Thoughts on “dark” YA

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and why would you, unless you’re a sparkly teen vampire?), you’ve probably heard some of the recent debate about “dark” and “lurid” novels dominating the young adult market. The talk varies from hand-wringing about explicit themes, analysis of cover art (I love this take) and staunch defenses of YA as important literature in teens’ lives.

I think it’s kind of absurd that this argument has raged on the way it has for so many weeks, especially when anyone can walk into a bookstore and see that YA—which is an age category, not a genre—has such a wide range of themes and trends and approaches, from beachy reads to dystopian trilogies, novels about tenth-grade chupacabras* to sweet prom anthologies. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the relative scarcity of brick-and-mortar bookstores is part of what is keeping this debate alive—most people outside the book business or the library world just don’t get a chance to really see YA beyond a couple bestseller shelves at big-box stores. And yes, right at the moment, plenty of things on that shelf have shiny black, “lurid” covers. A year from now they’ll all have glittery gold covers. Or covers with cats on them, or something, because that’s how it is with bestseller marketing. And speaking of bestsellers, are they all you read? No? Well, they’re not all that teens read, either. (Except when they only read one novel a year, which is another problem altogether.)

Of course, the gist of the attack on “dark” teen books isn’t that the covers are too gory or goth (though it’s a supporting point): it’s that kids shouldn’t be reading about so many disturbing things. And it’s that little sentiment, I suspect, has a lot to do with why the whole Dark YA issue continues to get traction in the popular media.

I’ve spent more than a decade here at Whitman working on books which sometimes deal with difficult issues, like death, divorce, and chronic disease. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading the slush pile, it’s that people love to idealize childhood. I’ve read countless of picture book manuscripts from folks who want to celebrate “the wonder of a child’s imagination” and seem to think that kids are magical creatures fueled by sugarplum visions. I suspect many of the people who see children’s books this way are the same ones who get freaked out by the notion that a kid might—for whatever reason—read a book about HIV or substance abuse. Nobody ever goes so far as to say kids shouldn’t ask questions about difficult topics. Everyone knows that inevitably, they do. But books make that curiosity manifest, puts it out there in hardcover reality, and for some people, hand-wringing is their first reaction. Either that, or nervous laughter. Combine that adult uneasiness with the freedom of reading choices that most teens enjoy, and a powerful bogeyman is born.

Let’s not give this bogeyman any more power than the media has already given it. As much as the “dark” controversy gets under my skin sometimes, I’d rather not continue arguing. Instead, I’m hoping that all this attention YA’s been getting lately gives people an opportunity to see what’s really out there—great books for teens in all shades of dark and light.

And did you know that the Albert Whitman Teen page is live now? Well, it is.

*Okay, I made up the chupacabras, but I swear they’re gonna be hot a year from now.


Thoughts on “dark” YA

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