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The Dark Side of YA

In recent months, a debate’s been heating up the Internet: Are books for young adults too dark? Too explicit? Too sexual?

I understand why adults get worked up over advertising, movies, games and books aimed at children. We don’t want our kids manipulated by negative powers. Rather, they should be nurtured by the best influences imaginable.

But let’s pay attention to the label: It’s young adult literature. It’s NOT for children. It’s not for adults (although I enjoy the genre). It’s for teens. Several years ago I heard a brilliant speech by YA author Libba Bray about how she’s often asked when she’s going to write “real” books. She argued that YA literature is not given its full due because teens themselves are not respected in our society. I couldn’t agree more.

Adolescence is a relatively recent phenomenon. Not so long ago, children leapt from childhood to adulthood quickly, without this lingering pit stop in between. In my high school classes, I see teens who feel disfranchised. We urge teens to be productive and expressive, but they aren’t given the right to vote. We don’t trust them to drink or enlist, but we let them drive. Teens receive confusing and contradictory messages. Parents, coaches, and teachers can help. And good YA literature can help, too.

This particular genre can help teens navigate their turbulent world in a way that no other genre can because it’s made for them. It’s true; not all YA literature is good. But no genre can claim that every book published is superb. Some books may be too dark for a particular kid. But perhaps we need to allow kids to experiment with the world safely, through books.

If you’re selecting a book for your teen, look for two things: 1. Find books that treat teens and issues with respect and complexity. 2. Find books at your child’s reading level that will interest her.

YA literature will tackle thorny topics. Don’t be surprised to see books about incest, rape, murder, suicide and substance abuse in the YA section of the bookstore. This isn’t arbitrary. Kids write about these issues themselves all the time. Sometimes, the writing of my students feels darker than the books I read. Teens feel things intensely; writing and reading can be a great release.

For me, the question isn’t does the book have violence but rather, what else is going on? I think the best YA authors understand that a survivor of incest is also a sister or neighbor who might be hysterically funny or want to become an archaeologist. The whole book doesn’t have to be tied to this single, gloomy anchor. Life is nuanced. Chris Crutcher is an author who does this beautifully. As a former child and family therapist, he writes about abuse in the way it reveals itself in real life—ugly and bitter, yes, but also mixed with love and humor.

No child benefits from reading books way above his level. Research suggests that only breeds frustration. Ideally, there should be no more than five words per page that are unfamiliar. But the book also needs to be interesting. Ask your librarian or teacher for advice. There are some books written about complex topics at simplistic reading levels. For instance, Lois Lowry’s The Giver is written so that most sixth graders could read the text. Yet the rich philosophical questions it raises could be debated in a college classroom.

Both Lois Lowry and Chris Crutcher are listed among the most frequently banned authors. Why? Because they are unafraid to treat their readers with the respect they deserve. They tackle topics that are scary to all of us. But what the censors forget is that kids are experiencing this stuff all the time.

Good literature can guide us through our fears. It offers hope and healing. And, as if that weren’t enough, it strengthens our brains, broadens our vocabulary, enhances our empathy, and helps us ace the SATs.

All YA books are not suitable for all teens. Perhaps this can be a moment where we trust them to flex their own decision-making muscles. In a few years they’ll need to be making all kinds of choices on their own. Shouldn’t we arm them with the tools they might need? Let them read now while we’re nearby, puttering in the kitchen,
reading in the living room, ready for a conversation.                      

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.


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