There’s been a lot of talk lately about YA. Young Adult fiction that is, and the talk centers around just how much is too much. Gritty YA books that focus on social issues have come under attack and it has me nervous.
I’m a huge YA fan. We’re not talking the old Nancy Drew books here. We’re not talking Twilight either (though say what you will, Meyer has the angst of teenage longing down perfectly). I’ve read some YA in the last year that leaves adult contemporary fiction in the dust. Exceptional reads that leave you thinking about the characters long after you put the book down. Scars by Cheryl Rainfield educates and rips your heart out as it deals with abuse and self-harm (mutilation). It was up for a governor general’s award last year. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the first in a trilogy of dystopian novels that explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age. That book has spent more than 130 consecutive weeks to date on The New York Times bestseller list since publication in September 2008. Crank by Ellen Hopkins, is one of many in her verse novel series (a whole novel done in poetry) that deals with addiction to meth and the horrors that come with it. It was one of a series of seven books that all spent some time on the New York Times best seller list.
These books are not fluff. They are an immensely engaging read, they have characters that suck you in and won’t let you put the book down. You’ll drop your jaw once or twice, maybe more. These are books that make you think, make you dream, make you hope. It’s also likely you’ll clutch your chest several times and gasp aloud. But let me assure you, they’ll make you think.
All of these books and many more can be found in your local bookstore on the YA shelves. And they do sit alongside the books about vampires. They also sit alongside novels about shopping for the best dress ever and how life is unfair when you break a nail or get a bad haircut. Just like adult fiction, YA has a wide range of topics, a vast range of depth, and breadth of quality as well. But the fact that you can find anything out there now, to suit any kind of reader is fantastic. What did you read, after all, when you were 16? And wouldn’t it have been great to have a plethora of material to choose from?
I read YA with my 12-year-old son. I wouldn’t have a problem with him reading them on his own at say 15 or 16 years old, but even the Hunger Games was one that I read aloud to him at night so I could filter when I needed to, and discuss things when it was called for as well. I haven’t read the ones dealing with abuse or addiction with him yet, but they are on my shelf ready to do so when the time is right. Not that I would freak out if he read one on his own, but I want to be ready to have the conversation. I do like the opportunity to discuss social issues with him, and YA novels give me an opening to do that.
My struggle with YA comes from the writer perspective rather than the reader. My current work in progress, Life as a Teenage Mutant is a coming of age novel about a young girl dealing with sexual abuse and drug addiction. I wrote it as an adult commercial fiction, but the narrative voice (the main character Abby) ranges from 12-18 throughout the book. Mutant is gritty. Sometimes nasty. Mostly heartbreaking, but with a thread of resilience that draws on the strength of the human spirit. Abby’s voice is haunting and real, and is the very heart of the book. But there are abuse scenes, drug use, and sex. Not the Harlequin romance type of sex, but the bad choices kind of sex. The “makes you feel dirty, damages the spirit, but sometimes fun while it lasted” kind of sex.
And I am told by editors and agents and publishers that it is indeed a Young Adult Book, but I won’t lie; it makes me a little nervous. Like, somehow I fear my hate-mail might outweigh my fan-mail.
Here’s the thing: young females (and males) will read this book and be changed, that I know. This book will touch people, make them feel less alone. This book will send a message about understanding, empathy and kindness to people. This book will matter.
But – parents may hate this book. They may feel I’m glorifying a good buzz or promiscuity (though it clearly doesn’t look pretty on the page). High schools or libraries may think it’s too much too soon, and churches – don’t get me started – they might start prayer circles in my name. I don’t think I’d be a welcome speaker for Sunday school, let’s just put it that way.
I can’t Disney-down rape and its effects. The truth of it is Abby’s story is not crazy fantasy or non-believable fiction. Abuse and addiction affect every single person on the planet. If you’re lucky enough that it hasn’t touched you directly, count your blessings. But don’t be ignorant enough to think it hasn’t touched your life all the same. Fallout from the effects of abuse influence how you parent, how you connect with others, what kind of lovers you choose, how many lovers you choose, why you choose a lover, what kind of friend you are, and ultimately what kind of person you are.
It doesn’t always result in misery. Sometimes horrible things of all sorts have a profound impact that somehow spins into the side of light rather than dark. Things that in turn, make you a better parent or a more compassionate human being. But, if you think you (and in turn, your teenagers) haven’t been touched by the effects of abuse by someone in your life somehow – think again.
Isn’t it a good thing to let our children see the effects? Both the anguish and the resilience that comes from misfortune? Can understanding adversity create empathy?
So I ask you…what’s your take on the progression of YA books and the effect they are having on readers – young or old? Is there too much grit in our YA books, or are we simply and finally opening the doors for discussion and understanding?