Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The Catcher in the Rye. Bridge to Terabithia. Such were the scandalous teen fiction titles in the late 20th century. Though I read all of them as an adolescent in the 1980s, it wasn’t without firm counsel and concerned follow-up from adults. Later, when I took a college-level children’s literature course, the darkest book we read was I Am the Cheese, which deals with a teenage boy’s psychiatric visits, amnesia and abusive past.
Obviously, these books can have some tough themes in them. Teens would grapple with issues such as anger, angst, sexual maturity, depression, obsession and death within their pages. By today’s standards, though, these stories seem like kid’s stuff.
In the 21st century, the macabre seems to rule much young adult fiction. It’s as if authors have taken these issues (and many more) and put them on narrative steroids.
Today’s titles include the futuristic, apocalyptic Hunger Games series (in which teens are forced to fight one another to the death), Wintergirls (about the physical and psychological horrors of eating disorders), and Right Behind You (in which a boy sets a 7-year-old neighbor on fire and spends years in a facility for the criminally insane). Graphic, sometimes otherworldly descriptions of pain, torture, hallucinations and delusions, cutting, sex and sexual abuse are now routine reading. And when I read passages of such stories or hear friends who teach high school comment on them, I’m always a little taken aback by how morbid young adult fiction is today. I’m not the only one.
Wall Street Journal columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon says in her recent article Darkness Too Visible:
How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.
If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.
Believe it or not, many of these books do have redemptive value. Many are insightful, well-written page-turners. Many can help to lead teens through their own dark years—if they don’t become mired in the plot and they have a wise adult to guide them through snarling themes. And, as Gurdon astutely notes, “Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.”
Still, I can’t help wondering how much any of us—teen, middle-aged or elderly—should consume such stories. How does reading grotesque descriptions of gang rape, drug abuse, cutting and assault in profanity-laden prose help anyone to dwell on what is true, noble, lovely and admirable? How are these accounts truly excellent and praiseworthy, even if many do end on a hopeful note despite the horrors they portray? While even the Bible contains images of brutality and sex, the biblical narrative is as much about what’s left out of the comparatively spare descriptions as what’s left in. Most young adult literature today doesn’t show that restraint (and don’t even get me started on mainstream fiction). I just wonder how many impressionable minds are being negatively affected in the name of literary entertainment.