"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why do so many teen novels cover depressing topics?

I just finished reading Hold Still by Nina LaCour. In this book a teenager named Caitlin is left to deal with her feelings of guilt and sorrow after the suicide of her best friend, Ingrid. Caitlin seems to isolate herself and cocoons herself in her sorrow, pushing away any kind of help or support from others.  Then she finds Ingrid's journal and, taking baby-steps, Caitlin begins to reconstruct a life worth living with new friends and interests. The whole process takes almost a year.

I liked the book a lot.  It is well-written, short, and thoughtful.  Many of the teen characters are wise beyond their years. I ached for Caitlin and for Ingrid's family, for what they were going through.  But I also asked myself, why did the healing process take so long, and where were the adults that should have stepped in to help?

Those questions got me thinking about YA lit in general and about why so many of the books cover very depressing themes. Is it that teens won't read the books unless the characters have worse problems than they do? Why are the adults in this book always so inept in helping? In Caitlin's case, her parents were very loving and present.  They cared tremendously but their love didn't translate into tangible help, at least not in the beginning. Is there some important message that teens get out of books where teens work their way out of their troubles alone?

When asked why he thinks his book is so popular, Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why, another story about teen suicide, had this to say in an interview with Jay Brunner of Shelf Life:
“The most common thing I’d hear [from fans] was just ‘This book makes me more aware that even the small things I do can have an effect on people.’ But I’ve also heard from teens who say, ‘I was suicidal when I picked up your book, and I identified with Hannah, and I wanted her to live.’ When I started getting emails like that…I can’t even describe the feeling...When somebody’s face-to-face with you saying, ‘I may not have been here had I not read your book,’ how do you respond to that?"---Shelf Life
 I would concur that Thirteen Reasons Why seems to speak to kids in such a way that they "get it." They get that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. They get that there are small things that they can do to help their friends who are feeling depressed, even suicidal. Students that read the book, tell their friends to read the book.  They want more books just like it.

Books are often very nice advice-givers.  They aren't judgmental and they don't push or prod.  So perhaps, this explains why there are so many YA book about depressing topics.  Teens are emerging adults.  They are learning about their world and themselves.  They have conflicting feelings, many of them seem overwhelming. Where better to find some neutral advice than a good book?

Please let me know why you think that so many YA books cover depressing topics.  Perhaps you have thought of some reasons that I haven't.

In the meantime, here are some other YA titles that cover very sensitive and upsetting topics.  All of these books I've read and can recommend.

-The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Racism, alcoholism, death)
-Exposed by Kimberly Marcus (Rape, peer relationships)
-Deadline by Chris Crutcher (Death) 
-Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (Weight Issues, depression, peer relationships)
-If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Death)
-Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (Abandonment, death, peer relationships)
-Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork (Death)
-Looking for Alaska by John Green (Death, peer relationships)
-The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Peer Relationships)
-Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King (Death, depression)
-The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (Sexual Identity, peer relationships)
-The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin (Parental Abuse, mental illness)
-The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Death)
-Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick (Death of a parent, poverty)
-Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Rape, depression)
-Split by Swati Avasthi (Domestic Abuse)
-Staying Fat for Sarah Brynes by Chris Crutcher (Depression, parental abuse, peer relationships)
-Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes (Alcoholism, death, domestic abuse)
-Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson (Depression, Peer Relationships)
-Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (Eating disorders)











7 comments:

  1. Hi, Anne -

    I am just recently back from a 3-week vacation and trying to catch up. I missed you! Thanks for checking in on me and wondering where I was - that was thoughtful of you.

    Interesting question you pose here - you are definitely right about teen/YA books tackling tough topics. I remember liking those when I was a teen, too. Not sure what the appeal is. I guess all stories usually focus on some sort of conflict at their core, right? But it is true that many teen/YA novels tackle really difficult subjects. I think that's probably a good thing, for kids that are IN difficult situations themselves, right?

    Nice list you've added here.

    Sue

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  2. First, a thought: We're not sure that death in and of itself is a "tough subject" in the same vein as the others (rape, depression, suicide, abuse). It's not that it's not hard to deal with, but there isn't any stigma around it. It's a natural part of life, and everyone faces it, many at a young age (with grandparents or other family members).

    That said, we too loved a lot of these books, and we think teens like them because they explain the scary things teens hear about. On TV, in newspapers, in history books. Whispered in the hallways. People are by nature curious, and a lot of adults try to shield kids from knowing too much about these hard issues. If teens can get the information -- and a good story to boot -- then why wouldn't they?

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  3. Great post, very thought provoking. I reckon these themes are present for several reasons: firstly, they're also present in the minds and lives of the readers. Readers like to feel as though they aren't alone, and a book that deals with the issue they deal with achieves this. I also think it's to help with the stigma a lot of these issues have, as mentioned in the above comment. Usually things are stigmatised because they aren't really understood, and raising awareness of those issues through literature allows not only for people to be educated about them, but to be educated in such a way that it doesn't seem as though you're being preached at.

    a couple of books to add to your list:

    Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
    Hunger and Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler

    Thanks again for the thought provoking post

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  4. I think that it's much easier to learn about a difficult topic through a story than through a lecture. That's why I think these books are such great educational tools. They're not preachy and they get indebth into the thoughts and actions of the characters.

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  5. And what about Shipbreaker? Awful human beings, violence abounding, and the few somewhat decent ones get killed off. And only a flimsy, formulaic nod at redemption. That one I couldn't even review, it seemed so targeted at teens' (and I count myself one, back in the day) fascination with utter dysfunction and flat-out meanness.
    In my view, some YA titles explore challenging and dark topics while others exploit them to sell copies. I admire the former and deplore the latter. So I share your concerns about this gathering storm, and hope that all of us teen advocates can weather it together by sharing - as you did - the best of the best.

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  6. I honestly don't know why so many YA books have such depressing themes. Couldn't someone write a silly book now and then? Must everyone be so serious?

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  7. Check out my blog as I am writing a Literary Musing on Suicide in Teens/YA Books.
    www.thephantomparagrapher.blogspot.com

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