Video, podcast, and summary: “Coming of Age in Dystopia: The Darkness of Young Adult Fiction”

Moderator Marah Gubar began by asking the panelists for their opinions on Meghan Cox Gurdon’s 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, “Darkness Too Visible.”

Kenneth Kidd briefly described the article, highlighting its claim that young adult literature has surpassed an acceptable level of “darkness.” Gurdon’s article, he said, uses young adult “problem” novels, such as the work of Judy Blume, as a standard for “acceptable” young adult fiction. Kidd noted that the article is significant because it deals with the question of guidance and censorship from parents, teachers, and librarians when it comes to young adult readers. The idea is that if you expose people to difficult topics that they haven’t experienced, he said, it’s “tantamount to abusing them.”

Kristin Cashore said that the desire to censor or lighten young adult fiction reveals a tendency toward avoidance. She pointed out that the world is “kind of a dystopic place,” and that engaging with kids can help give them some way to cope. It is also condescending, she said, to children’s lives and to their minds. The idea that children lead easier lives than adults is problematic. They live in the same world as adults but have less power, agency, and resources.

Gubar brought up the claim that a book about someone who cuts herself might encourage other kids to cut themselves. Cashore said that like adults, children use books for many reasons: for enjoyment, to learn about something they haven’t experienced, or to have company in their own experiences. She noted that novels could give children a way to deal with the feelings their own lives evoke “with an objective distance.”

Gubar said that while Gurdon was “immediately attacked” for her article, there has in fact been a “deluge” of dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and traumatic narrative in young adult fiction. She wondered about that trend and asked if Kidd could address the historical context of the situation.

Kenneth Kidd

Kenneth Kidd

Kidd suggested using the term “difficult” instead of “dark” to describe the issue at hand, given the potentially racist connotations of equating “dark” and “evil.” He also said that “dark” may sometimes be code for more “literary” or challenging narratives. Literature about trauma, he said, or with themes of sexuality and struggles with authority figures, has at least a 20-30 year history; in a broader sense, he remarked, it may even date to the late 19th and early 20th century. Works such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Adolescent or Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening certainly have similar subject matter. In many works prior to the 1960s, Kidd said, themes of poverty, immigration, and racism were common. He observed that 1990 saw “a wave of books about the Holocaust” including Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. Today’s works, he said, are “folding all of these genres together.”

Gubar asked Cashore if she ever thinks about “trying to balance dark with light” or limiting traumatic material in her books.

Cashore said yes, because “every aspect of the book is a balance,” but that she isn’t doing so for any particular reader. Instead, she asks, “What book is asking to be written here?” She gave the example of her novel Bitterblue, the third in her Graceling Realm series. The book’s eponymous protagonist is a young queen whose father was a “psychopathic sadist” who traumatized his people, in part by altering their thoughts and memories. Both Bitterblue and her subjects must uncover a lot of past trauma. Cashore said she initially intended Bitterblue to be her “happy book” because the previous book in her trilogy was so dark. She thought she would make the novel structurally but not emotionally complex. However, as a result of the story she’d established in the previous books, she realized that she had to “make it atrocious.” To add levity, or as she put it, “to provide the light,” she brought in characters from other books and other parts of her fictional world. Contrast helps, she said; J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a good example of how “you can hit harder with the pain if things are funny.”

Gubar said that Bitterblue reminded her of cultures that have gone through genocides trying to recover. Cashore replied that while technically the worst things in Bitterblue happened in the past, trauma is defined by what is “still happening.” She gave the example of a line from Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, where the protagonist feels that the fictional third world war is still happening in her brain, six years after the war ends. Gubar added the example of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, where the protagonist feels as if she’s still trapped in the fighting arena even after the titular “Games” are over.

Gubar then addressed the issue of repression in Bitterblue. The protagonist is trying to find out what happened in the past, but people are trying to keep her from learning about it. Gubar drew a parallel between this and problematic efforts to protect young people from the world. Cashore stated that she was also wondering about the balance between knowing and healing.

Kidd said he loved this tension of whether or not repressing the truth could be useful. In the broader realm of children’s literature, he said, there’s a question of how to achieve “instruction with delight.” He referenced the work of G. Stanley Hall, widely considered the father of the child study movement, whose beliefs Kidd termed “problematic” but “influential.” Hall suggested that specific types of adolescent literature should be “prescribed.” The question of what is and isn’t good for you has been built into young adult fiction, Kidd said. He referenced The Catcher in the Rye, where the main character’s tale is folded into some sort of therapy, as well as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a tale written by its protagonist for an English class. There is an ongoing anxiety that adolescent fiction must be educational, and that there is a line between not telling enough and telling too much, he said. Adults worry that the stories must have some moral or lesson.

Marah Gubar

Marah Gubar

Gubar asked the panelists to discuss pessimistic and cynical books as well as their favorite “unhappy endings.” She brought up The Hunger Games as an example, noting that the series is about the horrors of war, and as such there is no happy ending. Kidd noted that the epilogue struck a balance between survival and the bleakness that goes along with that endurance. He mentioned a few other unhappy endings such as those of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and M. T. Anderson’s Feed.

Gubar noted that people tend to be more upset about sex than violence in young adult fiction. She asked if Cashore’s readers had expressed such reactions. Cashore said that without exception, the concerned messages she’s received have been about premarital sex in her novels — but that the complaints come from adult female American fans. Cashore’s novels mention both contraception and characters who don’t want marriage or children. Cashore said she had to include those topics, “because how would [the book] be about the world if I didn’t include them?” She gets letters from young readers who thank her for creating a character that feels how they feel, and for making them feel less lonely, Cashore said.

Gubar then brought up Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, which she described as an exploration of teenage sexual confusion. Kidd described the novel: a “strange” tale of three teens, one of them unsure of his sexuality, living in a Midwestern farming community overrun by giant grasshoppers. Cashore noted that authors have the ability to confront topics of personal trauma by making them topics of communal trauma.

Gubar wondered if there was an ethical issue with conflating personal and sociocultural traumas. For example, is it problematic that someone thinking they might be queer coincides with the end of the world, as in Grasshopper Jungle? Cashore said that she is privileged to be able to use the structure of the sociopolitical nightmare in Bitterblue to work through her own “little problems,” given that she doesn’t live in such a situation. She said that some people might resent her for using such a structure. But every writer has the right, she said, to write about the essential messiness of the world.

Kidd said that it’s right to ask questions about joining personal and large-scale cultural traumas in young adult fiction. He said that he does worry that pairing an apocalyptic scenario with queerness, as in Grasshopper Jungle, might reinforce a negative stigma.

Gubar then opened the discussion to questions from the audience.

An audience member said he didn’t read enough really good young adult literature while growing up, and he wonders if it would have helped him as a closeted gay youth. Today, he says, he has the opportunity to relive an adolescence that he couldn’t fully embrace by reading such books. He wondered how much of the dark personal trauma in young adult literature was a reflection of adults processing their experiences.

Cashore said she thinks that an adult may just be “making art,” and that it may not always be conscious. When she reread Bitterblue, she said, she noticed connections between the book and her own life that she hadn’t realized while writing it. She observed that “writing a story is about getting just enough dissociation from your own story so that you can touch it, work with it, and live it in some way.”

Gubar said that some young adult literature critics are concerned about the concept of giving depressing books to children. She referenced the work of Eric Tribunella, who suggested that because it is statistically safer to be a child in the United States than ever before, people “feel the need to traumatize children artificially” with fiction.

Cashore said that when she writes, she isn’t thinking about the age of her audience. It’s an “uncomfortable responsibility” to know that she doesn’t have control over who reads her book, she said. She often wonders if it is irresponsible for her to subject her readers to her own issues. The saving grace, she said, is that sometimes a fan will come to her at a book signing and thank her for writing a novel that allowed them to “work through something.”

An audience member wondered about the difference between public reading and private reading. She wondered if young adult literature “interferes” with the relationship between adults and young adults. What is the adult anxiety around young adulthood, she asked, and how does young adult fiction “pathologize” adolescence?

Kidd said that for adults, adolescents are “strange exotic creatures, and yet they are us.” This presents a problem, he said, and may account for the scary, dark landscape of young adult literature. The dystopian impulse may arise from ambivalence around sexuality, power, or fear of mortality and being replaced by a new generation.

Gubar wanted to address the diversity in young adult literature, including funny or satirical novels. Cashore said that it’s all about balance, and that every book has some dark material in it. Kidd described David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy as “over-the-top utopian.” The term “dystopian” might apply across many genres, he added. He wondered if young adult fiction was really so much darker than other literature, or if it only seems that way because of some notion that it shouldn’t be dark.

An audience member asked if the concern over young adult literature introducing children to trauma ever comes from kids or adolescents. Kids grow up with and understand the violence of a world that is unsafe for many people. Could adults be holding onto a view of childhood that isn’t completely true?

Cashore said that she finds it hard to understand such a mindset. “I feel like their eyes are closed,” she said. The idea that kids aren’t suffering and exposed to darkness is naïve and harmful. Kidd agreed, saying that there is no evidence of kids ever feeling that the literature had been forced upon them. Cashore noted that the work of Judy Blume is considered appropriate today, and wondered if in thirty years, today’s young adult fiction would be accepted.

Gubar added that the writing that children produce can itself be upsetting. Her son reads Stone Soup, a magazine by and for kids, and she noticed that the stories were frequently about topics such as death, divorce, and bullying.

One audience member said that his daughter had struggled with self-harm, and found some books helpful. But after reading Julia Hoban’s Willow, his daughter wondered why the author suggested that kids can deal with their struggles by themselves.

Cashore said that she thought many writers don’t intend their books to be instructive. This makes the responsibility of writing such novels “even more uncomfortable,” she said. Kidd noted that many authors have taken on a big burden; Judy Blume, he said, seemed to embrace the role of a “mentor and lay therapist” in some ways. Cashore said that a book might strike different readers in different ways. When she writes, she feels that “there’s no right decision.” A writer must follow her instinct and hope her book “will touch a reader it’s meant for.”

Gubar brought up criticism against novels about anorexia, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, which some critics say is an “instruction book for how to be anorexic.” It’s impossible to control what a book is or what it does at a certain level, she said. Cashore mentioned that one of her friends considers Wintergirls to be an instruction manual, while Cashore considers it “an amazingly accurate description” of the disorder. She feels that the book is perfect, but that it “hits different people in different ways.” A writer can’t control what the book will do to a reader, she said.

An audience member mentioned that she has noticed a few female characters in young adult fiction who aren’t interested in getting married and having children. She asked if the panelists had anything to say about babies and marriage not being the ultimate ending for all female characters.

Cashore said that her readers are grateful for a female character who doesn’t want to get married and have children, and that many say they’ve never seen this before in a book. It is possible to be fulfilled without marriage and children, she said, and she is surprised that readers thank her for “introducing this concept” to them.

Kidd said that many young adult series feature strong female characters, though they are less common in fantasy, he said. Cashore added that the great thing about writing several books is you can address a different situation in each, including characters with different thoughts regarding marriage and parenthood.

One audience member said that he and his friends loved dark literature when they were young adults in the 1970s, and in retrospect, he wonders why. He said that an apocalyptic scenario seemed hopeful in that it was “a chance to wipe away the bogus adult world” and to start anew. Trauma, in turn, provided a way to be a hero. He asked the panelists to address this concept.

Kidd said he shared that perspective. He noted that the classic American story is “all about orphans” and that many narratives are launched only when the parents are removed. Eliminating parents lends a sense of adventure and ownership, perhaps an indicator of “aspiring to adulthood.” This could be why readers tend to identify with slightly older characters, he said. He added that bleak stories don’t necessarily make for bleak reading experiences.

Cashore said she hopes that children are choosing what they read, and if they select a dark book, there is probably some reason for their choice. Kidd said that in the history of children’s literature, several works that weren’t intended as adolescent fiction were brought into the genre. He gave the example of dystopias like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These texts offer the opportunity to learn about allegory, trauma, oppressiveness, and more. Gubar added that Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was also “appropriated by children.” Children today have less autonomy than they used to, she said, and narratives that focus on a “chosen one” may be responding to this pressure.

An audience member said that while some of the themes of young adult books did resonate with her, the experience of reading them was more like watching a movie than it was a reflection of her life, because she “didn’t see people of color in the books.” She asked the panelists what must be done so more children feel represented by young adult literature.

Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore

Cashore called this an “appalling situation.” She said that having the ability to write about people of color or control whether a person of color is on the cover of her books in an era when “authors of color aren’t getting published” made her very uncomfortable. Young adult literature is a white industry, she said. Kidd said that the Children’s Book Council has statistics on the tiny percentage of young adult books published by writers of color. “There’s no way to be playful about these issues in this environment,” he said. Cashore mentioned a Bitch Magazine series that explored books about girls of color in dystopias. She said it was depressing how few examples there were of girls of color that could survive the apocalypse. Gubar brought up the problem of readers not noticing when authors do write characters of color. In The Hunger Games, the character Rue was “clearly marked” as dark-skinned, Gubar said, but people reacted negatively to seeing the character portrayed this way in the film adaptation.

Cashore said there is “lots of dialogue” about the issue. As a writer, it is something to discuss and get feedback and criticism on, but it must be pushed away to protect a writing space. She said there is an “interesting balance” between wanting to engage with the topic and having input (often from the internet) become counterproductive.

A young audience member said he was inspired to become more independent by the protagonist of Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. He asked Cashore if she aims to create books that inspire kids, or if her work’s main purpose is to entertain.

Cashore said that she doesn’t think about who her reader is, but when she plans a book, she does think about what her character’s actions say about the world, about a person of that age, or about the issue at hand. Her ultimate goal for young readers, she said, is “that they come out of the books with self-respect,” confidence, and the feeling that they are valuable.

An audience member brought up the idea that at their inception, novels were seen as something that could ruin a reader’s mind, and asked the panelists to address the issue of criticism — for example, of young adult literature — as a tool of social control.

Kidd said this problem plays out across all creative works at different points in history, especially in regards to music and dancing. A lot of the reaction is about policing behavior, he said. Such “taste management” is always class-based, he added, and affected by a desire for surveillance and control.

Sarah Schwartz

About Sarah Schwartz

Sarah Schwartz was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She spent her childhood getting lost in redwoods and stories, collecting wood sorrel and novels, and learning how to identify constellations and split infinitives. Dreading that someday she would have to make a career decision between the sciences or writing, she studied both fields at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her B.S. in Environmental Systems while taking Revelle College’s rigorous Humanities series and as many writing courses as possible. She has worked in laboratories at UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, learning about bacterial aging, natural sunscreens, neonatal hypoxia-ischemia, marine sponge biochemistry, and what to do when you set the ethanol on fire. These experiences fostered her deep respect and appreciation for scientific research and professional scientists; they have also left her eager to keep studying, supporting, and contributing to the natural and physical sciences. Though her primary interests lie in the areas of environmental and human health, Sarah hopes to explore various fields and interdisciplinary challenges, and to generate a broad dialogue about important, exciting science. In her free time, Sarah loves to bake, sing, hike, and obsess about Giants baseball. Thesis: Owning the Code of Life: Human Gene Patents in America


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