From airy yarns to heady classics, there's something really great about immersing yourself in a thought-provoking, well-written book. It's just flat-out fun. I can remember reading a children's book to my daughter, many moons ago, and becoming so absorbed in it that I kept hoping she wouldn't fall asleep till we made it to the end of each chapter.
Thankfully, that good, solid, book-in-your-hand joy has become an important part of my kids' lives.
But as the years have passed and my teens' literary focus shifted from The Baby-Sitters Club to Harry Potter to Twilight, I started chewing on a niggling thought. Have teen books been trending to the dark side? Or is it that the Twilight vampire-love phenomenon just makes things feel creepy? There was only one way to find out: I decided to read through a few of the latest buzz-worthy books myself.
At first glance, the young adult fiction landscape does indeed seem a bit murky. At second and third glances, too. Besides the prerequisite dating-the-undead tales, synopses of some of the top books from 2009 feature deadly car wrecks, alternate-reality war violence, dystopian death games and suicidal anorexia. Where should I even start? I wondered. I knew where I didn't want to start—with the kiss-and-suck-your-blood retreads. So I walked right by Ms. Meyers and her admirers, and randomly grabbed a handful of other popular titles. Next stop: my favorite easy chair.
When my brief journey into the YA wilds was finished, two things were crystal clear:
1) The books I chose were very well written. No slapdash jobs here. In fact, the authors I encountered created worlds and characters that were incredibly compelling.
2) And yep. There's plenty of dark to go around.
If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, tells the story of a budding 17-year-old cellist named Mia who is involved in a horrific wintry car crash. She hovers, ghost-like, over the scene looking at her family's crushed forms and watching as her own mangled body is whisked off to a local hospital. As she's worked on by doctors, the girl lingers in a comatose-like netherworld, reliving past memories with her family and friends.
Mia's challenge is to decide whether to face the prospects of a very difficult life or follow her parents into the afterlife. The story draws warm family connections to the surface, but Mia's struggles with grief and survivor's guilt are at the forefront. And then you have to add foul language and sexual references (including a masturbation scene) to the life-and-death scenario.
Teens face another kind of deadly choice in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games—along with its sequel, Catching Fire. These books tell of a starving, post-apocalyptic world where each year 24 teens are chosen by lottery to be sent into a bloodthirsty reality show arena. The last youth living earns luxury and enough food to support his or her family for life.
Katniss must make her way through the macabre game while her peers are speared, stabbed, mauled, burned and broken. It's an involving but violent read that Time's Lev Grossman described as a "chilling, bloody and thoroughly horrifying book, a killer cocktail of Logan's Run, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, reality TV and the myth of Theseus and a Minataur."
Without question, though, the darkest of the novels I read is Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Ultimately it delivers a positive message about finding a way past the torturous pain that eating disorders can inflict on teens and their families. But getting there is hypnotic anguish.
The tome commences with a young girl literally vomiting herself to death. And from there the girl's best friend, Lia, invites us into her terrifying and delusion-filled inner life, asking us to suffer along with her through the advanced stages of self-imposed starvation. As if that's not bleak and depressing enough, this damaged girl also cuts herself with knives and razor blades in grisly, very hard to read scenes.
I could end this article right now with a casual "Parents, you've been warned." But life is rarely that easy. And books reflect life in ways movies, TV and music can only aspire to. All of these books have merit. They each end on a happy note (believe it or not) and deliver cautionary admonitions and fable-like morals. As a parent, I found Wintergirls particularly insightful. And I can easily see how a grim novel like this can serve as an inroad to discussing healthy body image, cultural expectations and the causes of anorexia's mental illness.
Gail Giles, author of Right Behind You, the story of a teen trying to start over after setting a 7-year-old neighbor on fire, would not only agree, she would go even further:
"The teen years can be wonderful. So much happens in such a short span. But that also makes it confusing; a whirlwind of change and change is sometimes frightening, especially if one doesn't have a guide. There are many paths and a few lead into dark, dangerous places and some of those places are one-way trails. Many teens want to wander down those trails. They long to look into the abyss. And dark and edgy books are a wonderful safety valve. These books are a way to peer into that abyss without actually standing on the edge and taking the chance of toppling over. One big step removed. I want teens to see that the abyss is dark, it is frightening and it is much too permanent—choose another path."
If they decide to. And there's always that issue of the if. Sometimes when we wade into dark, frightening, permanent territory, we're tempted to take up residence. One person's abyss, after all, may seem to another to be an exciting adrenaline rush.
Much has been made in recent years, for instance, of how J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and other witchcraft-oriented entertainment have pushed fans toward exploring Wicca. "So how does one become a witch?" asked MTV writer Alex Mar. "A surprising number of young witches MTV spoke with … said that they became curious about their faith through misguiding pop-culture fare like the camp Neve Campbell vehicle The Craft and the Harry Potter series." She added, "Guess a few conservative Christian groups were right about that one."
Rowling didn't write her books hoping to boost real-life witchcraft. In fact, she's said, "I absolutely do not believe in the occult [or] practice the occult." Yet, her intent and the result of her intent separate at the point of purchase. Literary trails near the abyss can scare kids straight. But the more graphic and visually stimulating that abyss is, the sharper the divergent reactions to it can be.
That's why I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Giles on one point: Teens always benefit from a guide. And since books can open up whole new worlds, they need help not only deciding which worlds to explore, but help picking the right path through them once they've planted their figurative feet in them.
1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 urges us to "Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil." That's perfect advice from a perfect book—about how to handle imperfect teen lit.