The world is causing me to shred rope this morning. With my teeth.
I am cranky and have decided to share my crank with you my gentle and not-at-all cranky readers. I know that I’ve written this rant in different forms already. I fully expect to write it again. Here goes:
Ever since I because a YA writer I have been hearing certain people accusing me and my colleagues of writing books solely for the sake of being as dark/bleak/shocking/perverted/[insert your own personal bugbear in adjectival form here]. “Why did you have to put x into your book?” is a question that almost all of us seem to hear at one time or another.
It drives me nuts.
YA writers who write about anything that isn’t considered to be squeaky clean or uses language stronger than, “Oh, bother!” get this a lot. We’re often accused of writing “dark,” “edgy,” “controversial” books in order to increase our sales.
Newsflash: the inclusion of swearing and sex and drugs and the other things that render YA books less than squeaky often, nay, usually, has the opposite effect. Book clubs won’t pick them up, Wal-mart and Target won’t stock them, nor will many school libraries, and lots of conservative parents won’t let their teens buy them.
Sure, you can point to teen books that have sex and swearing and drugs that sell; but there are just as many that don’t. It is not the automatic sales shot in the arm that so many people are convinced of.
I have never written anything for the sake of being “dark” or “edgy” or anything else. The YA writers I know think long and hard about including anything “controversial” because nine times out of ten it will reduce their sales, not increase them.
Valiant by Holly Black is often accused of being deliberately shocking; it’s her worst-selling book.
Of all the YA books I’ve read, Valiant is the closest to my teenage experiences. I recognised so much in that book. I found it moving, honest, beautiful, scary, dark and brilliant. It made me weep in sadness and, by the end of the book, in joy. I’ve read it four times so far and each time it has gotten better.
I’ve been wondering what it is about the book that bothers people. Perhaps they don’t like it because they didn’t recognise anything from their teenage experiences, therefore the book seems to them deliberately and inexplicably dark. They grew up safe and happy behind their white picket fence and weren’t interested in reading about teens that didn’t. But my friend Diana Peterfreund disagrees because she had a white-picket upbringing and she adores Valiant.1
Maybe the Valiant haters recognised too much and that made them uncomfortable?
I should point out that these are all adult complaints about the book: The teens who don’t like Valiant are mostly annoyed because it isn’t a direct sequel to Tithe.
All the adult complaints I’ve heard about books like Valiant and Looking for Alaska seem to stem from discomfort with the reality of some teen lives. Have they forgotten how traumatic teenage years can be? Have they forgotten that many teenagers swear, that they not only think about sex, but some of them have it, some of them drink and take drugs? I’ve met and talked with enough teens over the past three years2 to know that many of them are extremely grateful to have their experiences reflected back at them in the books we write—whether those experience are dark or light or a mixture (which is most people’s experience). Once I would have argued against problem novels because I personally don’t like them. But I’ve heard too many teachers and librarians tell me tales of students finding comfort and guidance in a book about child abuse, or a teen with alcoholic parents, or anorexia or whatever.
Recognising yourself in a book—in any work of art—is extremely powerful. It’s one of the ways we learn we’re not alone.
Some teenagers grow up in very dark places. Some of them go through dark, scary times. Some teens have friends and relatives who’ve overdosed, been murdered, raped, tortured, deported, gaoled, executed. Teen lives are as varied and scary and wonderful as adults’ lives. Those stories deserve to be told just as much as the story of Anne of Green Gables.
Some of us cope with the dark times by re-reading Anne of Green Gables. Some of us cope by reading stories that touch on our own horrible experiences or that are even worse.
Valiant, however, is not a problem novel. It’s a fairy tale with the requisite fairy tale ending. It affirms that even in the darkest of times a fairy tale ending is possible. I love it; I would have loved it even more as a teen.
I know that writing for teens is a huge responsibility. I take that responsibility seriously, which is why I believe it’s my duty to write books as honestly as I can.3 Whether it be the froth and bubble of How To Ditch Your Fairy or the darkness of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Pretending that teens aren’t people with as wide a range of desires and aspirations as any adult is dishonest.
Okay, I feel slightly less cranky now. Slightly . . .