and the writing itself is usually nothing short of incredible. I’ll read a YA fantasy before an “adult” fantasy any day because I’d rather get caught up in the adventure than read three pages about how pretty the queen’s brocade is, or how unrealistically amazing an epic kiss was.
To combat this whole “YA is Too Dark!” battle cry, people all over the web are countering the attack with the phrase “YA Saves.” And I think this phrase could not be more appropriate.
Some say it’s because YA saves them by allowing them to have something to relate to; many YA books, for example, deal with abusive parents, rape, unwanted pregnancy, foster care, suicide, bullying, and so many issues that teens deal with on a regular basis. Note that these are often issues that parents do not, or will not, speak about with their children on a regular basis, too. Where else can they turn with their questions or despair?
I know that as a student and as a teacher, I’ve had students tell me how much reading books like Speak or Imani All Mine helped them cope with issues at home. It wasn’t all about the violence of it, either; sometimes it was about simply not fitting in or being misunderstood, or the power of rumors. Teens like being understood—and understanding is something that adults don’t often offer.
Look, using violent literature is nothing new. From Shakespeare to Faulkner, Orwell to Golding, most of the literature we study has violence in it. Even some of the works younger teens study, like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and The Outsiders, have violence in them. But if you let your teen read the paper or watch the evening news, he or she is likely to experience more violence than within these books.
In fact, the majority of YA lit is not riddled with gore and violence; there have just been some very popular themes lately that are more prominently displayed. The thing is, readers are often attracted to the darkest places in literature—places where they can still be safe while exploring these themes, where they know they would never be harmed and never manifest these actions in life because it’s fiction, not a biography. I was obsessed with Christopher Pike as a teen (okay, I still love him!), for example, even though many of his books were horrifying, without happy endings. Well, sometimes happy endings just don’t happen—and it’s okay if you want to read books like that for enjoyment.
You teen isn’t going to turn into a vampire, a gladiator, a ghoul, or any other monster from reading YA lit. It’s not a disease; it’s reading. It’s using your imagination (I know, an activity that’s on its way to extinction in our culture) to explore the world and make sense of things in it—which include violent elements.