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When Did David Lynch Start Writing YA?

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

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  1. Erin Daly Erin Daly

    I’m seeing this trend in the anime series my teens are interested in. Just lately they’ve been talking about shows like Deadman Wonderland and High School of the Dead, that are rated TV-MA and too violent for us to screen in the library. I’m finding it hard for me to convince myself to watch these on my own time, but I’m going to have to catch up to be part of the discussion.

  2. Amanda Zagloba Amanda Zagloba

    I think a big part of the violence in YA literature is really just to do with it finally being written about by YA authors. I knew a lot of teens when I was growing up that read a lot of pretty horrific adult books – one particular passage a friend read to me in the 5th grade involved the torture & killing of animals. Most YA books weren’t written like that so they had to read adult books rather than YA. It seems more like an instance of people actually looking at teens who are reading these dark adult books and saying “why not make YA versions of these types of books if they want to read them?” I personally think it might be better having authors writing the dark stuff who understand teens and making it available to them than adults authors who are writing for a different type of audience.

  3. I think there are a lot of reasons behind it, but part of the reason is because YA authors finally CAN write about this stuff. If someone had tried to write this dark YA 10 years ago, no publisher would touch it – kids were to be kept in their innocent little world.

    There is something to be said for protecting our kids from darkness, but I think that should fall to the parents to decide what their children (and themselves!) are ready to handle. There are a lot of kids out there today who face more darkness in their real life than they can find in books. As sad and scary as that is, these kids need a voice, too, someone who will speak to the reality they live. They need to know they are not alone. And kids who don’t live with darkness or pain–if they read these books, it will hopefully give them more tolerance, understanding and acceptance of kids whose lives are different from theirs.

    So I think we are seeing, in part, a pendulum effect. Dark YA is rising because it CAN. Eventually the pendulum will swing back, and we will find dark YA taking its place in the YA world, but not seeming to dominate like it does today. Something else will be the hot new thing!


  4. Dark YA is here to stay, as is dark MG fiction. Just look at the popularity of the other great media, movies: ParaNorman and Franenweenie. These are for kids. And the disclaimers warn that they will be scared. There should be no eschewing of the darkness in lit. Just like the movies kids feel are “too scary” to watch, so shall the books they choose to read. Different strokes for different folks. No need to call anyone out, just respect the differences in taste.

  5. Personally, my teenage years were the darkest part of my life, most of it self-inflicted, sure, but with good reason. So, I really wish there would have been more books like these when I was young, for they might have convinced me that I was not alone. Now that I’m grown, and a father, I’m glad these books are out there, even if my kids aren’t yet into them.

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