Dark YA: Catalyst or Cure?

Currently in the news: a 10-month-old baby is missing, a 23-year-old woman was slaughtered and her unborn baby harvested, a high schooler was shot while eating lunch.

We openly acknowledge these events because of the public way in which they were committed.  If we had a choice, we would scrub these memories from our minds and go about our own lives oblivious to the pain others have suffered.  Not because we don’t care, but because it scares us to do so.

Dark YA takes this a step further.  It dares to dig into the hidden.  It probes into dirty secrets and spills the details in a way that makes our stomachs churn.  Some readers embrace it, while other feel the need to challenge it.

Categorically, young adult novels that deal with serious topics fall under great scrutiny.  They are frequent targets of challenges by parents, politicians and religious leaders.

I’m not exactly sure what makes a book dark.  By my best guess, Dark YA is visceral.  It often makes the reader feel uncomfortable or unsettled because of the topic and the raw nature in how it is presented.  It is almost always emotionally disturbing.

Take Unwind, for instance.

“Well-written, this draws the readers into a world that is both familiar and strangely foreign, and generates feelings of horror, disturbance, disgust and fear. As with classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, one can only hope that this vision of the future never becomes reality.”–Kirkus Reviews as found at Amazon.

In Unwind, Neal Shusterman tackles the very heavy issue of right to life versus the right to choose.  Abortion is settled in a way that satisfies both sides, but is unnerving to the reader.  His solution is unthinkable.  Thankfully, however, authors like Mr. Shusterman are not afraid to write about taboo subjects.

Yet for every great review these books get, a negative reaction will surface because some people believe dark YA encourages bad behavior and experimentation.  They blame certain books for the emergence of homosexuals in our communities.  For the romanticism of cutting.  For the acceptance of eating disorders and the escalating numbers of teen suicides.

I beg to differ.  I firmly believe these dark topics have always been a part of the human race.  We’ve just chosen to push them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist.  We scrub them from our memories, because to remember is to care and to care is to take action.

Incest, domestic abuse, theft, rape, alcoholism, drugs, teen pregnancies, homosexuality, religious persecution and bullying–these things have been around since recorded history in some form or other.  We are just now giving our kids the means to understand and cope with the experiences in their lives.

Dark YA?  Yeah, it most definitely serves as a form of therapy.  It is the chance to acknowledge the fear, anger, shame and impotence that haunts our children today.  And, most likely the adults who read it.

These books don’t encourage poor choices.  Rather, they validate that we are not alone, that we are accepted and that we can survive.  In my mind, Dark YA is a message of hope for a better future.  It is a call to action and change.  It is balm for our wounded souls.

What says you?  Do these hot button topics belong in YA?  Why or why not?  How do these books stimulate poor choices?  How do they encourage, inspire and motivate?  Is Dark YA the reason for our social ills or the therapy our kids need to overcome a dark existence?

Curious minds want to know.


12 responses to “Dark YA: Catalyst or Cure?

  1. I think that dark topics in books are “safe” ways for young people to explore their own feelings and even come to accept the parts of themselves that might seem unacceptable.

    In my first published book (An Accidental Life), I explore the poor choices four teens make during one hot summer…and how the consequences unfold over a long period of time, but begin with huge losses for each of them. The effects continue and ripple outward, affecting the adults in their lives, too.

    I don’t think books encourage bad behavior, but show how choices can unfold and the possible ramifications of those choices.

    • Laurel,

      This is exactly why these books are important. By seeing the alternative reality based on certain choices, teens can better understand how to navigate their own lives.

      Thanks so much for this great input.

  2. I think dark Young Adult books can be a bit like horror movies; the audience regards them with shock and awe, that such a thing can happen. The kind of person that acts on notions from dark media is somebody who was likely going to anyway; “blame” is not something I think about when I read books and then go read about crimes (And that is my Psychology degree talking!)

    I do think YA books are far darker and more wild than they were twenty or more years ago. Remember Go Ask Alice? By the time I read it, I wondered what the big deal was. As an adult, I can compare and look at culture as it was and things like that, but as a young adult myself, I was underwhelmed.

    I’m not really sure what the difference is, sometimes, between YA and plain ol’ fiction anymore. I guess YA has teenagers as the main focus, because language, sex, and graphic scenes are par for the course. Granted, I was always able to read across the ages (and genres), but not every kid is like that. And not every parent is willing to be like that!

    • I agree that books seem darker now than ever before. And I think this is why some people struggle so much with them. It’s a feeling that we are glorifying/horrifying something for the sake of the shock value. That we need more to even make an impact. In part, this may be true, but I also feel as if things have been so hush hush for so long that giving voice to our teens and the issues they face in a way that speaks to them is empowering in a good way.

      I hope sex and language and graphic scenes aren’t a given in YA books. If this is true, society as a whole is in trouble. I think hot button topics can be dealt with in a way that isn’t over the top or gratuitous.

      I also wonder if YA is the same as adult fiction, just with younger characters. Interesting concept that needs more exploration on my behalf.

      Thanks so much for weighing in on this topic.

  3. Blaming YA for anything unpleasant is a way of denying that those things ever took place in the past. It requires ignorance of history or a deliberate shutting out of the past. There are people for whom it’s constitutionally necessary to find someone or something to blame. Depending on the intensity of the situation and how close it comes to one’s personal life, most humans will, at one time or another, blame someone or something that has absolutely no connection.

  4. These books most definitely belong. So many kids live through so many horrors. Finding they’re not alone and seeing how fictional people deal with things and what the consequences of those actions are all priceless. Teens are very discerning and should be trusted to make their own choices. They’re becoming adults and as such are more aware of all the real life horrors. Exploring ideas through books should always be encouraged.

    • Yay! Once again, you get to the meat of the problem and address it so eloquently. Kids live these horrors and need to know they are normal and part of a larger group. And those kids who haven’t experienced these things first hand can learn compassion for their peers. Or at least a better understanding that life isn’t equal.

      Thanks for your very experienced words of wisdom on this subject!

  5. I’m very pro dark YA – unfortunately I’m sure that many of the readers who gravitate towards these books are way too familiar with the topic matter. They need to know that the things they’ve been through are NOT taboo, that they happen to others and NEED to be talked about.

    • Another favorite educator weighing in with such eloquence and truth.

      Our teachers and librarians who refuse to be cowed by challenges and unhappy patrons/parents should all receive halos. You are a child’s best advocate in helping them navigate a terrifying world.

      Thanks for all you do.

  6. I adore this post. You said what I’ve been musing about for the last few months, and you are so much more eloquent than my jumbled thoughts 😛

    It’s true that the world can be a scary, messy place, but I don’t think it’s true that Dark YA is responsible. I agree that Dark YA (like Unwind) tends to be about facing uncomfortable topics in graphic ways – and I love that. Teens occasionally need to be provoked into thinking. The world is changing and sometimes literature needs to reflect (or warn about) that change.

    Kudos to you for an awesome post!

    • I agree with this 100% and love your example. Tough topics are out there and kids need to know they exist and that they actually have a role in how their futures look by being aware of and understanding these hot button issues. So many great authors have worked hard to address topics that many parents, religious leaders and professionals would rather not discuss.

      But witholding information is equally damaging.

      Thanks for weighing in.

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