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Published: Sunday, 5/20/2012

Dark and edgy: Violent topics dominate novels for young adults

BY CHERIE SPINO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

BLADE ILLUSTRATION/JEFF BASTING Enlarge

Not too many years ago Harry Potter had fans obsessively reading long into the night. Now kids are losing sleep because of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

More than 200 people are still on the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's waiting list for the series' first book.

While kids devour the books, some parents are aghast at the books' subject matter. A future world in which children battle other children to the death in front of a live TV audience? Yikes. No wonder the kids are losing sleep.

Take a look at the teen section at the library or bookstore, though, and you'll see any number of titles that will make parents squirm. A girl counting down the days until her suicide. Future worlds in which parents send off their unruly children to be "unwound," taking them apart body part by body part. Drugs. Abuse.

The young adult (YA) literature market is exploding, according to Joan Kaywell, an English professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in YA literature. Publishers are going after the youth market, and not much is off limits.

"The topics are more broad-ranging than in the '90s," said Mary Plews, the teen specialist for the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

'An explanation'

While teens were fed mostly horror and romance stories back then, she said now they can find books about everything from gay relationships to bullying.

These dark, edgy topics often trouble adults, but children seem unfazed. "They're looking to get an explanation for their world," Plews said.

More than 60 percent of kids ages 9 to 17 read books for fun, to use their imagination, and to learn something, according to Scholastic's 2010 Kids and Family Reading Report.

When Emily Pedigo, 16, read a book about a troubled girl, she said she connected to the girl's pain. "Everyone makes fun of her and acts like she's not there," the Rogers High School sophomore said. Emily said she feels that anonymity herself sometimes. What teenager hasn't?

Speaking their language

YA authors have an uncanny ability to remember what it was like to be a teenager. This authenticity is why young adult literature resonates with its audience, said Chris Crutcher, an author of 11 young adult novels who lives in Spokane.

Crutcher, who is frequently lauded for his brutally honest portrayals of teen life, said readers often tell him "This book feels like my life."

He knows their world intimately after spending more than 30 years as an educator and a child and family therapist. Eight of his YA novels have been named "Best Books for Young Adults" by the American Library Association.

He's also one of the most frequently banned authors. He talks to kids in their language, much of it laced with obscenities. He tackles tough subjects such as racism and alcoholism. While readers love the fact that he doesn't sugarcoat their lives, adults are less enamored with his candor.

A safe place

Kaywell said parents need to remember their kids are more savvy than they think.

When her son was in middle school, he read a graphic novel about vampires cover to cover in a matter of hours. "He was absolutely mesmerized by it," Kaywell recalls. "I read it and just abhorred it." She didn't approve of its message about boy-girl relationships.

"He told me, 'Mom, it's a story about vampires. It's fiction.' He just thought it was a fun read," she said.

Kids only absorb what they're developmentally or emotionally able to process, said Nancy Eames, the library's youth services coordinator. "They'll skip past the parts they're not ready for," she said.

Books can be a safe place for teens to experience the intense emotions they feel, and for many of them, the tough subjects they delve into bring hope.

Kaywell, who uses YA literature as a way to reach at-risk youth, wrote Dear Author: Letters of Hope (Philomel, 2007), based on letters children have written to writers about the impact of their books.

She once had some troubled teens read Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, in which the main character is stabbed. The group talked about how wounds like that don't hurt right away because victims are in shock. One of the girls knew exactly what she meant. She raised her arm and presented her own stab wounds that were inflicted by her mother.

"Many of these kids couldn't identify their own parents as abusive, but they could identify the abuse in the book," Kaywell said. The novel helped them sort out their own experiences.

That's the beauty of fiction, Crutcher said. "There's an insulation," he said. "It's easier to read about someone else's life and process it."

"I might be writing about a kid who's disfigured or burned," Crutcher said. "What the reader gets out of it, even though they weren't burned, is the experience of being on the outside, of loss."

Exploring society

While vampire novels are losing teeth in the YA market, dystopian fiction is gaining popularity, Plews said. In dystopian work, authors usually comment on the flaws in contemporary society by setting their books in a bleak future world.

The Hunger Games is an example: People in the future are controlled by the repressive Capitol that stages death games to keep the population in line.

Dystopian novels tend to get away with a lot more violence than more realistic fiction, said Susan Tan, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge who did her master's thesis on violence in The Hunger Games. Readers tend to see the violence as more distant because the story takes place in a fantasy or future world.

The brutality in The Hunger Games made Todd Schenkenberger leery when his 12-year-old daughter wanted to read the book. She found the trilogy distressing, but she also saw the plot in relation to what's going on in the world today.

"It's kind of disturbing, but it was also the truth," said Olivia Schenkenberger, a sixth grader at McCord Junior High in Sylvania. "The Capitol's way of showing they had complete power happens in countries around the world where dictators are ruling and making people do what they want."

'What's a parent to do?'

Most children are more than aware of the violence and evil in the world, Tan said by e-mail. "These books offer a 'controlled' space where children can come into contact with violence, darkness, and fear," Tan said.

Daniel Davis, PhD., a forensic psychologist in Columbus who specializes in adolescents, cautions that parents need to be careful of children's exposure to this violence. Just because it's in a written form doesn't mean it might not be dangerous.

Research shows that exposure to violent video games and other visual media can increase the risk of aggression. "But exposure to all media carries some risk," he said.

So what's a parent to do?

"There is a lot to be gained from these books; there's a reason they're so popular," Tan said. "Books like The Hunger Games contain powerful social messages, and their themes clearly resonate with us. But, there's also a lot that's problematic within them."

The key is to talk. Read the books that your kids are reading. Help your children think critically about the books. Share what makes you uncomfortable.

You can also ask your local librarians for help, Plews said. Each branch has someone who's teen-centered and who can steer you to titles that are right for your child.

In the end, be glad your child's reading. We could all use something that helps us make more sense of our world.



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