The Enlightening Darkness of YA Novels

Have you read a young adolescent (YA) novel lately? I challenge all of my adult peers to go to the library or bookstore and look at the amazing choices afforded to teenagers today. More than ever, YA authors are engaging teen readers with realistic plots that confront serious issues that teens face.

However, according to Meghan Cox Gudron’s “Darkness Too Visible” on June 4th in the Wall Street Journal, there is nothing to buy in the young adolescent literature section of the bookstore because of the current trends towards dark themes and obscenities.

It seems to me that there are many levels to this argument. I’m going to pull the focus back. Starting with the concerns of class and power, let’s consider our society. Currently, the decision makers in our country have turned their face away from the plight of poverty. This is unforgivable in a time of high unemployment and a recession, yet it’s true as evidenced in their refusal to close loopholes and reduce tax breaks to the wealthy while simultaneously seeking cutbacks to social programs.

Yet when we see articles like “Darkness Too Visible,” the division of our country becomes abundantly clear. I’m not talking about the division of the red and blue; I’m talking about the division of the oblivious decision makers and reality of our circumstances. If Gurdon (and the editors of the Wall Street Journal) were to read some of the YA literature questioned, they may learn empathy and cross the great divide.

Only someone living obliviously would not understand that the darkness of YA novels represents the needs of our teenagers. To be young, to be gay, to be invisible, to be poor, to be abused, to be raped, to be addicted to drugs, to be afraid… these are all themes in the very dramatic, and all too often tragic, lives of our youth.

As a secondary teacher, I have seen variations of each of these struggles in all of my students. To be a teen is to be confused about identity, power and relationships. These books provide a safe place to go to try different identities, test the waters, and understand the world. Our students come to understand themselves, but more importantly, they come to understand others from this literature. When students share books on controversial topics, they have important discussions about ever-present concerns on topics like teen rape and bullying. After these experiences in novels, the students carry a new perspective that enhances their understanding of a diverse, global society.

I am fortunate that as a parent I was able to provide an amazing collection of experiences to help my girls fully develop into intelligent and sympathetic participants in society. These books were an important part of their experiences. When I go to the bookstore as a parent, I’m always overwhelmed by the amazing choices that are available to my daughters, and I’m particularly impressed with the ability of modern authors to speak in a teen voice that is both authentic and sincere.

Some parents work diligently to “protect” their teens from these materials. Though I never put my own children in a place of physical risk, it was important to me that my children knew that there was pain in the world. Without a broad understanding of the experiences beyond our home, my children could never correctly understand their own perspectives in relation to the perspectives of others. This limited understanding would have confined their growth and had a detrimental impact on their ability to relate to diversity.

Certainly, my parents sought to censor the books I read, but as a student, I sought these types of books. Together my friends and I found books that gave us the answers to the questions we had about life. Since my mother never got around to “our little talk,” I sought the answers in the library. As a low-achieving  student from poverty and an abusive home, I found myself in the books that I read. And though I enjoyed the occasional escape of reality to a fictional world of wealth and beauty, I needed to read the stories of pain and heartache to know that I wasn’t alone.

Teens are instinctively aware of reality and to paint a pretty picture of the world in their texts is lying. Our students can see through our fabrications and recognize our insincerity. However, a constant reinforcement of a beautiful, faux world, a literary cover-up of reality, is like putting fresh coat of paint on rotten wood. It’s an invitation to the oblivious side of the divide.


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