Tuesday 7 June 2011

Thematically Speaking...

Anyone who stays on top of happenings in the on-line book world is probably aware that an article was published in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend criticising contemporary young adult fiction. Now, I'm not going to take the article point by point and refute its claims, because many bloggers in the YA fiction community have already done so, more eloquently than I could put it. Instead, I'm going to look at the purpose of exploring 'dark' themes in books.

Outrage over the reading material available to our youth is nothing new. The Harry Potter series received a lot of criticism from parents who argued that the books promoted the occult. Just last year urban fantasy writer Richelle Mead, bestselling author of the Vampire Academy series, had the latest instalment of her series banned before she had even finished writing it.

One of the arguments in the article, was that the depiction of activities such as self-harm normalises the practice. I would argue that this is no bad thing. I knew girls who cut themselves when I was in school, and they were regarded as freaks. A well-written fictional story that includes cutting gives a voice to the practice, and develops a readers sense of empathy. The next time they see someone with cutting scars they might not think 'freak', they may realise that there is a lot going on inside that person's head and feel some compassion. Is that not what we want to instil in the young generation? Compassion? Dark issues happen in the teenage world, it doesn't do anyone any good to deny that.

Not every book is suitable for every teen, true. But parents should know what their kids are reading, and maybe read some of them too. If a book covers issues such as self-harm, talk about it with them.

I took a course on understanding literature, and one of the themes that we covered was the importance of the 'scare factor' in books for children and young adults. Part of their emotional development rests on 'experiencing' scary things in a safe environment, such as fear, despair, anxiety. As they follow a character on screen or in a book, they 'rehearse' the emotions that the character is feeling, and usually see a resolution in the happy ending. This means that when they themselves feel the emotions in real life, they're not completely knocked. And they keep their sense of hope. This is recognised by psychologists.

Plus, take an issue like drug-taking. Your parents may tell you about the dangers of taking drugs, but do teenagers always listen to their parents? If a character they admire in a book takes drugs and something bad happens, that will strengthen their resolve in a way that parental lectures (however well-meaning) won't.

I think keeping 'dark' issues away from teens underestimates their intelligence.


  1. I can understand the parental instinct to shelter their children, but I think you're right. Some contact with the outside world is necessary if you want them to make it on their own one day. Kind of like expecting them to pass an exam without ever having studied the material.

  2. It's really hard as a parent to stay on top of what our kids are reading, but I stick to my resolution that I will not sensor my kids (I can give an appropriate age to a book though). I can't possibly read every book my 9-year-old is reading (she reads more than I do) but I have tried to teach her that if something scary or strange comes up, she can come talk to me about it. I hope this works.

  3. I completely agree although I'm not a parent, so maybe it's difficult for me to know how a parent would truly feel if they think something is negatively influential. There are far more negative messages that come from the news and certain magazines so I'm not sure why books keep receiving this criticism. Great post!

  4. I so agree! Yes, age appropriateness is important but sheltering them too much is not good.

  5. Christine, Amen to all the above. It's funny how people get all hot about a topic, per se, without examining the world view of the book or trying to understand how the topic is presented. Kids are fully capable of understanding irony, or the need to examine a tough subject critically. Maybe it's the parents, Heather, who want to think their kids can be 'sheltered.' I think it goes back to the old idea of literature as "improving" in a moral sense.

  6. People get so over-excited about this stuff!

  7. @Fa L'Americana:'Kind of like expecting them to pass an exam without ever having studied the material.' In once sentence you summed up everything I tried to say in my post. I'm ever so slightly jealous ;)
    @Jeana: I think having that openness between parent and child is the most important thing.
    @Saumya, Heather, Helen & Trisha: Totally agree with you all!