It was a dark and stormy life

Young-adult fiction is taking “a dark turn,” writes Katie Roiphe in the Wall Street Journal. But tales of suicide, car wrecks, anorexia and kids fighting to the death for survival aren’t depressing, compared to teens’ other reading choices.

Given the grim story lines, not to mention absence of designer shoes and haircuts that readers of lighter young adult titles are accustomed to, it’s easy to assume that this new batch of young-adult books peddles despair. In fact, the genre is more uplifting than the fizzy escapism that long dominated the young adult marketplace. Today’s bestselling authors are careful to infuse the final scenes of these bleak explorations with an element of hope: The heroine wins the hunger games and does not die, Lia is headed toward recovery at the end of “Wintergirls,” Mia decides to live at the end of “If I Stay,” and Clay reaches out to another desperately unhappy girl in “Thirteen Reasons Why,” in the hope of saving her from Hannah’s fate.

. . . As alarming as these books are, there is in all of this bleakness a wholesome and old-fashioned redemption that involves principles like triumph over adversity and affirmations of integrity. In the end, these investigations of personal disaster are much less depressing than the “Gossip Girl” knockoffs which initially seem frolicky and fun but are actually creepy and morally bereft and leave you feeling utterly hopeless.

I’ve never read any of these books. Are they any good? In my day we had to make do with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

About Joanne


  1. I’ve read Thirteen Reasons Why and enjoyed it. It’s intense, but does a nice job of demonstrating how our actions impact others, sometimes far more significantly than we realize. Definitely a strong moral center. I’m looking forward to introducing it to my kids.

  2. dangermom says:

    I loved “The Hunger Games” and can’t wait for the next one in the fall. Haven’t read “Wintergirls,” but would like to–I’ve heard it’s excellent. IMO we’re in the middle of a wave of truly great YA publishing (children’s books too). Sure, there’s a ton of knock-off mediocre fantasy, and way too much gossipy mean-girl stuff, but there are a lot of gems–and their quality is much higher than what I had in the 80’s.

    YA publishing has *always* had a lot of darkness to it. It’s nothing new. When I was a teen, we all read “The best little girl in the world” and anything we could find about cancer (remember Lurlene McDaniels?). Before my time, it was “Go ask Alice” and “Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones.” When I was in library school, it was gritty books about heroin addiction and living on the street. The genre is called the problem novel–it’s popular with teens and combines moralistic purposes–stay off drugs, don’t get pregnant, etc.—with a kid’s fascination with darkness.

    “The Hunger Games,” of course, isn’t a problem novel, but it’s a representative of another fairly dark genre that has always been popular with teens. Fantasy/SF/post-apocalyptic cyberpunk and all that puts evil vs. good into a stark setting and plays around with it. What does it mean to be brave? How do you tell the truth or live honestly in a dishonest society? It’s all just another way to figure out how to navigate through life.

  3. Roger Sutton, Editor of The Horn Book, points out that Roiphe did not do her homework on YA novels. “It seems that Roiphe has missed the fairly essential point that YA was at first defined by its darkness […] The road of YA lit is littered with car crashes, a signal event of just about every problem novel published in the 1970s.”

    There are some excellent YA books. If nothing else, they aren’t tedious.

    Westerfeld’s Uglies series starts with an interesting take on conformity and happiness, Valiant (Holly Black) starts when she catches her mom with her boyfriend and heads off into urban faerie, Dreamhunter and Dreamquake (Elizabeth Knox) are too rich to summarize.

    If you haven’t read Because of Winn Dixie or Ender’s Game, try them. Winn Dixie reads like Eudora Welty writing for a younger audience (younger than YA, really). Ender’s Game starts with a ugly turn on the space cadet myth.

    The list keeps going, Annie on my Mind, The Saskiad, …

    There are plenty of happy-ending YA books, too.

  4. deirdremundy says:

    13 Reasons Why was AWESOME.

    But I agree, there have always been two streams in YA… the fluffy beach read (remember the ‘Sweet Dreams’ Romance series? Modern fluff is MUCH better…more like chicklit) and the teen ‘Problem Novel’ (Was ‘Bell Jar’ the first? Or does it go back even further?)

    My favorite was always “Say Goodnight Gracie,” about a girl mourning the death of her best friend……

    Also, I’m not sure about her charactirization of “The Hunger Games”–it’s really distopian SciFi–a long, honored tradition. The change is in MARKETING–in the past,Hunger Games would have been classified straight Scifi, and the teens who like scifi would have fouind it there…. now, a lot of SciFi/Fantasy that might ALSO appeal to teens is being called ‘YA’ to broaden the appeal….

    Back in my day, YA was for fluff and problem novels, and anything remotely SCIFI or Fantasy was in the SCIFI section. Now, if Scifi fantasy has a teen protagonist, its considered YA…