A few weeks ago, I started following with much interest a discussion thread on the YALSA-BK listserv with the subject heading “10 YA Books That Scarred Us for Life.” There were over 100 responses to the initial posting. While a great many of them were older titles that people remembered from their youth (books where beloved animals died, in particular, were frequently mentioned), a handful of contemporary YA titles showed up more than once, including Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Rotters by Daniel Kraus, “anything by Adam Rapp” and The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. This timely discussion was mirroring the one already going on my own head, prompted a recent Daniel Kraus/Adam Rapp double-header that had left me more than a little unsettled. “When,” I thought, “did books for teens get so creepy that even adults can’t handle reading them?”
Don’t get me wrong: when I was a teen I couldn’t get enough books about child abuse and girls who fell into drug addiction and prostitution; the more lurid the stories, the better. As an adult who works with teens, I love it that authors write books that challenge young readers and aren’t afraid to expose teens to the darker side of the human life and mind. And while the last thing I want to do is dredge up the perennial “YA lit is too dark” argument that reared its ugly head yet again last June (see kick-off article here and amusing follow-ups here and here), it does seem to me that the last few years has seen the ick factor turned up to 11 and it isn’t unusual to find content in teen fiction that was once reserved for adult titles.
It would be so much easier if we could just dismiss these particular works as trashy pulp fiction, but they are indisputably excellent pieces of literature. All of books mentioned are on at least one YALSA selection list, and some of them are on multiple lists. Some are so heavily weighted by starred reviews and awards they can’t stand up any longer. And there is no denying that these books resonate with teens. Sure, the morbid plots might be an initial draw, but the meticulous writing, compelling stories, and carefully crafted characters keep them reading until the last page.
So … what gives? Is this merely a natural progression as media in general becomes increasingly violent? Are teens truly growing up faster these days and subsequently ready for more mature material? Have we become so inured to disturbing content that it just takes that much more to shock the reader? I don’t mean to fan the flames of an unnecessary fire, but it does make me wonder what we might expect to see in teen lit in the next few years.
— Summer Hayes, currently reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio