Good Stories, Where Bad Things Happen: Why YA Matters
Let’s both start and finish with a Marya Hornbacher quote:
There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ends, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn’t one…
True, that. The world’s messy. Life’s messy. Maybe your life’s messy. And maybe mine is too.
We realise this in our teens. We feel it acutely. Perhaps this is why a lot of YA deals with the chaos, and yes, darkness of the world, not only in terms of subject matter, but in how we all deal with it.
Neil Gaiman has said: Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
That doesn’t change when we move from reading what publishers call ‘middle grade’ to ‘YA.’ But the dragons do change; they become, predators of a different kind: bad teachers, irresponsible parents, other kids with evil intent: people and things we are afraid of and have to deal with; or at least have to deal with for the first time. Death, heartache, violence, sex. Responsibility. Demons of all kinds. Including our own.
But if YA fiction has a purpose, (and it really doesn’t have to, but for argument’s sake…), it’s to tell you that’s actually it’ s okay; things will work out. Mostly. And if they don’t, YA is there to help us cope. To see how other people — albeit fictional characters — go though the swamps and woods, and may even come out the other side smiling.
This is why bad things happen in YA. But what kind of things, and what even is YA after all? It’s really just a signpost for content, which might not be appropriate for younger teens but is still not quite ‘adult,’ or has adult main characters (though some YA does). Its tradition is partly in adult literature and partly children’s, but like its protagonists and audience belongs to neither category.
Does it have to have so called dark or difficult content?
No, but it often does. Abduction, rape, dying (lots of that), illness, ‘conditions’ both mental and physical, alcohol and drug addiction and the impacts of them on individuals and families. And that’s just some of the books I’ve read in the last year.
Beyond such dark themes, and age/group categorization there really aren’t too many defined standards. Good! One of the things I love about YA and young people’s literature more generally, is a healthy disregard to rules and convention (how much more ‘young adult’ can you get, than that?). Take Sarah Crossan’s One for example: A poem. About conjoined twins. It not only got published, it won prizes and many fans. Would that have happened if it had been a book for so-called ‘grown ups?’
So, YA takes many forms, and encompasses every fantasy and sci-fi dystopia possibility as well as imaginative exploration into the real world and the awful and wonderful things real people experience. YA can be lyrical and literary and hard-blunt -simple and complex and funny and terrifying and entertaining and disturbing. And sometimes all these things.
So actually… it’s hard to ‘define,’ isn’t it? Even the dark themes are just threads, really; common to much YA, but not a defining feature. What perhaps is more defining is the way YA literature offers us hope, and ways to cope.
From Holden Caulfied to Mr Green’s Hazel and Augustus to Meg Rosoff’s Daisy, our YA protagonists are frequently wry wisecrackers. But they are rarely smart-asses. They’re not cynical. And neither are the authors that write them.
Must YA have hope?
Again, I shy from saying it ‘must’ have anything. But a lot of good YA does tend to give us that hope, even if the endings are not neatly tied up or sugar coated. Kevin Brooks has had some flak about this, especially for The Bunker Diaries. I’ve heard him talk on the subject. He said maybe books do need hope, and light. But they don’t necessarily have to come at the end.
So, yes, there is dark matter, but perhaps the real theme is the hope and coping, dealing with the questions of: What is the world, and what is my place in it? Who the hell am I?
That, mixed with a intensity and passion, and young people experiencing life and the world in a way which is fresh and honest.
It’s about some answers, but its about asking questions and accepting there aren’t always comfortable solutions or even any answers at all. It’s a chaotic universe. And bad things happen.
Ms Hornbacher, by the way, was writing about anorexia and bulimia, but the quote has a wider and more general truth and speaks to themes in YA. Apologies and explanations for how the world is and who you are, the life you lead and things you feel, are not always necessary. And sometimes not even possible.
But how do we respond to that ? YA is about transition from ‘young person’ to adult, sure. And part of that is about being a good human. That can mean accepting your responsibilities, but its also about accepting your flaws and human weaknesses and even bad thoughts and desires.
Fine to write, then, about the dark material and the chaotic universe, but without cynicism and with some responsibility too. I genuinely believe you can write about pretty much anything in YA or more widely. It’s how you do it, that counts.
Some bad s**t certainly happens in my book, Kook. It’s about young people creating their own rites of passage. They can, and do, find trouble. Or make it.
I have faced criticism for the content, but again, for me it’s not about ‘what’ but about ‘how’. I have some ground rules:
- Keep it real: are the scenarios likely?
- Don’t be explicit: Emotional truth is the point.
- Show consequences.
- Explore, but neither condemn nor condone. (Remember, it’s a book not a lecture, no-one likes a wagging finger). We have to give teen readers credit for knowing the difference between truth and fiction, right from wrong.
Bad things will happen, in the world and in life. But that’s not really what YA is about. It’s about… you, accepting the darkness of the world, and the imperfections in yourself. And knowing that you can, and will, deal with it all.
So, to complete that Hornbacher quote:
… It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect. And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.
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