(Warning: this is a long post… and maybe a tad whiny. Be advised this is all my opinion and any quotes used from other sources come from people far more eloquent and calm than I am.)
There seems to be a tradition, particularly with online news outlets, where a story must be run every so often about the “bad” things in Young Adult fiction. This NY Times article is the latest example. The article uses examples of earlier books such as “Peter Pan” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, neither of which are YA, to demonstrate how darker themes were once explored and punctuated with comic relief. In reference to modern writing, particularly YA, we get this:
But the savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was, and the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive.
The focus on modern books in the article is full of violence, utterly ignoring any possible “comic relief” or other lighter moments in the text that generally do exist. They quote J.K. Rowling saying that Harry Potter is “largely about death” and focus on the murder of Harry’s parents and the pursuit of a “humorless villain”, Voldemort. However, they choose to utterly ignore the lighter moments in the series, such as Quidditch games and Harry’s often under-appreciated sarcasm (“But if I’d dropped dead every time she’s told me I’m going to, I’d be a medical miracle”).
“The Hunger Games” is also criticised, this time for its “gladiator-like contests”, although I do distinctly remember the character of Katniss eating with her hands for the sole purpose of irritating the event organiser, who had complained of a previous year’s contestants doing much the same thing. Again, any humorous moments in the text are ignored.
The article also fails to provide real examples of the dark undersides to the older works they have mentioned. YA writers Kiersten White and Natalie C. Parker have pointed this out:
Along with this focus on the darker themes in modern YA (or, in Rowling’s case, middle-grade evolving into YA over time), the article utterly ignores the darkness in the old books, writing on the subject of such darkness:
It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote.
Any writer who writes for a particular age group must be passionate about them. This is not negotiable. Modern writers, just like the writers of times gone by, know their age group. Many writers are parents or have younger relatives they speak to. Others yet again are teachers. It is no more acceptable these days for a writer to know absolutely nothing about their age group than back in the day when Lewis Carroll spent “a lazy summer afternoon taking a boat ride on the Thames with the daughters of a college dean”.
The articles also critiques the sources of inspiration modern writers find, using J.K. Rowling’s dementors as an example. Yes, she based them on her own depression she battled with, but her entire story is set in a world of magic and wonder.
I also have a problem with this sentence.
Children today get an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.
YA are not the same a children’s books. They are a genre unto themselves. And as I have already stated, there is the “redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic” within modern YA, and for books for children, too.
This tweet by YA author Tessa Gratton sums this issue up nicely:
The article’s one-sided take on the issue of YA containing too many darker themes is then diluted by the quote below. To me, this seems like a little section the writer will use to claim they are not criticising YA fiction (regularly confused with children’s literature, as I’ll discuss later) of being “too dark”.
No one is about to slam the brakes on these new engines of storytelling, nor should they. There is much to say in favor of the move to obliterate the divide between books written for children and adult fiction.
Of course, the article returns to its main point in the conclusion:
Still, it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie, for they also bridged generational divides. No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.
The thing that has nagged at me throughout this entire article is the confusion between children’s books and Young Adult books. They have nothing in common. In YA these days, nothing is off-limits. There are books to cater for all types of readers, from the sensitive to those able to stomach the dark stuff. That’s the best thing about YA; the variety is enormous.
Childhood fantasy still exists; it always will. However, childhood fantasy belongs in children’s books. Adult anxieties have their place in YA because the readers in that age group are beginning to experience these first-hand. We live in a society these days with far more categories for everything, from age to sexual orientation. Nowadays children don’t immediately leap into adulthood at a certain age. We have a transitory period called adolescence, where young people grow and develop their identities they will carry into adulthood.
Ultimately, my assessment of this New York Times article is that it is terribly one-sided and poorly researched. The writer appears to have only lifted quotes about books to support her conclusion and ignored all evidence to the contrary. Anyone with knowledge of modern children’s books and YA would not have made the same mistakes, and this article is likely little more than another sensationalist attempt to stir a panic about all the Bad Things in YA literature. Unfortunately, most articles of this ilk seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
I have spent my high school years reading YA novels ranging from dark and horrific to light and fanciful. I read Dumbledore’s death scene at the age of twelve and, while I did cry, I was able to cope with the situation. Speaking from personal experience, YA is exactly where it needs to be. There is a little something for everyone.