Goldilocks and the Three YA Books

The first YA book was too dark and gritty.
The second YA book was too full of dancing unicorns.
The third YA book was just right.

They say that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. And I guess the recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled Darkness Too Visible is a clear example of that. The article puts forward the idea that there is too much ‘explicit abuse, violence and depravity; in modern Young Adult fiction, and uses an example of a mother looking for an appropriate book for her 13-year-old daughter as “proof” that there are no YA books on offer that are “just right”.

There are plenty of blogs out there with thoughts (on both sides of the fence), and I won’t list them all here. Do a quick web search, and you’ll find them more than you can possibly read. It’s taken me a few days to get my head around this, and come up with my own take on the issue. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t usually read YA fiction, so I’ve had to do some research into the types of books actually on offer. Secondly, I’ve had to wade through the overly emotional language in the original article to get to the heart of the issue.

To address the first point. I’ve read a couple of YA novels. I’m not going to tell you which ones – it really isn’t relevant. Suffice to say, I specifically looked for books with “dark” themes, although I didn’t go for any of the books listed in the WSJ article. My reaction was… Well, my initial reaction was to agree with the WSJ that the books were really dark, and not really suitable for children.

Then I felt shocked at my own attitude, and took the time to thrust my mind 20 years into the past, into my own YA years. And Past Jo wanted to give Present Jo a good slapping. Seriously. As adults, we often forget just how tumultuous those teenage years were. In our memories, we separate our past into “child” and “adult”. Think back to when you were 15. Did you think of yourself as a child or an adult? But now that you really ARE an adult, do you consider a 15-year-old to be a child or an adult?

See what I’m saying?

There is no doubt that the YA books on offer today have the capacity to be more “dark” than the books that were targeted at teenagers 20 years ago. But just stop and think what that means. I’d like to pull a quote wholesale from the WSJ article at this point:

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not.

This is one of the very few, non-emotive, non-controversial facts in the entire WSJ article. And, what amuses me, is that they have used this sentence to back up their argument that YA fiction is too dark. What they seem to be saying is: Look – all those years ago, kids were reading kids books. Then, when they were adults, they moved on to adult books.

Sound reasonable?

The point that they have missed, however, is the simple question of WHEN kids were moving on to adult books.

When I was 11 years old, I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Judy Blume, and a variety of stand-alone titles that I’ve long forgotten. When I was 12 years old, I was well and truly over them all. I wanted something challenging – both in terms of reading level and content. So I moved to the adult section of the library. There, I discovered the wonderful world of Spy Thrillers. (It was the late 80s, okay?) The very first adult novel that I read had 4 explicit sex scenes, 1 non-explicit rape scene, and 2 explicit torture scenes. Towards the end of the book, the only female character (who was previously raped) was hung over the edge of a building by her neck, strangled, and then dropped 13 stories. The male character found the remains of her body splattered over his car.

Now, I was 12 years old. And I loved that book. I had no context for anything that happened, other than the written word. My parents wouldn’t even let me watch PG rated movies, because they thought that they were too violent, so I had nothing to compare the book with. Was I traumatized by reading this book? No. Did I go back for my Spy Thrillers? Hell, yes.

My point here is: no, dark YA books didn’t exist 40 years ago. Or even 20 years ago. When I worked in a bookshop 10 years ago, we still didn’t have a YA section. But that doesn’t mean that kids weren’t reading books with explicit violence and sex in them. It just means that they were reading books with explicit violence and sex that was AIMED at adults. Explain to me again how that’s better?

In saying that, I can see where the mother in the article was coming from. In another eight years, I’m not sure that I’ll be comfortable buying a book for my son if it’s full of sex, violence, and drug abuse. But I actually think that the problem is not the books themselves. The problem is that most adults have no idea what age group YA is really aimed at, and where to look for alternatives. After all, if you don’t keep up to date with the publishing or book industries (and why would most people?) then you have to rely on booksellers to educate you. And not all of them are very good.

I think that’s the real tragedy here. Yes, there are more “dark” books aimed at teenagers. But there should be plenty of people (booksellers, librarians, reading guides, etc) available to help Goldilocks find the book that’s Just Right.

As an aside, I also think that classifying  YA as “books aimed at 13 to 18 year olds” is too broad a category. While some 13 year olds might be read for those darker books (like I was), there’s a large percentage who aren’t. And most 18 year olds are so busy trying to establish their credentials as “Real” adults that you’ll never get them within 10 feet of anything labelled Young Adult. I think that the majority of YA fiction is really geared towards 14-17 year olds, with a percentage of people on either side of that age range included.

There’s a really big difference between a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old, whether you’re talking reading experience, life experience, or overall world view. Don’t believe me? What’s your first, gut reaction to the following sentence:

My 18-year-old son is dating your 13-year-old daughter.


Filed under Opinion, Writing

3 responses to “Goldilocks and the Three YA Books

  1. Great post! I agree with all you have said.

    I have seen this a lot in the past couple of weeks. I’m a YA writer. I don’t necessarily add in all of the violence and sex scenes, but I do have a female protagonist who has seen her parents murdered and is being chased by their murderer. I read adult books at a young age. I remember the first book I read having sex scenes and a lot of violence in it. I was only 12 or 13 at the time. My parents sheltered me from all of it on television, but I didn’t like the young adult books offered for me at the time. I’m only 24, but even then, there weren’t as many YA books available that I liked. They were too childish for me unless they were like A Wrinkle in Time or Island of the Blue Dolphins which I still read from time to time. I preferred the mystery novels my dad read. So, if I was younger now, I would enjoy the YA books that were available. I can’t say that I don’t agree with the woman who said that about her child though. Not all YA books are as a dark as they think but aren’t childish enough teens won’t read them though. It’s my writing goal to do just that. To have the perfect balance. 😉

  2. It wasn’t that long ago that books were classified as teen (as in books for 13 and up) then they introduced ‘young adult’ as books aimed more at the upper end of that market with the focus more on relationships etc… and overtime the teen section disappeared. When I was a teenager young adult books didn’t exist. Like you I went straight from Judy Blume to the adult section. Do these people remember the depraved things that occured in a Virginia Andrew’s books (that’s what I was reading when I was 12 and 13). Then from there I went onto Stephen King and Dean Koontz – need I say more. People need to appreciate that most children are able to make the distinction between fiction and the real world. And come on – at least they are reading!

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