Limits in YA fiction

So what limits, if any, should YA authors hesitate to cross?

In general I don’t know that there should be any particular limits for YA, for two reasons:

First, are you planning to prevent teens from reading all the fiction that is not labeled YA? How? It’s all very well to call the category YA and draw up neat little grade-appropriate rating systems and offer Advanced Reader points to students who read particular books, but none of that erases the obvious fact that “Young Adult” is really just a marketing category. Young readers can and do read anything they want, whether it’s labeled YA or not. And so they should. Anyone my age or older will recall that this artificial distinction that attempts to draw a line between fast-paced-shortish-length-coming-of-age-stories-with-teenage-protagonists and everything else didn’t exist when we were teenagers. Anybody feel that posed a big problem finding books you liked? Right, didn’t think so.

And, second, readers of any age can and will sort themselves out and read what appeals to them within YA, as within the broader realm of literature. Teens who find it helpful to see their own problems mirrored in literature can find contemporary YA “issue” novels. Those who would strongly prefer to escape from their own problems by reading noblebright fantasy can do that instead. Limiting options for teenagers today according to what appealed to you when you were a teenager does not seem reasonable. Especially since it can’t be done anyway.

Having said that, let’s consider the following:

Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler offers a story where a girl, a cutter, is victimized by a sadistic sexual prank and cuts herself up in response: “. . . she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

Scars by Cheryl Rainfield presents a grim story where a girl who is sexually abused by her father from toddlerhood is given knives anonymously by him when she is a teenager, because he hopes she will commit suicide.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher presents a situation where the protagonist successfully makes herself the center of attention and makes people feel sorry for her and essentially becomes the romantic heroine of her own drama by committing suicide.

Anybody care to take responsibility for putting that last novel in the hands of a troubled young teenage girl, perhaps a child with a borderline diagnosis? Let’s say a girl who has made suicide gestures in the past. Would you personally hand this story to that girl? How would you feel if you had written this and then you got a letter from a parent whose child mentioned your book in a suicide note?

I haven’t read any of the above books. A couple of them are held up as examples by Meghan Cox Gurdon in her article “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books,” which I read some time ago. Those are her descriptions and her choices of quotes from Rage and Scars, not mine. I don’t know how the protagonist of those books copes with her life in the end. Or fails to cope. It makes a pretty big difference which, doesn’t it? It’s the failure to cope in Thirteen Reasons Why – or the presentation of suicide as a successful method of coping – that seems particularly problematic.

I mean, in one of Sarah Addison Allen’s novels, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, the protagonist is a woman who used to cut herself when she was a teenager – but she stopped, she learned better ways to deal with life, she regained a healthy emotional balance and moved on and built a good life. Allen has her protagonist look back on her difficult teenage years with tolerance and humor and forgiveness. In contrast, where is the girl in Rage going to be in ten years, or twenty? Is there any chance she’s going to get to a better place? I have no idea, and it matters. It’s almost the only thing that does matter, I think.

Gurdon says, “Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave – what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. . . . this is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called ‘problem novels’ – books that have a troubled main character . . . The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped . . . The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.”

This seems broadly true to me. Except that there a difference between a book which presents a kid stuck in a horrible situation and leaves her stuck, versus a book which presents a kid stuck in a horrible situation and shows her actively getting herself out of it and into a better place. There is a difference between a book where the metatext presents life as awful and cruelty as normal, and a book where the metatext condemns cruelty and offers an idea of stability and emotional health as normal. There is also a very important difference between a book that presents a girl who kills herself as a romantic heroine and a book that presents a better, truer picture of heroism. It’s not clear from her article that Gurdon is making these kinds of distinctions.

Meghan Gurdon says that she’s not exactly targeting books that depict horrific scenes and situations. She is criticizing books that to her seem to evince the modern “flight from beauty”, the trend we see these days not only to depict the vile, but to devalue, tear down, and ruin the beautiful. To depict not only horror, but horror that denies the possibility of beauty or heroism or truth or transfiguring greatness.

But here Gurdon seems to be ignoring a large number – surely a great preponderance — of YA novels in which truly horrific scenes occur, but not in any way that evince a “flight from beauty.” Look at Elizabeth Wein’s The Sunbird, for example. The horrible, indifferent cruelty directed toward slaves is in no way condoned by the story. The scene where a slave boy, who has had his hands cut off and his tongue cut out because he overheard something his master doesn’t want passed on, is beaten for clumsiness, is one of the grimmest images I know of in YA. It shows horrific cruelty based on indifference and lack of sympathy, which in some ways is even worse than deliberate sadism. It’s a brilliant book. But would you want your kid to read that scene? Does it make a difference that the metatext of the story utterly condemns this horrific lack of empathy? I think it makes all the difference in the world.

Or if not The Sunbird, I wish Gurdon had mentioned, say, The Hunger Games. I wish she’d used it as either an example of what she means, or a counterexample. That would have offered a chance to triangulate on her actual meaning, wouldn’t it? Because The Hunger Games depicts one of the most horrifically repressive societies ever, a society that makes a glamorous game out of torturing children. Think of that ending scene at the Cornucopia, for example. If you’re looking for a scene exemplifying deliberate sadism, well, there you go.

But of course, the broader society in The Hunger Games is not depicted as normal or good or even tolerable; the overarching theme of the whole trilogy is that war is horrific and permanently scars those forced into violence, but also that war is sometimes absolutely necessary, and that tearing down a tyrannical system is worth virtually any cost. This is a story that specifically confirms the need for heroism and self-sacrifice under the worst of circumstances. It’s not just a coincidence that by the end of the trilogy, the evil oppressive regime has been torn down and the society is in the process of transforming into something that, while clearly not utopian, is definitely going to be far less evil than what it replaces. Compare that to 1984 or Brazil or Animal Farm, where the evil oppressive society actually does defeat heroism. Where does that leave a contention that YA literature, YA in particular, has become ugly, that it has begun to treat ugliness as the norm?

I personally am not aware of any YA novels where the bad guys actually win. I don’t feel much of an urge to read Rage or Scars but if anybody has – do the bad guys win in those? Have you read any modern YA novels where ugliness actually defeats beauty? I mean, the YA equivalent of the movie “Saw,” for example?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that modern society often tries to cheapens all beauty but the most superficial, and too often society does seem to celebrate coarseness and ugliness. But is modern YA fiction “increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly” as Gurdon claims? Is it possible that anyone can read widely enough to know whether there is such a general trend?

Perhaps rather than trying to get an idea of overall trends, one could look at the sorts of YA books that are nominated for and win awards. But examining the kinds of books which are nominated or selected for awards carries its own complication: I think it’s inevitable that the adult members of awards committees will always be more jaded than teenage readers. I mean, an adult reader is a LOT more likely to be bored with Medieval European settings, or plucky girl protagonists, or talking animals, or portal fantasies, or whatever, then a teenager to whom the world of words is still unfolding in all its infinite variety. I suspect that awards committees are likely to select books they perceive as edgy, different, and heavy on the Issues of the Day (whatever those happen to be that decade). And I expect awards committees to be influenced by the idea that a book which is grim and dark is deeper and more worthy than a book which celebrates the joy or beauty of life, because that tendency exists in all aspects of art. So awards committees may not give us a fair cross-section of YA titles.

In fact, adult selections forced on kids in general illustrate this exact issue. Just look at the classics every high school kid is forced to read – Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies and like that. I wonder how Meghan Gurdon feels about that kind of classic? Because don’t classics like those suggest that it may be iffy to suggest that there’s a modern trend toward ugliness that spoils beauty? I can appreciate those books on an intellectual level now, while still loathing the experience of actually reading them. In high school, I definitely did not appreciate them on any level. The classics I read voluntarily included The Count of Monte Cristo, in which you’ll notice that themes of honor and forgiveness and mercy and love underlie the more obvious revenge story.

So, so. No definitive conclusions here. Except that I have not personally read any YA novels that could properly be said to belong to the grimdark school. Of course I run the other way from grimdark stories in general. I get most of my YA recommendations from a limited circle of bloggers and personal friends and so forth, so I certainly don’t encounter a random selection of YA titles. But based on what I do read, it’s hard to believe Meghan Gurdon in encountering a random selection of titles, either. I wonder if people are helpfully pointing out to her the very nastiest, grimmest, darkest, ugliest titles, and she has developed a feeling that there is a strong trend when maybe there is no trend? Or only a weak trend?

Comments? Thoughts from any YA librarians particularly welcome, since I bet you all are better able to spot trends than I am.

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8 thoughts on “Limits in YA fiction”

  1. I found the description of “Thirteen Reasons Why” interesting, because my feelings on reading it were quite different. I mean, yes, the girl who killed herself is the center of the tale… but overall I think the story stars off feeling like a revenge tale and then morphs into one about someone who had so many opportunities for help, but threw it all away. It’s a novel about getting lost in depression and how suicide hurts those around you, rather than one that says, “suicide makes you popular!” or whatever.

  2. Matthew, I very much hope that your reading of “Thirteen Reasons Why” is 1) the common one and 2) the correct one. I’m just about willing to lay down a formal rule that no fiction popular with young people is allowed to either glamorize suicide or present it as a solution to any problem. (The latter happens sometimes in genre SF, which I read a lot more than YAs.)

  3. Hear, hear! That metatext distinction between normalizing the good or the ugly is so important.

    I don’t read a lot of YA anymore, but one reason I tapered off was because the shelves of new books seemed angsty and/or “grim is cool”/”life is suffering”. I’m sure the actual spectrum of published YA is much wider, but sometimes it does seem like this niche is overtaking everything else.

  4. Rachel, your comments about awards committees reminds me of a book that won the top prize in the YA category at the 2013 New Zealand Children’s Book Awards. It was a “coming of age” story that elicited controversy and its classification was appealed by a Christian lobby group which applied for, and obtained, an interim restriction order which effectively banned it from being sold or supplied in New Zealand. The basis for the group’s appeal was the book’s “highly offensive and gratuitous language, adult themes and graphic sexual content”. Ironically, the controversy increased the interest in the book internationally. The ban was lifted in 2015. The book’s author is now 66 years old, so your comment about influences on award committees may also apply to mature authors writing YA. I haven’t read the book.

  5. Of course there are limits. After all, you are selling the book as “YA”. Honesty demands truth in advertising.

  6. We did address Thirteen Reasons why during the Archon panel on this topic. I don’t know that there was a consensus on the topic. Several people, including (if I remember correctly) the young adult who attended the panel, felt there was no problem with the book provided the kids reading it were not psychologically troubled. I continued to argue vehemently that since some kids ARE troubled, this is not the kind of book that should be written. I consider the author and publisher culpable if the wrong troubled kid reads it and commits suicide. To my mind, the rash of train suicides in certain towns shows clearly that some teenagers will be nudged into impulsively killing themselves if suicide is, as it were, popularized.

    Once written, of course there is no point trying to keep any book out of the hands of teen readers. As Kootch says, any such efforts will backfire. Many, perhaps most schools, discussed the story carefully with their students, which is all they or parents could do.

  7. As I have been editing and tearing out my hair over how milk toast vs how bold I should be, I decided to look on the net for a guideline. While this article has not answered my question entirely, it has been very useful. Thank you for providing such a well thought through and boldly spoken article.

  8. Thanks, Bob!

    Unfortunately there’s no way to know which way your particular story should go, except to write it and edit and tear your hair out and re-write it. I’ve certainly been there!

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