Monday, June 6, 2011

NPR topic: Dark themes in YA Fiction

NPR = Swoon.  I am in love.

But I not only like to listen to it, I've recently started getting updates through Facebook, which adds an even more swoon-worthy element to the mix.  In the past two weeks, I've gotten articles regarding reading that have made my whole day.  And now I want to share one of them with you, this article written in response to a NY Times article criticizing YA fiction's dark themes.  (Go and check it out; I'll wait.)

Honestly: this article had me at the VC Andrews reference, my personal go-to author in 7th grade.  When I told my mom I wanted to read Flowers in the Attic, she bought me a copy (it was the .  I devoured it, then moved on to Petals on the Wind, If There Be Thorns, Seeds of Yesterday, and the prequel, Garden of Shadows.  Was I disturbed by the gratuitous incest, adultery, and cruelty within? Absolutely.  I even banned myself from serial readings of the books after I read If There Be Thorns because it felt sinister and (for lack of a better word) devilish.  But I finished the series, and a few others written by VC (the name Troy Tatton will never not make my heart skip a beat!), stopping only when her name became a brand rather than an actual author.  To me, those dark and twisty books jived with my own dark and twisty tendencies, and so we were a perfect fit.  That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy reading something less dark (I did go through a phase of Jack Weyland, and can still tear up at the thought of Charlie sleeping by the bedside of her infant son), but I wouldn't turn away a book just because it contained themes and subjects that were on the darker side of life, such as The Silence of the Lamb, violence like Lonesome Dove, or overtly sexual books like the Earth's Children's series by Jean Auel.  They all broadened by literary landscape and affected the reader I am today.

As a parent, I have allowed my 9-year-old to read books with swear words in them (I know! But it's called Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson.)  He's read a book about a youth only a few years older than him who died in the Civil War, a historical fiction-type book based on an actual young soldier in the northern army. When Thomas was 6, I read Charlotte's Web to him, knowing that the spider would die and he would be sad, but also knowing it would prepare him in a small way for losses of grandparents and uncles later in life.  I think that reading allows children to be introduced to ideas that allow them to grow in ways that they wouldn't in their real lives. True, they might not have thought of these themes themselves. But I like what the author says:

'Surrounding them with books full of joy and beauty is fine, but confining their reading to those things because we are afraid that they cannot tolerate being exposed to the things they are already so often exposed to does them a terrible disservice. It's difficult to say to a teenager, "We don't even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it's that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you're cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult."' 
And yes, I realize he is not a teenager, and I keep his reading level to an appropriate age level for him, but I also see what will be coming down the pike in the next few years when he will be choosing his own reading material, and more importantly, when his english teachers are requiring him to read literature with mature themes (A Separate Peace, Julius Caesar, even Beowulf).  And while total immersion in books that are evil or gruesome or graphic is something I will steer my child away from when that day comes, I believe there is a maturity that is learned from books that is less invasive than a similar depiction in a movie or video game.  If he is to experience it, I'd rather it be through his own imagination than through the (literal) lens of someone else's.

So I applaud this article.  I wish I could quote almost every paragraph in the article, but these are a few of my favorites.

And with younger kids, like 13-year-olds? If they're interested in dark themes, they're going to find them, whether it's in YA novels or something else. Curiosity about death or illness or suffering doesn't have to be grafted onto 13-year-olds by fiction writers. The ones who seek out dark themes are the ponderous ones, the ones who like the idea of things feeling Very Very Serious, who like the idea that they are doing something daring when they open a book. Yes, some of them are depressed. But some of them would be depressed anyway. You could give them books about uplift and clean living, and it wouldn't cure them of depression, because depression is chemical. If depression were treatable with copies of Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse, they wouldn't make medication for it.

It's a lovely thought that surrounding kids with fun books about beauty will bend their perspectives toward beauty like a plant growing toward a sunny window. And certainly, it would be bad if everything always were murder and death and misery.

But adolescence is a dark time for a lot of people. Not a fake-dark time, because they got a pimple, but a real dark time, because they have a friend who drinks too much or is abused at home or has a mental illness and wants to kill himself. It's sad, but keeping books away from them doesn't make it any less true. Yes, it's always possible that someone will get the idea to cut herself from a book about cutting herself, but if she's in a position where cutting herself seems like a good idea, she wasn't just fine before she opened the book. The odds are she is already familiar with brutality and loss at some level; kids who aren't don't pick up a book about cutting and decide to slice into their arms.
And this one:
Much of this concern comes from a very well-intentioned place, I think. Parents hate the collision of their children with unpleasantness. Everyone wishes life as a teenager were irreconcilable with having an interest in angry, psychologically complicated, perhaps violent characters. Nobody wants to think their kid can really relate to a teenage protagonist who considers suicide or gets beaten up at school or feels crushed by pressure to be perfect. It feels good to make those "adult" themes, but that doesn't make it so.

What do you think about the article, or about darkness in the youth fiction arena? Is it escapism or a way to cope with reality?  Or, more simply: does NPR make you swoon, too?


Amy Sorensen said...

I simultaneously loved this article and hated it. Not because I disagree with any of it. Because I've written about this so much on my own blog but I'm still this dumb little Internet backwater... ;)

At any rate, I think as with anything else it all comes down to communication and to paying attention to your kids. You should know as much about the books they read as you do about the movies they go to and the video games they play. Seeing that your daughter is reading, say, Willow (A teen novel about cutting) could open up a dialogue and lead you to figure out if she, too, is a cutter, but it requires you to A--notice the book and B--know what it is about.

Apryl said...

Yes, I swoon for public radio. I am a complete and total radio nerd and I embrace it. And am glad you've joined the fold.