Young adult fiction with difficult emotional themes presents several challenges to booksellers, as discussed in a January 23 Winter Institute panel called Selling Sad and Dark YA Literature. Moderator Diane Capriola of Little Shop of Stories led Blue Willow Bookshop’s Cathy Berner, Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music, and Third Place Books’ Lish McBride through a thoughtful round of topics in a room crowded with children’s booksellers.

Asked by Capriola to define the phrase “sad and dark,” the panelists suggested several titles as examples. Berner mentioned Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller, and A.S. King’s Reality Boy, which contain themes such as abandonment and adolescent rage. For Hermans, Amy McNamara’s Lovely, Dark and Deep, which deals with accidental death, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s anorexia-themed Wintergirls authentically explore subjects that are difficult to talk about for teens. “Laurie [Halse Anderson] holds your hand through the book. She’s a wonderful writer,” said Hermans. McBride, who said she “was raised on horror,” chose the dark fantasy Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers and Julie Halpern’s Get Well Soon, which is set in a mental institution, describing the latter as a book that “makes sad funny.”

Capriola then steered the panelists to a discussion about why sad and dark YA fiction is important. “I have three teens of my own,” she said, “and I think parents should let their kids have exposure to dark themes in books. Then they can talk to you about these things later on. Reading books like these will also let kids know that while there will be hard times, you’ll be okay.” McBride mentioned that even if your own children aren’t going through a difficult situation, it’s likely that their friends are. “A lot of parents wonder if their kids are too young to read these books, but I think it’s less about age and more about the maturity of the child,” she said. Hermans spoke about parents’ fears surrounding the challenges facing today’s teens. “Being 13 now is so different from what it once was,” she said. “It might help to have the parents read the books first.”

Handselling can be a delicate art when helping customers with this YA category. “When I put a book in a customer’s hand I say, ‘this is written beautifully and with great skill. It will make you be a better person,’ ” said Berner. The issue of trust is a vital one, between the bookseller and the teen or the parent. “All it takes is one right book to establish trust, especially with the parent,” Hermans said. “And I’ve found that kids seem to know what they’re ready for, and are able to self-censor. If they can’t handle it, they’ll stop reading.” Conflicts can arise in a bookstore between parents and kids when making book selections together. “I choose some of each, a few that are light and others that are sad,” McBride said. “Then I walk away and let them duke it out. Everything sorts itself out.”

Before concluding the seminar Capriola reminded the booksellers, “Don’t be patronizing with your customers while establishing trust. Ultimately our goal is to share our love of reading.”