Saturday, July 16, 2016

YA Books, Back Then, Were Not Dark (by Jody Casella)

Since I've been writing books and stories for teen readers I've gotten questions at conferences, at book signings, at schools, in my interactions with teachers and parents-- always adults ask these questions-- something along the lines of

Why are YA books so dark?

By "dark," they mean stories featuring sex, violence, depictions of drug and alcohol use, suicide, foul language

but also, depending on the particular adult, might mean stories that center around racism, homosexuality, any religion not Christianity, or books containing magic or witchcraft (I met a librarian in Florida who worked at a school where several parents in the community held a real-life book burning of Harry Potter books).

When I get the Why Are YA Books So Dark question, I usually ramble on about how there's a range of YA books out there and not all of them deal with stuff that makes adults uncomfortable, but I also try to put in a plug for these books, 

that I believe stories for teens are important, essential, even, at helping them navigate the world, that books are probably the safest place to explore complicated and controversial issues, that there's nothing in these books that kids haven't heard in the halls of school or seen in movies or on the internet or experienced through friends or in their own lives--

But often, as I am talking, I can see in their faces that these anxious, concerned adults

don't remember what it's like to be a teen.

Or they do, but are either willfully forgetting the trouble they got into, the idiot mistakes them made, or they stubbornly insist that times have changed. 

And not for the better. 

YA books, back then, were not dark. 

Not dark, anyway, like this:

A fifteen year old girl is new in town. Wanting to fit in, she starts taking drugs. She loses her virginity while high. Later in the book she runs away from home and is raped. In the end, she dies. 

Or this:

A girl meets a boy at a party. They fall in love and the relationship turns physical. The two have sex and it's fairly graphic. For example, the boy tells the girl the name he's given to his penis. Also, the girl's best friend is dating a boy who tries to hang himself. 

Or this: 

A girl's father dies and the grieving and financially-struggling family move into the mother's childhood home. The siblings live in the attic. The brother and sister have sex. The youngest sibling is poisoned to death. 

In case you're wondering these books are

Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks, published in 1971

Forever by Judy Blume, published in 1975

Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews, published in 1979

They were read by nearly everyone I knew (some of us reading the books multiple times), but weirdly, eventually, we forgot how we passed them around, how we poured over the descriptions, giggling or squirming uncomfortably, expressing shock or understanding at what we found in the pages, 

the flawed people, the neglectful and/or well-meaning but not-quite-getting-it parents, the stupid choices, the heartache, the fear, the love, the violence, the ridiculousness,

and then we grew up, and had our own children 

and freaked the hell out at what they were reading. 

*bonus points if you know the name of Michael's penis


  1. I suppose they would point out that Forever and Flowers in the Attic were shelved with adult books, although you're right that the actual readers of those books were largely teens (and even pre-teens). I would bet anything that current teens have clandestinely passed around 50 Shades of Grey, even though it's not marketed at them either.

    But of course, adults do develop those blind spots about their own recommended reading material. Here are a few actual scenes from books adults probably would think of as wholesome classics:

    --Young girl is approached by a man who has molested and killed other girls in her neighborhood. He exposes himself and is trying to abduct her when her mother appears and kills him. (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, first published 1943)

    --Teen girl is boarding with a family she doesn't know well, teaching school. The woman of the family is jealous of her and argues with her husband about the girl's presence, and one night even brandishes a knife. (These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, first published )

    --Young lady falls in love with a rogue who plays with her affections and deserts her. It turns out he has also impregnated another girl, ducked out of his obligations there, and fought a duel with her guardian. (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, first published in the early 1800s)

    --Orphaned boy falls in with a band of thieves, several of whom are arrested--some hanged, others imprisoned, others exiled. At the height of the book's action, a prostitute in their social circle is murdered by her boyfriend. (Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, also 1800s)

    --A 13-year-old girl secretly marries a guy she has just met, defying both sets of parents, and dies with him in a double suicide. (Romeo and Juliet, circa 1597)

    1. I love these examples, Jenn!

      You're right about where the books might've been shelved back in the day-- and how that doesn't really matter. Any kid 12 and up, who is a reader, will likely get their hands on any book they want to get their hands on. When I was in 7th grade I read Stephen King and Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon.
      I always wonder why people don't freak out more about violence/sex in movies, but it's books that are the lightening rod for our fears that our kids have an interior/emotional/imaginative life that is separate-- and unknown to us.

  2. I like the way current YA fiction addresses issues teens are facing. Last year, I did a blog covering what I described as real bibliotherapy (a concept we were using in mental health back in the 1970s). Teens who were dealing with scary stuff years back often felt like they were the only ones in the world facing their problem. Today, they can read a book (or multiple books) where the main character faces the same crisis and not feel so alone. Does this trend freak some adults? Yes, but as far as how it helps teens feel less isolated, the value is huge..

    1. This is so true. The kids living with scary stuff need to see themselves in books-- and I would add that it's just as important (if not more so) for their classmates to catch at least a glimpse of what it's like to grapple with mental health issues, or poverty, or eating disorders, or rape, or the myriad of other things that go on in our communities.

  3. I still blush when I hear that name! Judy Blume is the reason I write under my real name... I wanted to be near her on shelves.

  4. This is awesome. I read ALL these books, far younger than most "teens."