By Belle Allen, a high school senior
A hundred years ago, the young adult (YA) genre did not exist. If children read novels, they read adult novels, simply because nothing else was available. The word teenager did not even exist until after World War II, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that authors began writing for them. Some say that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, was the first book for young adults, but YA really began in the late 1960s when writers like S.E. Hinton began writing books like The Outsiders. For the first time, there was a novel that spoke to teens.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the Sweet Dreams series sold like crazy. These books had simple plots and no sex, profanity, or depression. The series focused on topics such as cheerleading, popularity, dating, and friendships. The protagonists were good, wholesome, middle-class Americans. Yeah, yawn. Books for younger readers were often marketed to young girls making it clear that they weren’t “challenging” books to read, reflecting a belief that most young people thought of reading as more of a chore than a pleasure. In time, publishers started putting out books for young adults who have an interest in reading equal to that of adults.
Nowadays, the young adult section is dominated by vampires, depression, and various degrees of violence ranging from the self-inflicted to mystical warfare. Protagonists face problems such as drugs, murder, sexual assault, and suicide. Now, things that were barely spoken about are put in writing. Not surprisingly, not many parents agree with teaching their children about sex and drugs in detail. My own mother has, at times, remarked on the darkness of my reading choices, and she hasn’t even read what’s on the inside.
What Mom can’t see from the dark cover, is that these novels address serious topics such as AIDS, drugs, and modern sexual encounters in ways that acclimate teens into modern culture and teach them valuable lessons about modern reality. Meghan Cox Gurdon of The Wall Street Journal claims in her article “Darkness Too Visible” that “if books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.” Well, I could see where she’s coming from with books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage (Riders of the Apocalypse Series), which centers on a self-mutilating girl named Missy, or Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens in which young Jack is transported to a gruesome dimension full of torture and blood. Many parents would not want their children reading books like Rage, where the brutalized protagonist “had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”
But reality is there whether you want to read about it or not. It is near impossible to escape serious topics such as drug abuse and sexual assault with modern television and Internet access. What gives Jersey Shore the right to exhibit promiscuity and alcohol abuse when kids are forbidden to read By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead, where a teen girl, after several attempts at taking her life, overcomes bullying and self-doubt?
Young adult novels give voice to the voiceless and companionship to the lonely. Teens who were victims of abuse or rape have come forward after reading these “dark” novels, strengthened by the conviction of their fictional heroes, or even just recognizing for the first time that what happened to them was wrong and wasn’t their fault, or just that they aren’t alone. Young adult fiction has the same purpose of all great books: to speak to the human experience. Books aren’t dark, the world is dark.
Belle, 17, is a senior in high school. She has been mentored by Judy Galbraith through the Mentorship Program, which enables high school students to work with professionals in their chosen field.
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Wonderful article Belle! You’re quite right – reality is out there and we (as parents) have to recognize that our children will be facing much tougher challenges than we did ourselves as teenagers. Literature is a fabulous way for teens to approach these bigger life issues.