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Reading the Abyss: Adult Themes in Young Adult Fiction

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of discussions about the future of Young Adult fiction, and particularly about how adult Young Adult should be. As a high school teacher, I have had the privilege of choosing books for our school library on multiple occasions for multiple school districts. Some school districts gave me nearly carte blanche discretion, and I packed those libraries with books from diverse authors, covering a wide variety of subjects, including race, LGBTQ issues, trauma, drug use, suicide, mental illness, basically the only books I avoided were those that were sexually explicit (because no matter how open minded your principal is, erotica in the school library is never going to fly) or depicted extreme gore.

Then, there was the school district where I tried to assign The Hate U Give to my 9th and 10th graders. I was gently pulled aside by the principal and the counselor and told that the book would not fly with the school board, and since one of my 9th graders had a mother on the school board, this book choice would cause trouble. I could not afford to lose my job, and Texas, my state, has no teacher’s unions that could help me fight, so I purchased multiple copies of the book, put them on my bookshelves and in the library, but I did not assign it as required reading.

The argument for more mature content in Young Adult fiction tends to rest upon the idea that teenagers experience heavy things, even traumatic things, on a day to day basis. If The Hate U Give is inappropriate for teenagers because of the themes surrounding police violence, then where does that leave the Black teenagers for whom police violence is not a fictional situation but an everyday reality? The same can be said for violence, depression, suicide, drug use, abuse, eating disorders. Teenagers experience these things, and pretending like these themes are too heavy for kids alienates those teenagers for whom daily life is a heavy thing, and deprives them of stories that could at the very least show them that they are not alone.

The counterargument tends to rest upon the idea that kids should not be exposed to certain harsh realities if they have not been already. Kids will learn soon enough that the world is a harsh place, so why make them grow up faster than necessary? Reading should provide an escape. In fact, the argument goes, exposure to certain ideas can even be damaging to young people, who are simply not mature enough to handle certain topics. Others even say that certain books glorify topics like eating disorders or suicide, making them more appealing to easily impressionable teenagers. The controversy surrounding the book and television show Thirteen Reasons Why came about in part because many felt it was an irresponsible portrayal of suicide. The character Hannah, who commits suicide, extracts revenge from beyond the grave, making each person who wronged her understand exactly how they contributed to her death. In this scenario suicide seems almost appealing. Should teenagers, particularly teenagers already prone to suicidal feelings, be reading books that make suicide seem like an appealing answer?

As a parent, a teacher, and a writer myself, not to mention someone who was once a teenager, I do not believe that sanitizing young adult books until they are fit for even the most conservative school library is necessary or even best practice for YA authors. It is certainly true that many teenagers have had experiences that mirror, or even eclipse, what appears in young adult novels. By the time I was eighteen I had had sex, done drugs, had a friend who OD’d, driven drunk, been chased by the cops, had a guy try to force himself on me, and another guy expose himself to me. My teenage experiences were, I think, relatively typical for a late Gen-X teenager, and I didn’t need YA books to teach me about those things because I had already learned them through experimenting.

In those days books written expressly for teenagers were few and far between. The generation before me had “issue” books, heavy Young Adult books that moralized on topics like drug use or eating disorders or teenage sex, written by the likes of Judy Blume and Lois Duncan. Kids of my generation, products of the 1970s-mid 80s low birthrates, had fewer options. We graduated straight from middle grades reads like A Wrinkle in Time and then went straight to mass market fiction: Clan of the Cave Bear or The Firm or Interview with the Vampire, books which are marketed to adults and contain content that is well, adult.  However, for the life of me I cannot remember anyone ever objecting to my reading material when I was a teenager. At that time the prevailing wisdom seemed to be, in all but the most sheltered communities, that reading anything at all was better than not reading.

I’m not here to say “well I read what was essentially caveman porn and I turned out fine,” but I can say with certainty that reading adult fiction was not what made me try drugs or get involved with sketchy guys. Those of us who were suburban teenagers in the 90s probably remember our parents’ economic anxiety, the crushing weight of their debts, the mortgages that were unsustainable, the lay-offs and the temporary jobs, the mixed messages – go to college, follow your dreams, but get a good job. What could we look forward to? If you were a young woman, you were taught that you could be whatever you wanted, but you were still assigned Home Economics class while the guys were assigned Shop. If you were LGBTQ, you were growing up in the era of “don’t ask don’t tell,” and you were expected to keep your identity and sexuality to yourself. If you were sexually assaulted, well you were probably “asking for it.”

The American Young Adult fiction market that re-emerged in the early 2000s has dominated publishing for nearly two decades now. Some of the first books to achieve mass popularity were, tellingly, dystopian fiction, that is, books that depicted horrific versions of the future and teens who fight to break free from systemic oppression. There has been a growing movement, since the mid 2010s, for young adult fiction to reflect a realistic demographic. Whereas previously, books published for teens focused almost solely on the experiences of straight white kids, publishing has made an effort to diversify, and publish books that reflect the experiences of BIPOC teens, LGBTQ teens, and disabled teens. Often, but not always, these books include trauma, because often the very act of existing as a Black person or a trans person or a disabled person in the USA is, in fact, traumatic. When a book like The Hate U Give is blocked by school boards with the intention of protecting (white) children from harsh reality or unpleasant topics, what happens instead is that the Black student who might read that book has their reality, their very existence, dismissed and denied.

The anxieties and uncertainties faced by teenagers in 2020 are not created by the fiction they read, instead, the fiction they read reflects their anxieties and uncertainties, and yes, their trauma. The cold and unforgiving truth of the matter is that coming of age in a capitalist system is to experience alienation and to be traumatized by the various ways that this system oppresses those within it. Teenagers in 2020 are living in times of unprecedented uncertainty. A global pandemic, the looming threat of fascism, the terror of impending climate disaster – teenagers today perhaps have the greatest reason for anxiety since those of the 1930s, and if the trend in the 2020s is for fiction to be of a darker sort, then it is easy to understand why. It is rather laughable to think that anything teens could read in a book might be more emotionally damaging than the times that they are living in, and the systems that shape them.

1 thought on “Reading the Abyss: Adult Themes in Young Adult Fiction”

  1. Hi, thanks for your expose on addressing sexually explicit literature in education. I felt that I needed to read about the rest of the story. That is, how sexually explicit writing is discriminated against by not only by our culture but the purveyors of culture transfer – publishers. What is needed is a full exploration of the history of sexual repression starting from the Native American and the Puritan beginnings to the present. What are your views on that?

    Like

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