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The Darkness of young adult books?

Posted by Charles Gray on June 29, 2011

Megan Cox Gurdon makes an interesting, and to say the least, controversial point here:


How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.


While I’m not entirely convinced by her thesis– the fact is that the absence of young adult books before the 1960’s simply means that the reader would get their fix from adult books– many of which were fairly dark, she does have something of a point.  Angst, and “real stories” about teenage abuse, suffering, and other such problems tend to sell, or rather, they tend to be what the markets think  will sell.

That’s a point that I’m not certain she’s explored.  AFter all, before you get onto the shelves at B&N, you have to pass the editor and publisher.  And the editor and publisher want the book to sell– which is why we have two dozen (often poor) copies of Harry Potter and twilight for every original book.  This results in a self fulfilling prophecy, of course, as the more books of that type that are out there, the more likely it is that a reader will buy them, simply because there’s very little else to buy.

And there’s a second issue– if you want to sell something, call it “meaningful”.  That’s one reason why books about addiction and teenage pregnancy are so popular–it’s real, it’s meaningful (never mind that in real terms, teenage pregnancy and addiction rates are going down).  It’s much easier to write than say a story that doesn’t use any of those hot buttons, and tries to make drama out of the stuff that to most outsiders would seem fairly mundane. It’s an easy sell in other words, or might be an easy sell compared to other offerings on that ever so crowded slush pile that sits on the editor’s desk.

But I’m not as depressed about things as Ms. Gurdon is– because the one series that you could probably dump every other young adult book into without making a notice– Harry Potter, the 500 lb. Gorilla of the publishing world, showed that you didn’t have to have unremitting darkness in order to sell books. All you need is compelling characters and things that make the teen or pre-teen want to read, and I expect that will be the case.  Unremitting darkness and using shock to make drama can only take you so far– it may sell copies…but turn your book into a classic, or give it longevity in the public mind?  That’s a bit more difficult.






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