The Wall Street Journal ran an article last weekend that is catching a bit of flack. And it should. The author, Megan Cox Gurdon posits that Young Adult (YA) fiction has become a dark, depressing place filled with incest, beatings and horrible things. Is it true? No. As a teacher who specializes in reading education at the YA level, I can tell you that YA fiction is not a terrifying world. Moreover, the very things that Gurdon blames as being the dark and evil parts of YA fiction are not new at all.
Just as VC Andrews. Andrews' Dollanganger series begins with Flowers in the Attic, which was first published in 1979. Among other things, the series features incest, rape as love, a mother trying to kill her own children and one of the children actually succumbing to the mother's attempts. But oh no, until recent publications like Hunger Games, YA fiction was strictly unicorns, rainbows and anything else you can find on a Lisa Frank folder.
VC Andrews isn't alone in traumatizing young readers for decades. William Golding wrote an often read novel starring children titled Lord of the Flies. Maybe you've heard of it? A group of young boys are stranded and turn into wild savages bent on murdering one another. It was published in 1954. It's just some good, wholesome entertainment for the whole family to enjoy.
Just to prove that the idea of YA fiction bearing depressing and disturbing themes is older than celluloid, we have the crowning moment of trauma that is Romeo and Juliet by a guy named William Shakespeare. A young girl of fourteen falls in love with a guy, Romeo, she meets one night. They get secret married. He murders her cousin, after her cousin murders Romeo's friend. Romeo's banished so the local priest helps her concoct a plan to fake her death and sends a message to Romeo. Romeo misses the message, sees the "dead", young girl and promptly kills himself. The young girl wakes up, sees her dead husband and promptly kills herself. I forgot to mention that Romeo also killed the guy she was supposed to marry before killing himself. '
The fact that distressing issues are brought up in YA adult fiction is not new. Indeed, it's practically been the norm. Even without visible blood and guts, YA fiction has had it's fair share of orphaned children in appalling conditions, end of the world issues and tyrannical regimes trying to control the world. The fact is that we cannot shield our children from the atrocities of the world, nor should we. Reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry at a young age influenced me to research the Holocaust on my own. It gave me a sense of the wrongs that could happen in this world and why I should do everything I can to prevent them from happening.
Gurdon cites a mother in her article who was just trying to find a book for her thirteen year old to read, but found nothing but vampires, suicide and self-mutilation. Save for the last topic, none of these are particularly new to YA fiction. And they are far from the only things available to read. I'm left to ponder not what is wrong with YA fiction, but why that mother gave up so easily. Did she stop at the front display or did she actually make it to the YA section. I'm guessing it's the former. And if she really wants to regulate what her child reads, then she needs to read it, too. What may look like a dark, dramatic cover can actually be a novel filled with wit and comedy. Authors don't always get to choose their cover and sometimes, shocking I know, publishers are hoping you judge the book by the cover to buy a book thinking it is about something else.
There are good stories out there. Some of them are filled with loss and triumph. Others are filled with levity and comedy. Some have all of those elements combined. It is up to the parents to assess what their children can handle in literature rather than making false blanket statements about the current trends in YA fiction. And, to the mother who waited to the last minute, sometimes some forethought needs to go into selecting a text for your child. Idly waltzing into a Borders without some research or questioning of the book recipient is never a good idea. Who knows? Maybe your daughter likes vampires. Maybe she can handle the "dark" Twilight Saga. You won't know unless you read them with her. Communication is the key, not trying to censor what is available.