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The darkness of teen fiction

June 9, 2011

A reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, this week claimed, that teen fiction was becoming too dark and was ‘rife with depravity’.  Megan Cox Gurdon, argued that contemporary teen fiction was:

‘So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.’

It would be tempting to agree with her, after all look at the success of the Twilight series but that would be assuming that all teen fiction was about vampires and/or the occult which is certainly not the case.  Also, the darkness of teen fiction is not a new thing. I began reminiscing over some of the books I read as a teenager (some of which are still on my shelf), some fifteen or so years ago, and they weren’t all happy camping books.  In fact, I think that the older I got, the more I actively searched for more dark, and lets be honest adult themes.

For me teen fiction was not only an escape into somebody else’s story but also a way to process, understand and function the world I was being brought up in.  Being from an African family that was also quite conservative, there were certain things like sex, for example, that were just not discussed, mentioned or even acknowledged.  So teen fiction was the only way I was ever going to find out about such things, other than confused conversations with friends.   To this day, I still remember reading Forever by Judy Blume, and being amused by the fact the boyfriend ( I don’t remember his name!) had named his penis Ralph (see I remember that and since then I have never able to take the name seriously!).  After much to and fro as the couple finally have sex, declared love forever and then broke up. On reflection this quite possibly informed my early cynicism about relationships.  Though I think looking back, it was probably more that I was aware that they were too young to be declaring to be together forever.  After Judy Blume’s books about growing pains, was Liz Berry’s books Easy Connection, Easy Freedom and Mel depicting, rape, mental illness, drugs and alcohol, mysticism just for starters.  Not to mention S.E. Hinton’s novels about gangs fights and class tensions.  Somewhere in the midst of all that, I was fixated with books about anorexia my favourite being The Best Little Girl in the World, and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry and its sequel Let the Circle be Unbroken, about life in the segregated South and where a young black boy is hung for a crime he didn’t commit.

Maybe these were not the stuff of vampires, pederasty, and incest, but that’s not to say that I didn’t read books like that too.  There was one about a girl from Catford (local to where I grew up) who becomes a vampire courtesy of her boyfriend.  I remember laughing at the idea of vampires in Catford, of all places.  And the children’s classic Oliver Twist has a hint of pederasty, if I’m not mistaken, in Fagin’s relationship with his den of young pickpockets.  If you look closely, it’s there.  Victorian coding and all that!  And before we start demonising Dickens, the Bible itself has many a dark undertone, and yes, covers incest as well. Make of that what you will Cox Gurdon. Should kids not read Dickens, the Bible, Grimms’ fairytales? In that case they should just stop reading the papers and listening to the news. Segregate them into a land of marshmallows until they are of age and then see how they will fare.

Is today’s teen fiction more dark than the stuff I read?  Maybe so, but I think that is because our world is darker and it’s being played out in fiction, adult as well as teen. Not to mention film and TV.  However, I think this is a good thing because, it helps to be aware of what other people go through in life so that you are not stuck in a bubble (or the land of marshmallows), assuming that your life is all there is.  When I read Roll of Thunder, I was struck by the fact that life in the Deep South was such that the White Powers That Be would not think twice about hanging a thirteen year old child. I remember praying that TJ would survive, but he didn’t.  Should I have been shielded from that? I was about thirteen when I read it.  But no I don’t because that story is part of a real narrative of America’s past and it educated me and a whole generation of kids about the legacy the slave had and still has on American today.

Reading books about anorexia did not make me want to starve myself, I was too horrified by the physical, emotional and mental effects it had on the characters.  It made me realise that there were appropriate ways of dealing with your issues and self-destruction wasn’t a good method. Once again, I was aware that some people had real problems that went beyond ‘does my bum look big in this?’ and ‘when will I get a boyfriend?’.

The books I read as a teen made me question what I would do if in the same situation.  They taught me about life in another world, another time, another country.  Some were dark, intense and serious but some were light-hearted and funny. But most importantly teen fiction is where I discovered my love for stories, whether romance, science fiction, fantasy, classics, whatever.  My love affair began then, so too dark or not I can’t and won’t complain.

 

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