Why So Grim?
Jennifer M. Brown and Cindi Di Marzo -- 2/16/98
For more about "grim" YA titles,
read "A Hotly Debated Novel Crosses the Atlantic."
Awards and controversy focus attention on a recent burst of dark-themed fiction for teens
With the publication of books such as last fall's The Facts Speak for Themselves by Brock Cole (a National Book Award nominee) and Norma Fox Mazer's When She Was Good, adult readers who publish or work with children's literature began to bristle. "These books are so dark," many said. "Teens shouldn't be reading them," some said. "Teens don't want to read them," others said. "No one will buy them," still others said.
In addition to Cole's novel, three other 1997 National Book Award nominees could be called "dark," as well as several other novels discussed in this article. These books possess a few things in common that some adults find disturbing. To begin with, the issues are tough. Cole's book deals with sexual abuse, while Mazer confronts mental instability and chronic sibling abuse. Secondly, the endings are ambiguous at best. There are no happy conclusions and, frequently, hope means little more than surviving dangerous circumstances.
PW set out to discover how much truth there was to the statements many adults are making, and found some surprising reactions from authors, librarians and booksellers that offered -- dare we say it? -- hope for YA literature and its readers. While some elements are new to both the literature and the lives of today's teens, others are of perennial interest to adolescents and authors.
Not So Grim After All
Are books for young adults grimmer than ever? Hazel Rochman, an editor at ALA's Booklist and an anthologist of several YA short story collections, d sn't think so: "These books are not as dramatically different as it might seem," she says. "The era of happily-ever-after was shaken up in the '60s." Beverly Horowitz, deputy publisher and editor-in-chief at Bantam Doubleday Dell, d sn't think they are such a departure either. She suggests that exposing teens to the gritty realities of life first became an issue some 30 years ago, with the publication of Paul Zindel's The Pigman (1968) and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967). "At that time, just taking the sugar coating off was, for many people, grim," Horowitz says.
If these new books are no grimmer for their day than Zindel's and Hinton's books were in theirs, then why all the fuss? "The reason people are recently more aware of [these books] is that four of the major books this season were outstandingly dark," explains Patty Campbell, whose column "The Sand in the Oyster" for the Horn Book regularly focuses on young adult literature. Virtually everyone agreed that these gritty novels represent some of the biggest books of last season. And, as School Library Journal's book review editor Trevelyn Jones notes, "You cannot ignore them. They are too good."
Some would argue that librarians, reviewers, publishers and booksellers are investing more into the timing of these titles' publication than is warranted. Arthur A. Levine, who heads an imprint at Scholastic and was Mazer's editor for When She Was Good, says, "It's probably a mistake to read too much into the appearance of several dark-themed novels over a season or two." He points out that it took Mazer more than a decade to write When She Was Good.
And teens certainly aren't noticing such a trend, says Betty Carter, co-editor of Journal of Youth Services and an associate professor at Texas Women's University: "It is wrong to treat these books as a group, because authors don't write them this way and kids certainly don't read them this way."
More to Come
And there are more in the works. Wendy Lamb, an editor at BDD who works on the annual Delacorte Press Prize, which is given for a debut YA novel, observes that gritty issues fascinate authors and that these types of themes dominate the contest entries. "Adults' inability or refusal to be parents has now become a real plot element in a way it never was. The feeling is one of terrible hostility and pain," Lamb says.
While dysfunctional parents may be a more recent factor, writers for young adults with proven staying power have always probed the underbelly of society. Robert Cormier, author of the groundbreaking The Chocolate War (1974), continues to explore gripping subject matter and, like Lamb, he has noticed an increase in the number of books that do so. "I think there are more books that deal with tough subjects, more honesty and more willingness to face reality. I also think books reflect the times we're in," he says.
Another controversial author with staying power is M.E. Kerr, who caused a stir with the publication of Night Kites (1986), one of the first novels in YA or adult literature to mention AIDS. Kerr observes that the landscape for teens has shifted dramatically: "Three things have changed everything about today's readers: MTV, AIDS and the computer. They've made us exposed to so much more."
Other authors acknowledged that kids are acutely aware of what g s on in their communities. Cormier notes that one young reader recently wrote to thank him for being honest in his books. "Television is a phony violence," the boy wrote. "Before the 9:00 commercial, the good guys win." Cormier, using the letter as an example, defends kids' intelligence and says he believes adults have a tendency to ignore their ability to judge the world for themselves. "People underestimate teenagers," he says. "They think that the turmoil teens feel is transient and that the idealism kids feel at that age is transient. I've always been angered by this attitude."
Although kids are conscious of events around them, the ways in which they receive information do not always allow them to see the complete picture. The exposure may be wide but not deep. Stephen Roxburgh, president and publisher of Front Street Books and editor of Cole's novel, explains that while kids know about violence and abuse at a fairly young age, they are not provided with adequate context for understanding the larger issues. "Kids are inundated with truncated, partial information," he says. Roxburgh adds that if a kid is not ready for a book, he'll get bored and put it down."
"YA" Audience Now Younger Than Ever
One very real problem identified by those interviewed was that the age range of "YA" readers has changed. Campbell remarks that in the 1970s, just after Zindel's and Hinton's first YA novels were published, the definition of "Young Adult" meant high school-aged readers. She adds that many YA writers are still writing for that age. Now these books are getting in the hands of kids as young as 12, and booksellers say these titles are also being marketed to younger readers. Nicky Salan at Cover to Cover in San Francisco, points out, "I think YAs are teenagers, but publishers are marketing YA novels to 10-year-olds."
A leaner, journalistic writing style, used in many of the recent YA novels, may exacerbate the problem. There is little or no "explanation" of the events or other characters' perspectives. Noted for her own literary experimentation in Make Lemonade (1993), which tells the story of an unwed, inner-city teen in lyrical blank verse, author Virginia Euwer Wolff, said a bare-bones approach often inherently strips the events of hope: "A reporter-like recounting of incidents d s seem hopeless because you don't see people rebuilding their lives and taking those steps to something better, more stable -- even if it is mere survival," Wolff says.
But this change in style can also work to the reader's advantage in a novel. It can draw readers in and get them thinking beyond the sensational headlines. Richard Jackson, senior editor at DK Ink, edited a spring 1998 title, Making Up Megaboy by Virginia Walter, in which a 13-year-old boy inexplicably kills a Korean liquor store owner in L.A. Readers must draw their own conclusions from the various first-person narratives. "Any kid interested in the world can turn on the 11:00 news and see it all in a glancing way, the superficial facts of the case -- 'Boy Kills Three Classmates.' A book extends to the reader time to reflect on what g s on," Jackson says.
And novels can also highlight issues that haven't yet hit the newsstands. While society would often prefer to keep issues like AIDS, homosexuality or child abuse hidden from view, those touched by these issues are left feeling isolated and alone. Writers are in a position to affirm their experiences. "I often think writers pave the way for the openness of others," says Joanna Cotler, who heads an imprint at HarperCollins and, along with Charlotte Zolotow, edited Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat. "Francesca very much allowed her audience, the fringe and disenfranchised, a validation that comes with being understood by someone like her."
Block, like Kerr, faced controversy for writing about AIDS and homosexuality. When her first story in the Weetzie Bat series came out in 1989, little was known about AIDS or HIV. "The kids reading YA books now have grown up with AIDS and come into their sexuality aware of this," Block says. "We've got to talk about it more, know about condoms. [AIDS] was easier to hide before. Now you can't."
Rochman also sees such provocative novels as catalysts for kids to discuss difficult issues. "Making Up Megaboy is a fascinating book. I think of how kids will react, 'Could I be the victim? What if I were there?' In Kerr's Gentlehands, the kindly grandfather is a Nazi," Rochman says, "[The novel] asks, 'Where were you?' These novels insert readers into the situation, asking them to consider questions they might not have otherwise entertained."
Many of these recent titles do not allow readers to identify with a character. Betty Carter says this is the case in Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves. "Linda won't let you identify with her," Carter says. "She keeps you at arm's length. She's like a porcupine." But Facts serves another purpose, says Michael Cart, head of the Young Adult Library Services Association and former head children's librarian at the Beverly Hills Public Library in California: "It offers kids of privilege a window through which they can view lives they'd never otherwise see. It may evoke compassion for others."
Should YA Novels Offer Hope?
The implicit question surrounding the discussion of many of these "grim" novels is: Should a book offer hope? "We have an obligation to offer hope, not happily ever after," says Horowitz, adding, "One thing you can't do is fake out a teenager." Campbell agrees: "It's not honesty that's depressing, it's cheerful lies."
According to Linda Perkins, manager of Library Services for Children's Services at the Berkeley Public Library in Berkeley, Calif., teens are much more able to handle painful subjects and open-ended conclusions than other readers. "I've always thought middle-school-aged kids prefer a neatly concluded story. No ambiguity for them. Whereas, in high school, students are intrigued by ambiguity, and are better suited to accept and enjoy books without clear-cut endings," she says.
Mazer, like other authors, believes survival itself is the hope. "Life eventually gets very hard," she says. "Everyone gets mugged by life at some point, but I have a persistently optimistic outlook. I want to tell kids that you can do it, you can get through it."
The unanimous refrain among those writing for and recommending books to teens is that books must tell the truth. Books cannot protect children from life, but they can illuminate life. Jackson, who edited Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (1970), which dealt with the God question and menstruation, says, "Judy didn't set out to rattle cages, she set out to be truthful." He adds that many people reacted with "eww" but no one could deny the reality of it. Many adolescents at the time were struggling with these consuming questions of puberty, but no one had yet written about them. That acknowledgment, hopeful or not, can bring some relief to readers.
Roxburgh describes the books he publishes as "in the moment" and says that because "there is no hindsight and no distance, there is greater truth in them." And Perkins adds that you can't pull one over on these readers. "If the hopeful ending fits, fine, but a forced or falsely cheerful ending is death to a book. Adolescent kids are the surest detectors of phoniness on this green earth."
Teens Want to Read Them
And what about the kids themselves? Do they want to reflect on these issues? "Absolutely, teens are looking for grittier, edgier books," says Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins Children's Books in Falmouth, Mass. "One of the salient characteristics of adolescence is to look for their limits: How bad can it get? What do I have to prepare myself for?"
Judy Nelson, who works primarily with reluctant readers at Belleview Regional Library in King County, Wash., says that girls in her library system really took to Anke de Vries's Bruises and Carol Lynch Williams's The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson. "I think it is because of the characters and the evidence of hope at the end," she suggests. The students she works with tend to be attracted to make-believe, happy endings, fantasy and horror. But they also liked Facts. "They don't identify with Linda so they are not as disturbed by her as, say, a character in a Cormier book," Nelson says.
Puffin editor Sharyn November, who works with many teens both in person and on-line, says that "grimmer" books do ring true for teens, but that, like adult readers, teens have a wide range of interests. "It really depends upon the teenager. I know teens who prefer science fiction and fantasy, and an equal number who wouldn't touch it. Some want to stay within familiar worlds, others want to escape or expand them," she said.Colleen Kammer, co-owner of Book Beat in Oak Park, Mich., says she sells a lot of books to teens who love fantasy, especially those by Philip Pullman, Piers Anthony, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin McKinley and, for younger teens and preteens, Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series.
While Perkins agrees that kids can and do read grittier, more realistic books out of personal choice, she also says that teens' literary interests are wide-ranging and idiosyncratic. "They prefer to read about issues that are close to them, such as friendship and sexuality" she says. "Peer pressure may shape their own lives, but they enjoy reading about people who swim against the current, non-conformists. Many are still crusaders for justice and enjoy reading about how kids their age may have suffered racial, religious, gender or any other type of prejudice, and fought back."
Campbell, who regularly taps into the YALSA website, where both professionals and teenagers discuss books, states a few reasons she believes kids like bleak books: "The [books] reflect the reality of our own lives, and they put our own small problems in perspective." She adds that at the annual Best Books for Young Adults meeting, to which students are invited for a day to discuss the titles, three teens named Cormier's Tenderness as their favorite book of the year, though they acknowledged, "It made me mad!"
Reaching Older Kids
But if readers want to find these books, there's the challenge (monumental, according to many) of making them available to teens. Most writers rely on teachers and librarians to get their titles into their readers' hands. But even in the schools, there are hurdles. "The principal of one school met me in the parking lot," says Kerr. "He said, 'We love your books, but we wish you wouldn't talk about [Deliver Us from] Evie, Night Kites or 'Hello, I Lied.'"
Cart says he would not hesitate to recommend these titles to kids, but cites the problem of the dwindling number of professionals in libraries, who once served as this vital link; rather than recommending books to teens, they end up answering phones and pointing people to the restroom. "There's a shortage of professionals who know kids and who, knowing kids, can recommend [titles] to them," he says.
In bookstores, it is parents who stand as the biggest barrier. "When Forever and Tiger Eyes came out, you had to be careful, thoughtful about who to sell it to," recalls Beth Puffer, manager at New York City's Bank Street College Bookstore. "In those days, sex was the issue. Now there are other horrible things. Children can often handle them, but the parent is shocked." Campbell mentions out that, contrary to the defloration theme rampant in 1970s YA novels, books for teens rarely include sex anymore; she blames AIDS.
Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children's Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., ech s Puffer's concern: "We've had quite a few adults say things like, 'Could you just give me a book without all those problems?'"
Yet booksellers must rely on adults to buy these books for teens. "The realistic, grim books mostly sell to adults after they've read reviews," says Book Beat's Kammer. "Parents and teachers and librarians can't buy them if the content g s too far. There would be too much criticism." Puffer at Bank Street agrees that these books are hard to handsell: "They're really well written, but who would you recommend them to?" At Eight Cousins, Chittenden says her staff d s lots of handselling; they all read the books (rarely relying on reviews), then describe the novels and let the customers decide for themselves. Most booksellers concurred, however, that even when they sell a book to teens, the parent is usually there with them.
In an attempt to get to more teen readers directly, Nicky Salan at Cover to Cover in San Francisco tried an experiment. She set up a "rental library" for one year: teens could rent a new YA hardcover for 95 cents per day, or $5 per week (until the book's cover price was paid). In the first six months, all but one teen kept their books (bought them over time), and she sold 15-20 hardcovers that would not have sold otherwise.
Chittenden involves teens by asking them to review galleys, but she said teens as a whole are unlikely to buy new hardcovers for two reasons: time and price. Also, as many of those in children's-only bookstores testify, it's difficult to keep teens coming in. Chittenden says her best chances are in summertime, when teenaged tourists stroll in, not realizing there are no adult books.
The other challenge to booksellers is to keep teens browsing the YA shelves when their attention turns to adult novels. Campbell, who serves as liaison on a task force between young adult librarians and booksellers, says the head buyers for Borders, B&N and independent bookstores are very interested in reaching young adults with quality fiction. "Teens go from Jacqueline Susann to Dean Koontz because they don't know about YA novels." She says one problem is that books for younger readers are mixed in, and adolescents won't be seen near titles geared to younger readers. Many booksellers are creating separate YA sections within their stores, away from the children's departments.
But children's-only booksellers, who do not have that option, have the challenge of creating a cachet about the YA section that keeps teens hooked. Chittenden is developing a section in her children's-only store that conveys: "Adult books teens read and books about teens that adults would find worthwhile."
Redefining the Teen "Look"
The teen appeal and potential crossover interest in the adult market for these books is something many agree on, controversy or no. In an effort to attract attention to the books, publishers are trying to find a "look" that will make teens as well as adults pick the books up. Block's books have always drawn the attention of readers well beyond their teens, and Cotler designed a new package for the Weetzie Bat books. All five of them, as of this May, will be contained in one volume called Dangerous Angels, featuring a haunting image of an angel on the cover, in an attempt to appeal to the diverse range of her readers.
According to Carey Loren, co-owner of Book Beat with Kammer, these efforts to give jackets a more sophisticated look seem to be working. "We have Block's Girl Goddess #9 and Daniel Pinkwater's 5 Novels collection right up on the front tables. The covers seem to give them a good 'crossover' sell to adults," he says.
While individual booksellers are finding solutions for their stores and many ideas are circulating, only experimentation -- and perhaps more involvement with the kids themselves -- will yield viable answers. In the meantime, the world keeps throwing changes and difficult issues at young people, and authors are writing more and more books to address these themes. For many in the children's literature field, it is a mission as well as a challenge to get the books to their readers.
On the plus side, it seems clear that teens will remain interested in these issues and the novels that illuminate them. The main barriers seem to be adults. As Rochman puts it, "From writers to reviewers to teachers to parents to librarians, there are all these filters to get through." The challenge for the supporters of YA fiction lies in getting the books past these filters to the teens themselves.
Fore more about "grim" YA titles,
read "A Hotly Debated Novel Crosses the Atlantic."
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