Friday, March 23, 2012

Dark Themes in Young People's Literature

The YA community rallied in response
 to the WSJ article, and Maureen Johnson 
sold t-shirts (for charity, of course!).

or: Why English Teachers are Awesome

With the mania surrounding The Hunger Games this weekend, the question of the day is once again: How dark is too dark for kids? Blog posts and op-eds are weighing in on the topic, many referencing a controversial article published in the Wall Street Journal last June, in which children's book reviewer Meghan Cox Gurdon called The Hunger Games "hyper-violent" and included it in a list of books that exemplified what she viewed as a troubling trend in books for young people.

I read and loved The Hunger Games, but I haven't read many of the other books mentioned in the article, so I'll have to stick with what I know, most of which was written before YA took up half the bookstore. 

I chaperoned my younger son's class trip to the zoo yesterday, and had the surprise pleasure of sharing my seat on the bus with a high school English teacher. Talking to her got me thinking about books I loved when I was young. I wasn’t an avid reader until college, which might be why most of my favorite books were required reading.  

Elementary school: Across Five Aprils, Bridge to Terabithia, A Separate Peace. Each year the 5th grade class had to write and put on a play of Johnny Tremain, and I still can’t resist bringing it up in spirited family arguments about religion and government. Junior High: Flowers for Algernon and Ivanhoe and Watership Down and Fahrenheit 451. High School: Romeo and Juliet, Main Street, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle, Our Town, The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Lord of the Flies, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, Hamlet... 

I loved almost every book that was ever assigned (with the possible exception of As I Lay Dying).

In 9th grade we read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I was spellbound from the first page to the last. We had to write a paper comparing one of the works of fiction we’d read to a non-fiction book of our choice; I still remember writing mine on Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Bridge at Andau, about the Hungarian revolution. Examining the parallels was thrilling, like watching a huge jumbled puzzle come together into a coherent image. History has always been my worst subject, and books were the only place history ever came alive for me. 

If your goal in life is to be a subversive influence on young minds, don’t write books. Don’t teach history or government. Teach English.

I still remember exactly how and when my love affair with assigned reading began. In 4th grade, we read a story that admitted, outright and without a hint of sugar coating, that children are awful little creatures. Being surrounded by children and also still a child myself, I found this admission both terrifying and long overdue.

1959 collection containing
All Summer in a Day
The story was All Summer in a Day, by Ray Bradbury. It imagines children living on Venus, where rain falls constantly and the sun only shines for an hour every seven years. On the day the rain is supposed to stop, the children turn against Margot, the misfit girl who is the only one to remember the sun. They lock her in a closet, forgetting about her until after the sun has come and gone.

I didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was and I didn’t think about whether this story was famous or important. I only knew that it had been written for me. (I was both tender-hearted and narcissistic.) 

I hadn’t grown up enough to understand that almost everyone has some Margot inside, and the difference is only in how we express it. I didn’t know yet that adults often hide their own insecurities—their fears that the world could turn on them on a whim, that the pillars of stability might one day be confetti blown away by the winds of luck, circumstance, or the baser parts of human nature. What I understood was only this: Someone else knew what I knew.

When I was reading All Summer in a Day, grownups didn’t lecture about bullying and no one ever got in trouble for using the word “stupid,” or for saying anything that wasn’t on George Carlin’s infamous list. The current generation of parents aims to enforce kinder, gentler childhoods. The jury is out on how well that’s working. I don’t think children have changed much. They still delight in pressing each other's buttons with a sharp stick. They still vie for power, they still play King of the Hill, they still test the boundaries between cruelty and guilt and empathy and self-preservation. In other words, they are still human. 

And the playground, no matter how much we sanitize it, is still a jungle. 

As a parent, I understand the need grownups have to pretend the world is nicer than it is, and that the rules are a little more straightforward than they are. I understand why we might be intolerant of the melancholy and angst that plague some young people more than others. After all, that kind of thinking can lead an innocent astray—to becoming, at best, an outsider, and at worst, a drifter who has chosen to reject the societal delusion of money and now lives shoeless on the beach where he sports disturbingly long toenails. We want our children to be happy and productive and safe in the world they've inherited, because the alternatives are terrifying.

But children are smart, and eventually they figure out that Sesame Street doesn’t tell the whole story. Nothing is so disrespectful and alienating to a child or adolescent as to say, “You don't know enough about the world to feel what you think you feel. Now go play.” They do know. They know so much more than we want them to.

Many of the books I loved were exhilarating for their darkness, and darkness belongs to children as much as adults. Young people know how to explore heavy themes without imploding. All Summer in a Day is their story. Lord of the Flies is their story. Hunger Games is their story. Writers dive into aspects of human nature that adults often either won’t admit or can’t explain, and no one ever has to put on a brave and happy face for a book.

I wish parenting were only about sharing wonder and joy. I wish I could shield my children's innocence forever. I wish I could promise that nothing—no individual, group, government, business, church, band of zombies or act of God—could ever change their world for the worse. That they will always be autonomous. That their happiness and their survival will always be in their control. That they will always do the right thing.

But of course, I can't. I can only hope that the connection I forge with them is strong enough to carry us all through the rough spots of growing up.

Great books don't make promises and they don't gloss over the messy parts of life, and best of all, children don't need or expect them to. Great books invite young, thoughtful warriors to the literature club with open arms. “Come in, friend. Think what you think and feel what you feel. We are all and none alone here.


  1. One of my grandsons is enamored of Angry Birds, but I worried about the relish with which he would tell me "I killed that King Pig," and so on. I suggested instead that he say "I sent that pig to California," but now I see that a kinder, gentler world is not really created through such pretense. It is funny, however, when he says it.

  2. You read All Summer In A Day when you were in 4th grade? I didn't read it until college, and it upset me for weeks. It's funny, because we were just talking about it on the way home from school yesterday, and then you posted about it!

    Parents like me have created a false reality for our children, and it doesn't do them any favors. The other day I was reading about how today's college students rank so much lower on a test of empathy than they did 30 years ago. The researchers attributed it to technology, but I think it may have something to do with this sanitizing of their environments. These books give us a chance to empathize with people who are different than us.

    That was my favorite thing about the Hunger Games movie--they showed the reactions of the districts to some of the things going on in the Games, and it was very powerful.

  3. Great post Sarah!

    When people talk about how violent Hunger Games is I always think of Lord of the Flies which is pretty much required reading in every high school.

    I loved that book in high school, but it was way disturbing. The kids were like 12 (IIRC), and there was no kill or be killed driving the brutality.

    I agree with you that kids are ready for much darker themes than we adults want them to see. One of the most hostile places is the school play ground.


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