Is It Dark In Here, Or Is It Just the YA?

By now I'm sure anyone remotely involved in the YA market has heard of this article published in the Wall Street Journal, which lamented the prevalence of dark material available for teens. There were reactions aplenty, one of which involved the hashtag #YAsaves on Twitter, as well as a plethora of blog posts from writers, readers and agents alike.


A lot of the reaction involved people addressing the obvious—hey, there's plenty of lighter material as well. And I don't have a lot of add to that other than ... uh, yeah. Instead, I want to agree (to a point)—there IS a lot of dark stuff going on in YA these days. And you know what? Good.

I admit, when I first started my job as a YA librarian I was more than a little taken aback by what I could find in the pages of the books I was processing. Then I took a look at my patrons and began to understand. My best readers are what people would term "troubled kids." They need to escape from God knows what is going on in their lives, and part of that escape involves relating to what's going on in the pages. So they connect with that first, dark story that mirrors their own lives and (in my experience) a few things come from this.

1) They find out that reading isn't all dry Victorian classics or kiddo stories about hiding a puppy in your basement and hoping your mom doesn't find out. No—there are books about sex, drugs, & rock n' roll. There are also books about sexual abuse, addiction, and getting wasted way too often with your band. If my librarian senses ring true (and they often do) the kid who said, "I hate reading. Books suck," will come back a little shame-faced and ask, "You got any more like that one?" Yeah, baby. Sometimes that dark material is a gateway drug—to a new habit called reading.

2) They find out that whatever is going on in their life—be it abuse, addiction, depression, questioning their sexuality, or self-harm—it is NOT unspeakable. There are books about it. People talk about it. I can't tell you how often "dark" books have opened a door for kids, a door that leads to a room where they can TALK.

One of my jobs involves inventory. At the end of the year, I tally up what's on the shelves, what's checked out and what's ... "walked off." Without fail we've lost a few really popular series books here and there, and many, many titles of a darker nature.

Books like IDENTICAL by Ellen Hopkins and SUCH A PRETTY GIRL by Laura Weiss, which deal with parental sexual abuse, or SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, SAFE by Susan Shaw, STOLEN by Lucy Christopher and LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott, all books that center around rape victims. Gutsy authors like Brian James and Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson deal with the still-taboo subject of male rape with their titles DIRTY LIAR and TARGET, respectively.

Lauren Myracle's KISSING KATE and KEEPING YOU A SECRET by Julie Anne Peters, as well as David Levithan and John Green's WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON deal with teens who are questioning their sexuality.

HANGING ONTO MAX by Margaret Bechard, THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson, and AFTER by Amy Efaw all deal with teen pregnancy—go walk down a high school hallway and tell me those aren't necessary.

Drugs? Yeah, we've got those (or rather, by the end of the year, we usually don't) in the form of SMACK by Melvin Burgess, CRANK & GLASS by Ellen Hopkins, SHOOTING STAR by Frederick McKissack, BOOST by Cathy Mackel—the last two dealing with teen athletes looking for an edge.

SCARS by Cheryl Rainfield and CUT by Patricia McCormick address the very real problem of self-harm among teens.

BLACK BOX by Julie Schumacher and the now famous autobiography of Susanna Kaysen—GIRL, INTERRUPTED, deal with depression, and apparently kleptomania is a side-effect because I keep having to mark them "Lost" in inventory.

And that's alright. If a kid is too ashamed or embarrassed to check a book out because of the topic, it's okay. Go ahead and steal it.

I'll buy another one.