YA fiction: The dark side

It’s a perennial yarn. Someone easily shocked or offended picks up a work of Young Adult fiction and reels at the contents. Horrified that their innocent young darling could be corrupted by such truth-telling, they quickly fire off a complaint to the library/school council/education department/all of the above. A cranky letter to a local newspaper follows and before you know it there’s a story cobbled together asking whether YA fiction is too dark and dangerous for young people to read.

As a journo and YA author I follow these stories with particular interest. These days I’m more author than journalist so I was amused/bemused by a recent media request to discuss this exact topic. The piece was due to run in a Fairfax weekend mag but I’m yet to spot it. (Please shoot me a link if you’ve seen it.)

One of the points I failed to make during the interview is that I grew up in an era where there was no YA section in bookstores or libraries. In the school libraries I frequented, once you were beyond Enid Blyton and had scaled the heights of Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, you were fast running out of options. In town, the library bus visited fortnightly. While my younger siblings pillaged the limited children’s selection I was free to range the semi-trailer and make my own choices. Invariably I returned home accompanied by Stephen King, James Clavell or James Herbert – guys who didn’t exactly bubble wrap the darkness and violence in their stories. I don’t believe I’m any the worse for reading their work before I turned 18 or 21 or whatever age you’re allowed to know the world isn’t entirely Blyton-esque.

My own YA novels draw heavily on my experiences as a journalist and subsequently contain dark matter. I make careful choices about what I include and how explicit I should be. I also borrow from history as true stories often can’t be topped. It’s rare that I get a complaint. (For the record, I did get one a few weeks back from a reader disturbed by one of the historic elements I used in Five Parts Dead. I’d forewarned him the books were intended for older children and told his parents to read ahead of him… Interestingly, he preferred Game as Ned, which I feel is even more confronting. We clearly have different sensitivities.)

One of the things I did refer to when interviewed was the short story competition I judge annually. The entrants are 12 to 18 years of age and heavily skewed towards the 13-14 year old bracket. The topics are of their own choice – serving as a free window into teen thinking. Having just finished the judging, here are the topics covered this year and the number of young people who tackled them:

A favourite from my adolescent years. I've read this many times.

A favourite from my adolescent years. I’ve read this many times.

  • Bullying (4)
  • Cancer/disease/mental illness (5)
  • Divorce/family breakdown (6)
  • Family/travel/good times (7)
  • Heartbreak/love (8)
  • Horror (8)
  • Murder/kidnapping/crime (4)
  • Natural disaster (1)
  • Road fatalities (5)
  • Sci-fi (5)
  • Suicide (3)
  • War (6)

I could rail on about fiction being a safe space to explore and gain insight into the dark side of life but I think that list renders my comments redundant. Many young people portray a world that is considerably crueler than I could dream up.

So I’ll keep on writing the stories that feel right to me. Hopefully, to quote one of my former editors, my stories will show that even in dark places the light can shine through.

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