Why We Need Darkness in YA Literature
I buy books for my sons. I read reviews and get recommendations and thrust books into their hands and walk away. I don’t generally pre-read the books before I give them to the boys.
Every now and then (and a lot more often, lately) my kids will give a book back to me and insist that I read, too, because it was “so good.” I always want to know when they love something and why they love it, so I push it to the top of my TBR pile and dive in.
Ya’ll, YA is dark AF.
Let me break that down:
Ya'll = I apologize for culturally appropriating “ya’ll” as I was raised in NY and live in Ohio and have no right to it. But in my defense, my Grandmother lived in West Virginia and my second mother grew up in West Virginia so I grew up hearing the word at home on occasion. Plus, please also consider that my best friend currently lives in West Virginia and gave me permission to use it. To be honest, there is no better word to refer affectionately to a group of people.
YA = Young Adult literature, geared for readers aged 13-18 but enjoyed by all ages.
is Dark AF = smoking, drinking, pornography, lying, death—things I did not think my son was ready to read about and yet were contained in the book I bought my son.
But this is the world he lives in. I can’t protect him from the darkness of the world. And I shouldn’t try to. He’s going into high school this year. He needs these stories.
The truth is that my lectures don’t have as much value as I wish they did—and I pride myself on my very fine lecturers. I’ve had a lot of very useful experience with the darkness in life and I want my kids to benefit from the wisdom I’ve accumulated without having to experience it themselves.
And this is why we need drunk driving accidents in books about baseball. This is why all the darkness is necessary. I can tell my kids that my brother’s best friend died in a drunk driving accident, but they don't know what that feels like. I can talk to them about standing up to peer pressure, but my lecture won’t allow them to vicariously explore both acquiescing and resisting a friend inviting them to make a terrible decision. Literature can.
They can place themselves inside a story, enter through the protagonist’s eyes, cry if they need to as they turn the pages. (I certainly do.) And they can get an idea of what the stakes really are in life. They can feel how the world breaks your heart in a million different ways, but one step removed.
Whether they are ready for that or not, heartbreak is barreling down at them in a thousand forms—some tiny, others monumental. And maybe books will help my kids be a bit more ready for it when it hits. Oh, that’s unrealistic to hope for, I know. Maybe these stories will show them that in the end, no matter how much it feels like grief will overwhelm you, eventually you go on.