When is “Dark” Young Adult Fiction Too Dark?

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copyright ©donnaesgro

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Imagine a few well known stories with different plots: The witch in the gingerbread house is a sweet old lady who loves children…Oliver Twist is a well fed happy school boy…and Romeo and Juliet marry with their parent’s blessings…What would these stories be missing? Would they be as potent and still be read as avidly centuries after having been written?

“Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

 Good stories, whether fairy tales, Shakespearean plays, or Young Adult novels, are more than entertainment; they are conduits to understanding ourselves and others, connecting us intimately and immediately to our innate nature. Evil exists, but with strength and fortitude it can be overcome. We all, especially adolescents, get lost and need guidance. Reading a variety of authors who again and again confirm that strength comes from within and that triumph is possible whether it be over the evil witch, the classroom bully, or, as in some YA novels, rape, incest, and drug abuse, can be a solace in an often confusing world in which tragic events seem to have no beginning, no end, and no easy answers.

We all want our children to be protected from the ugliness of the world, but how realistic is this desire, and what harm could it potentially do? When sensitive authors, such as E.B. White, can create sympathy for a big grey hairy spider, or when Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (Beauty and The Beast-Eighteenth Century) can have us fall helplessly in love with a hideous beast, they are on to something big. They teach us in a simple, visceral, timeless way, that even very young children can understand, that we need to look deeper; that patience, kindness, truth, and honor are powerful defenses that lie within us all.

When I was a young I read Black Beauty, Of Mice and Men, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, over and over again, crying every time at their messages of fierce sorrow. I remember sitting cross legged on my rumpled bed, the sounds of the household dim in the background, feeling the rise of emotion, knowing it would lead to tears. Why did I pick these books, knowing that each held such grief? What was it about the stories that compelled me to read and re-read?

Great books, the ones that pass down through the generations, have many qualities in common. One is that they tell the truth. Good literature unites us in our humanity. Feelings of isolation, apartness and disconnection fall away. We are transported into the very souls of the characters.

Letting tears fall while reading profound and universal truths in fiction is something I have always accepted as an important part of an empathetic immersion experience with the characters in a story. Being emotionally wrenched was a testament to the art of the writer. So a recent experience that I had while conducting a fifth grade book club surprised and unnerved me. We were reading Lois Lowry’s riveting classic The Giver. The members had excellent questions as we read carefully through each chapter. One scientifically minded child asked “How did they make everything seem black and white even though it actually had color? Wouldn’t that be impossible unless they did some kind of operation on people’s eyes?” I posed questions such as, “Would you like to live in a world like this one, everything in order, no crime, no poverty, with everyone the same?” I wanted them to think and I wanted them to feel. I thought that all was going well…until Chapter Nineteen.

The point of view in The Giver is through the eyes of the protagonist, a twelve year old boy named Jonas. The skilled author unfolds the story page by page, so that the reader sees and feels everything simultaneously with the main character.

(Spoiler Alert)

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A shrimp!” His father turned and opened the cupboard. He took out a syringe and a small bottle. Very carefully he inserted the needle into the bottle and began to fill the syringe with a clear liquid…his father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of the newchild’s forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed…he pushed the plunger very slowly, injecting the liquid into the scalp vein until the syringe was empty…”He killed it! My father killed it!” Jonas said to himself, stunned at what he was realizing.

 At this climactic moment one of the book club members threw the book from the table. “I hate Lois Lowry! She wrote this book for children! FOR CHILDREN!! I’m not reading it.” He jumped up, outraged, got some tape and began taping up the book so that no unsuspecting reader would ever open it. He grabbed a pen and furiously wrote, “Worst Book EVER! NEVER READ, EVER!” and taped it to the cover. He walked away from the rest of the members and sat on the couch staring straight ahead.

I was shocked, perplexed, and guilty. What had I done? This was a 12 year old who had sat through movies with aplomb that were way to scary for me. Who had told me that the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s was “not so bad”.  I had never expected this. I went to him and encouraged him to keep reading with us. That Lois Lowry was trying to warn us against this kind of world, that she wasn’t being ‘mean’ as he called her. He refused. When I told him that I thought it would help if he kept reading to the end, that things were going to work out, he was unable to be comforted. We broke for the day.

Later I discovered that he wouldn’t discuss his feelings with his mother, telling her that, “it was too terrible for her to know”. After much urging he did finish The Giver with the rest of the group and felt proud that he had shown the courage to see this difficult book through to its cathartic ending. We discussed how brave Jonas had been to escape the monstrous society he lived in and postulated on why the author might have written such a book. Reading the novel had been a powerful and meaningful experience for all the members of the book club, including me, who had read it many times before.

Where do we draw the line between well intentioned guiding and banning?

How do we determine good and bad taste? And who decides?

Although I abhor the idea that some authors who write for the YA market may use horrendous images, sexuality, and abundant profanity simply to spice up an otherwise poorly written novel, I believe that it still comes down to the fact that it is better for some badly written books to be out there than for such authors as J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, and even Walt Whitman, who write of ideas that do not appeal to everyone, be censored.

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/censorship/bannedbooksthatshapedamerica

When authors as acclaimed as Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, or George Orwell confront the reader with harrowing views of spiritual dystopia, what are they attempting to communicate? If I had held a book back from these 12 year olds, not wanting to hurt them, wouldn’t I be guilty of perpetrating the exact “sameness” that Lois Lowry is so desperately warning us against in The Giver?

Books allow us to experience the unimaginable, to peer safely into the abyss. Without despair the word hope is meaningless. That books, in this age of emotionally distancing communication patterns, still have such power to touch us is truly wonderful.

However, I did decide to give my book club members a breather and picked Chris Grabenstein’s delightful Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library for our next book. They are going to need a break before I introduce Fahrenheit 451 next year.

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