Mindy Hardwick's Blog

Author Mindy Hardwick Muses about Writing

Darkness in Young Adult Literature

on June 7, 2011

This week, I’m facilitating a special workshop at Denney Juvenile Justice Center.  A few months ago, we received a grant from the Tulalip Tribes  in order to fund the purchase of a collection of YA and memoirs around the theme of addiction…..all addictions from gambling to nicotine use to substance abuse.

We spent the first day of the workshop looking at the Denney Poetry Blog and writing, “I Come From Poems.” The poems will be posted on the Denney Poetry Blog as soon as we obtain parent or guardian permission release forms.

Today, I am handing out the books to the teens. Some of the books we are using for the workshop include:

Tweak: Growing up on Methanmphetamines

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Glass by Ellen Hopkins

Cut by Patricia McCormick

After by Amy Efaw

Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras by Jeff Henderson

No Limit by Pete Hautman

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

These are all “dark YA or dark memoirs.”    They couldn’t be any other way. The teen population at the detention center demands honesty and stories which relate to their lives. But, yet,  over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the “darkness too visible” in YA literature. The article discusses how YA is just too dark these days. Ms. Gurdon says:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.

Now, here is the problem that I see with this reasoning.  I live in a small, bed-room community North of Seattle.  It’s picuresque. A lake surrounded by mountains, middle to upper middle class families with a big emphasis on community and service.  By all accounts, “the darkness” should not be here, and yet a few weeks ago, a young man committed suicide weeks before his high school graduation. Each year at the annual scholarship night, where many local community organizations give scholarships, there is a scholarship given in the name of a young man who died of a prescription drug overdose.  A few years before that, there was a Halloween party that went dreadfully wrong and girls were tied up and raped. And those youth in the detention center–well, some of them come from this small, bedroom community.

And yet, Ms. Gurdon says that if teens read about pathology, they might normalize them? Really? Because it seems to me that the normalization already exists in their REAL LIFE. And the beauty of these YA books which discuss real issues is that there is a place to start a discussion. There is a place to have discussion about a story with a character who is raped, or a character who commits suicide. How many seniors were affected by the young man who killed himself a few weeks before graduation–many! And how many needed a way to talk about this–many! And by reading and discussing these books, a teen reader, just might find some hope and inspiration by seeing that if the character can overcome, they can too.

It is dark out there. And darkness isn’t only in the juvenile detention. Darkness exists in our small, suburban, bedroom communities. And, by not talking about that darkness, we only bring more darkness. It is by talking, reading, and writing about that darkness that helps all of us find the light.

To read more about the Kid Lit responses to the Wall Street Journal go here.

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