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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Impact of Dark YA on Teen Readers and Responsible Parents

A couple weeks ago I was discussing the idea of "dark" stories with you all--tales that "push the envelope" on topics like sex, drugs and violence. It seems they're very popular now and such topics are also creeping (and sometimes racing) right into YA fiction as well. Some people seem disturbed by the trend and some, flat out, don't want to touch any such fiction with a ten foot pole (consider how YA author Ellen Hopkins was treated by a couple public schools and libraries recently).

From the get-go realize if you're writing things that include "disturbing" topics and teens, you will get flack. When I was hemming and hawing about the mild cussing I included in 13 TO LIFE, my editor pointed out authors will always deal with someone who doesn't like something about their book. You can't make everyone happy, but you can be true to your story.

Got cussing? You'll hear about it (author Maggie Stiefvater of Lament commented in a NaNoWriMo post about the fallout she received as the result of using the f-word once in a novel).

Sex? Author P.C. Cast deals with several sexual incidents in her House of Night series and has gotten a lot of heat as a result.

Drugs and alcohol? Check out other articles about Ellen Hopkins' books (there are tons of others dealing with these topics, too, but hers are currently on my mind).

Violence? Eh. That's the weird one with us in the USA, it seems (still). We can tolerate violence in far greater quantities than sex and violent language.

Some of you may feel horrified about the frankness authors take with teen audiences when it comes to tough topics. However, as authors, it's imperitive we don't talk down to our readers. We can't skirt or gloss over issues if they're important to the story and to a character's development. And frankly, sex, drugs, violence and self-expression (like cussing in certain cases) and the way we handle those issues are very much a part of our character... and our characters.

Here's the reality check: Many teens cuss (usually they pick it up from adults--or their peers). Teens are filled to the brim with hormones and curiosity and (I know, it's as frightening as imagining our parents "doing it") some teens do have sex--and the others have questions about it). And, some teens (waaay too many teens) will experience violence.

Just because the majority of books in the past few decades didn't address these topics head-on doesn't mean that these issues didn't exist. My mother used to tell the story of the girl who disappeared one year in her high school--her parents tried to keep the girl's pregnancy a secret and shipped her away to deliver the baby but the imagination of her peers in her absence did even more to her reputation than dealing with things head-on.

As a writer we have to consider the impact of our words on our audience. We need to avoid gratuitous everything. Unless the topic is inherent in the story and character development, save it for another tale. BUT. There have always been dark stories (think about the Greek myths--rape, murder, incest, the Oracle of Delphi tripping out--all good "Classical" tales; or the original Grimm Brother's tales--pre-Disney; and Shakespeare--come on, have you seriously read Romeo and Juliet?).

Will reading Dark YA make your child experiment with drugs, seek out danger, or sleep around? Not unless your teen already has significant issues with separating reality from fantasy (which is always possible, I guess). Did reading Sherlock Holmes make you want to experiment with heroine? How about reading Cinderella--did you have an undeniable desire to cut off some toes to have a chance at marrying a prince? I hope not. But you probably started considering where your own moral and ethical lines would be drawn. That's an important part in growing up.

Teen literature or YA, whether it be inspirational, sweet or dark gives adults a chance to open up a dialogue with teen readers.

Let's think about the outrage many parents felt over the relationship between Stephenie Meyer's Twilight characters Edward and Bella. Many complained he was an older man stalking an underage girl. Now, consider the ways those same concerned adults could have opened discussions with their teens about those very concerns... Wow! Suddenly you can find even more value to Stephenie Meyer's work.

Teens gravitate to dark and dangerous tales just like we do (partly because we can sit safely at home and fall into darker worlds). I like writing the stories teens like (because I like them, too) and I think they'll be around for a while. As authors we have a responsibility to our teen readers. We need to address things they want to know about and let them experience the repurcussions of certain choices (good and bad) and actions without doing it firsthand.

As parents there is an additional responsibility--know what your child is reading and don't dismiss or ban it out of fear--use it as a bridge to talk to your teen about things that scare you, too. Dark stories can be used very successfully to help teens make good choices--if we talk about those dark stories with them.

What do you think?


Cece Writer said...

>>We need to avoid gratuitous everything.

IMO that's it in a nutshell. I also think the parents who complain/raise hell are the ones who:
a) probably have no clue what's REALLY going on w/ some teens today
b) probably have no idea what their own teen is doing.

That said, I read a LOT of YA, and most of it is Fantasy/UF, *not* contemporary. So what some might view as dark, I might shrug off (hello? Drugs or Dystopian Society?? LOL).

>>Some of you may feel horrified about the frankness authors take with teen audiences

As the mother of a 16 and 14 YO, I don't see how you can be anything *other* than frank--keeping in mind I live in the 'burbs. I'm sorry but it's not 1950. It's not even 1987. It's almost 2010 and its kinda time to wake up and small the World 2.0 that is.

You could NOT PAY me to be a teen today. It's bad out there--it's ugly and it's scary and I think I *am* a pretty savvy mom who does keep a good eye on her kids but I'm also only one person (the ex is completely clueless LOL). I do the best I can. I don't worry much about what my kids read or watch--my oldest doesn't read at all--I don't worry about how they dress, how they fix their hair, if their ears or lips or whatever are pierced...

I worry about grades (the future), I worry about if they're not talking to me, I worry that when we're not together they might *grimace for even thinking this* make stupid choices. And I worry more about what they might find on the INTERNET than what they'll find between the pages of a book!
If you've seen my recent tweets then you know I commented recently about how I'd rather my son ask me for condoms than diaper money LOL. That's pretty much us in a nutshell. I try to keep an open, frank dialogue.

>>We can tolerate violence in far greater quantities than sex and violent language.

Agreed...and isn't that a pity.

Ok I think I just preached to the choir here. LOL


Shannon Delany said...

LOL--Holy heck, Amie! I ADORE you! Yeah, you're probably preaching to the choir, but that's cool with me. I agree, most of the people complaining about what's in novels today need to get a clue.

I taught at a wonderful middle school about 6 years back now and even then we had HUGE teen drama (and lots of it was brought on by the parents--ohhh the stories I can tell!).

As a parent you have to pick your battles and (having been a teacher) I have to say just getting some kids to read *anything* is a huge struggle.

I encourage parents to let kids read what they want to (99% of the time ;-) and be aware of their choices and interests. If it gives parents (or teachers) an "in" to opening communication about hot topics, I say use it!

Banning books usually only makes them more interesting (like being on a diet--how much do you crave sugar then?).

Very glad you put in your 2 cents. :-)

Vyrdolak said...

"Dark" themes in modern YA fiction have been a source of comment at least since a NYT article in the 70s comparing the trend for adults to be reading fantasy while children's books like A Wild Thing or The Chocolate War depicted bullying, rape, pregnancy, and prejudice.

I remember being absorbed by books with grim, gritty events as a young person, and now, I couldn't read those books, I'd find them too depressing. I think fiction gives teens a way to grapple with harsh realities vicariously, and they don't have much patience with sugar-coating. Teens know what their peers are doing, and they know how young people talk. "Gratuitous" is very much a matter of perception. A couple of reviewers complained--one rather bitterly--about the salty language in my novel Mortal Touch, including on the part of a 17-year-old character. But I was writing dialogue to be realistic for the characters, not to be polite. In 2004, when the story takes place, this is how 30-somethings and high school kids in small New England towns talked. There are also several scenes with sex in Mortal Touch, but I have heard numerous reports of young teens reading the book and loving it. So far, I haven't had a complaint from a parent.

My publishing company, By Light Unseen Media, is about to release a YA novel called Cat the Vamp, by a 20-year-old Canadian author, Christina Martine. If parents read this book, they would probably find a lot to be concerned about, because the story doesn't pull any punches in depicting its 18-year-old characters. The teens in Cat the Vamp have discovered that they're part of a secret subculture of vampires, and they're overwhelmed by the way blood makes them feel and the powers they have. The story works as an metaphor for drug addiction and also includes sex, language, and cutting, all presented quite matter of factly. When I decided to publish this book, I anticipated that it might raise some hackles, but I felt that it was different from other books in the genre and I enjoyed the way Ms. Martine handled her characters.

I do not believe that teens will be harmed by reading these books--not the 12-year-old who read Mortal Touch or the teens who read Cat the Vamp. The idea that parents would read and vet every book that interests their kids and teens strikes me as somewhat horrifying--how many books did you read as a teen, which you knew your parents wouldn't approve of? And weren't those books the ones you learned the most from? Parents who try to shelter their kids from every negative thing in life, even on the printed page, never do their children a favor. It's a big mistake.

SarannaDeWylde said...

I still remember what it was like when I was a teenager. In fact, I'm shopping a YA called Sex, Lies and Pizza. It's based on my teen years and with everything that happens to the heroine, you'd think it was so crazy that it had to be fiction.

Which is why it scares the ever loving hell out of me that my daughter is going to be 12 in January. When I was 12, I knew girls who were already having sex. And as for sex in the books, I was already reading romance novels and Stephen King. Had been for some time.

I think it's helpful for teens to read about other kids who are going through some of the same things that they are experiencing.

As to the Twilight thing... yeah. That bothered me. I liked that they waited to have sex until they were married but New Moon was almost enough to turn me away. Why? Because a boy leaves the heroine and she wants to die. Her life becomes worthless without a man. I don't want my girls thinking that they need a man or anyone else to lead a happy, productive life. But you know what, it's an issue faced by a lot girls today. There is so much pressure on kids to have grown up relationships. To have to sex.

But in the end, it's just a story. And it did open up a dialogue. When we got to that part in the books, we talked about it.

What it comes down to is that these parents who have their knickers in a knot need to watch Thirteen and rather than censor what I choose to let my child read, pay more attention to what's going on in their own home. If they don't want their kid to read it, don't let them.

But there's other parents out there who think that these issues are more easily addressed when they're raised by someone else. Not that I'm not frank with my children, or that I'm affraid to talk about it, but from mom, sometimes the ears just shut down. When you have this other medium that captures them, possibilities are wide open.

Great blog, Shannon.

Gail Hart said...

Good post, Shannon!

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a teen, my favorite author was Paul Zindell, and some of the issues he touched on, though not supernatural, were quite dark. I appreciated that he didn't try to sugarcoat anything.

Maybe I'll go back and re-read "The Pigman" and see how well it holds up.

C.J. Ellisson said...

Awesome post! Not sure if any of you heard of "Go ask Alice'. I read it when I was 12. It was powerful and controversial - and no, it didn't make me want to run out and try drugs.

It got me to talk to my mom about it because I had no idea if that stuff was real or not (the story took place a decade or more before I read it).

But it made an impression on me and it mattered.

Dare I mention reading Judy Blume's Wifey and Forever at the age of 12? You're spot on - I may not have been having sex, but I was sure as hell interested in reading about it! Shocks me now to think of my own daughter reading those same books at 12 (or ones like them), but at least I'll be ready to talk to her about it when she does.

Vyrdolak said...

Interesting that you should mention Go Ask Alice, C.J., because I read that when it first came out in 1971. I was somewhat skeptical of it even when I was 15--the voice just didn't sound right to me, and the whole wrap-up with the diary supposedly being published posthumously was just too pat and obvious a cautionary tale.

I was right, too. Go Ask Alice was quickly exposed as a fabrication perpetrated by Beatrice Sparks, psychologist and, like Stephenie Meyer, a Mormon. Nevertheless, it's still in print and still marketed as "a real diary" credited to "Anonymous."

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