But that’s too dark for our poor children!

I’m going to give my brain a break from analyzing the VIDA statistics this week. Besides, some of our other bloggers have already done an admirable job covering the story—which, I suppose, means that I can blame them for noticing that a list of authors I looked at today had one woman in the dozens of names. Probably mostly due to the genre (steampunk, which I have only recently begun to explore, as in, two or three days ago recent). But there I go again.

I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately. I’ve always enjoyed books for young adults (and even the occasional middle grade novel), but it’s sort of something I put on hold while pursuing my MFA. Now that I’m done, I’m working to find a balance in my reading habits, because my dream job is literary agent, and literary agents need to not only enjoy but be familiar with various genres. For me that means trying to get caught back up with current literary trends, and right now, I’m tearing through some pretty awesome YA novels.

While looking for recommendations the other day, I stumbled across the NYT’s Room for Debate section on their website, which is quite cool. You should all go check it out, if you’re not already reading it. There was a topic from late last year which asked the following question: What’s behind the trend of dark, dystopian literature read and enjoyed by our youth?

Of course, I see that question and immediately jump to another, one that is too simplistic, perhaps, but one that I think people are still asking: Is young adult literature becoming too dark?

Personally, I think that’s a bit of a silly question, that, if anything, it’s not dark enough. I write short (very short) fiction and nonfiction passages for the reading portion of one of Michigan’s standardized tests for grades 3 through 9, and my list of taboo topics is extensive. Not that I needed the list to tell me that I can’t write about abortions for these kids, but beef? Pork? Camping? Habitat for Humanity? A character owning a dollhouse? (If you were wondering: religious sensitivity, religious sensitivity, too rich-centric, a charity will make any child feel bad that needs the help of a charity, and too rich-centric.) Of course, there’s a whole other issue here about removing bias, but still—aren’t we sheltering our kids enough? Do we need books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak banned (oh yes, that’s right, because a young girl being raped is clearly pornography, I forgot). What about all the others? Okay for grownups but not kids? What’s the magic that’s-okay-for-you-age?

Psychologist Robert Epstein claims that the reasons so many teenagers act like, well, idiots, is because our society holds them back from a societal role they are ready to step into: adulthood. He says that in societies where there is no extended childhood such as here, there is no teenage crisis. Don’t get me wrong—neither he nor I are saying that we should go back to the days where kids were married off at age 13. It’s the decision-making capability that we don’t let our teens practice. And yet, when they pick up a book like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (the huge dystopian splash of the moment), they see a teenager who has just that. Responsibility, the possibility of making a difference now instead of in some distant future. They see a world that has sprung from their own, a world in which the adults are often just continuing some meaningless cycle. These characters face problems—death, destruction, despair—that perhaps seem more meaningful to the readers than this crazy charade of not-child-not-adult that they’re living out.

So maybe it’s not the darkness for darkness’ sake that these kids want. Maybe they just want something that has stakes that are larger than who got asked to the prom, or whose team won the basketball game. Aren’t these the same things we look for in our adult reading choices?

5 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    My kids love The Hunger Games. And I don’t think they love that series because it’s dark. I think they love it because the books speak to them somehow, the same reason all readers love what they love. And it seems true that they absolutely want something “that has stakes that are larger than who got asked to the prom, or whose team won the basketball game.” I never worry about whether a book is too dark for kids. Kids know all about darkness, just like everyone else.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    Charlie and The Chocolate Factory is actually pretty dark, and it doesn’t get much darker than Lord Of The Flies.

  • Asa Maria says:

    Kathryn, let me know every good Steampunk book you find. I love the genre. My favorites of all times are Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books. She also has some great links on her website (http://gailcarriger.com/steampunk.php)to lists of classic and contemporary steampunk books.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      I just finished Leviathan. It was all right. I’ll finish the series. The two main characters were quite compelling but what I had troubles with was the world of the story—something that I think wouldn’t have been such a problem had I better understood the genre itself. Also I took issue with the blurb of the book sort of setting up false tension. I also was a bit unsatisfied with the author’s balance of long versus short lines of tension, but the characters combined with my lack of understanding of the genre are enough to let me give the sequel a try.

  • Brianna says:

    I agree. I teach 5th grade at my synagogue and my kids are bloody brilliant. They know far more than I did in 5th grade. Censoring the books they read will not prevent them from growing up a certain way. They love to debate and the meatier the issue, the better.

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