I swear, sometimes I think that literate, thinking individuals and parents are an endangered species.
While browsing through today's issue of Shelf Awareness, I came across an article (Deeper Understanding: The Dark Is Rising), written in response to a Wall Street Journal piece about the plethora of darker story lines in YA literature. Give both a read, though I warn you that the original Wall Street Journal article isn't very well researched (as most articles in this case tend to be).
The Wall Street Journal article follows a woman who, wanting a book for her 13-year-old daughter, was turned off by the darker story lines she saw on the YA shelf at her bookstore: "vampires, suicide and self-mutilation" specifically, so she didn't buy anything for her daughter. The article then goes on to explain how story lines in YA lit have gotten darker since the days of Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton, even hinting at the idea that some of the themes of self-mutilation, anorexia, suicide, etc. could serve as triggers for teenage readers. This is just my paraphrasing of the article, so read the whole thing for yourself and you'll see what I mean.
For one thing, the author obviously hasn't read any of the books she's criticizing: she rags on The Hunger Games for being too violent, but then in the same article goes on to recommend Ship Breaker for young male readers. WTF? Anyone who's read both books will know that Ship Breaker has just as much violence to take offense to, if not more than The Hunger Games: Nailer's father is abusive and beats him on a regular basis, whereas the premise of The Hunger Games is violent, yes, but Katniss abhors that violence and refuses to take a life except to defend herself. If the author of the article actually read The Hunger Games, she would realize that the positive messages of the book outweigh the dark premise of the story.
I think everyone is aware of my take on books for children and teens: I'm a teacher and fully believe kids and people in general should be allowed to read whatever they want (within reason obviously, I wouldn't let a 7-year-old read a book that deals with rape because they aren't developmentally mature enough to process that content), but once a child hits the age of 13 or 14 or so, almost anything is game. The thing is though, with that freedom comes responsibility for the parents to talk to their kids about what they read. I bought The Hunger Games for my 12-year-old nephew and made sure I told him (and my sister-in-law), to talk to me or his parents if he had any questions about the story because it might seem a little scary to him. I knew my nephew could handle it (honestly, he's 12, he's seen and heard worse things), but still directed him to mom and dad to talk about the bigger issues that might arise in his mind when he read the book. This is responsible parenting: give your child age-appropriate material but still engage with them about that material whether it's a tv show, movie, book, or even something that happens on the news, make it a teaching moment to explain that yes, these types of things happen in the world, we can't escape that, but it's up to your child to form their own opinions about their morals and your family to impart how you feel about those same issues.
We can't shelter our kids forever. By the time I was 16 years old, just through the experience of attending high school (my home life was wonderfully tame and secure by comparison), I had experiences with: suicide, several friends who self-mutilated, abortion, teen sex, classmates passing away due to terminal illnesses, bullying, drugs, alcohol, you name it, and I went to a school in the 'good area' of my city. Your kid will experience the world's rough stuff just by nature of being out in the world, and it starts when they're young, sometimes a lot younger than we would prefer them to be. I wish my teenage self had books like the ones I review, it would've made me understand why my friends cut their arms to shreds, or why my gay friend had to leave school to save his life and his mental health, or why I felt so out of place all the time. I'm glad YA books tackle these kinds of topics as well as the fluffy happy kinds of stories that have and will always be around. Kids will read what they are capable of reading, a child won't read something they don't like (unless we force them to in school), if they are reading a book that's dark, they want to read it for a reason, no one's holding a gun to their head. And plus, if my child is going to encounter a "big issue" through association, I'd rather their first exposure to it be in the relative safety of a book where they can go back and question things and take time to reflect and research what they read, rather than having a friend call them up suddenly tell them "I want to kill myself" or "I just got raped at the party, I need help"....if I had a choice I'd rather ease my kids into things like that gradually as opposed to the 'trial by fire' experiences that happened to me and my friends so many times in high school.
The key thing is that parents are important: adults can't blame the book industry or authors for producing stories that kids obviously want to read and do nothing to prepare their children for those stories or experiences. That leaves us with children that aren't emotionally equipped to deal with the crap they will eventually encounter in their adult lives. I was very lucky in that I had parents that loved talking to me about big issues and as such I was very open-minded and well-rounded even as a kid, but I've met lots of adults (and children/teenagers that I see following in the same pattern) that are emotionally stunted when it comes to certain things or issues...then those people go on to reproduce and aren't prepared for those scenarios that they might experience with their own children.
And that leaves teachers like me fearing for the future of our children, not because of the books they read, but because of the radical shifts in parenting attitudes. Don't blame the books, people; blame yourselves.
Here's one of my favourite YA authors Laurie Halse Anderson's take on the article, as well as another one that's equally well-put.