My thoughts on the business of writing can wait til the next post.
Instead, I’m hopping on a bandwagon. A bit late, but that’s me. I’m hoping that nobody’s utterly sick of the Wall Street Journal article (article ) bemoaning the dark themes prevalent in YA literature, because I’m putting my 2cents worth in.
Teens attracted to the darker side of life? Who’d have thunk it?
Now, the argument seems to have been thoroughly refuted in a few other sites (see Janet Reid’s blog and comments for a comprehensive view, for example here . Hell, even I posted a comment there). But I’ve had another thought that doesn’t seem to have been expressed.
The main arguments promoted in favour of YA novels unabashedly depicting rape, incest, suicidality, eating disorders, self mutilation, depression, substance use and so on are 1) to not flinch from unpalatable subjects that are reality for a percentage of young people, and 2) to normalise the experience for the kids experiencing this. In other words, if incest is a daily part of a kid’s life, then reading about how another person lived through it can help and provide a role model for survival, for example. Both valid reasons, in my opinion.
There’s a third reason: compassion.
The majority of well fed Western teens, thankfully, do not go through any of these. But chances are that one of their classmates has. And chances are that the classmate sees him/herself as a freak, with a huge dose of self-blame thrown in. There’s shame attached to mental health and social stressors, and these kids will hide their problem and protect their family to appear normal. The boy who wears long sleeves when it’s sweltering? Stupid idiot? Or trying to hide the cuts on his arms? The girl with the pancake layer of foundation? Pathetic wannabe? Or trying to hide the bruising?
When I was growing up, the darkest book on the market was “Go Ask Alice”, the alleged diary of a substance-using girl who was found dead of an OD. Naturally, it was a best seller.
Growing up, my parents (ok, mainly my Dad) were just slightly judgemental. You know, the sort who viewed these loutish protesting student types as degenerate and immoral attention-seekers. Drugs were just for those people too stupid, reckless and self-destructive to know better, in their view. So my opinion as a thirteen year old was that “drug-addicts” were thick-headed criminals and death by OD was their just desserts. And then I read “Go Ask Alice”.
A book is a magical tool that allows you to walk in another person’s shoes, to experience their hopes and share their pain. And after the last page was turned, so had my opinion. Suddenly, I had compassion for people who used substances.
I chose to not experiment with substances, but have never judged anybody who did, and felt empathy for those whose lives had been taken over by any type of substance, illicit or prescribed. One book did that.
So, back to the Wall Street Journal article. Is it worth publishing a book about a kid who slashes their own arms? Yes, but not just for the kid who slashes. Also for her classmates who might just stop seeing her as a freak, and understand that her pain is real and overwhelming and outside of her control. Compassion, empathy and acceptance are powerful tools against any problem. Would we rather have a generation of judgemental or compassionate people?