Growing Up YA Lit-Style: A Personal Essay

Ilsa J. Bick, MD, a child psychologist and YA author, recently published an article on the Hunger Mountain site in which she responds to a pair of essays by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, who calls into question the dark themes and content within today’s young adult fiction that she believes “invites teenagers to wallow in ugliness, barbarity, dysfunction and cruelty.” The general, the overall gist of Gurdon’s argument is that an overwhelming amount of YA fiction is dark and violent, and that adults condone such language and acts by allowing kids to read this material. I can’t help but to think of the dark and violent fables and fairytales that parents used to tell children in the “olden days” to keep them safe, to scare them away from stepping off the path through the forest, or trusting strangers. However, that example strays away from the topic of contemporary literature.

In her essay, Gurdon says, “The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and “cutting” (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.” This is a troubling thought to me since everyone I knew when I was growing up thought I had a normal experience and that I was well adjusted. What they didn’t know is how well I hid myself from them, and I don’t think Gurdon is taking the public and private face of teenagers into account with this statement.

We each grow up living in our own state of hell to some degree. Some people’s experiences are worse than others, and when you really get down to brass tacks, more people than you imagine live pretty painful lives that are punctuated by bright spots of happiness that allow them to get through the dark days. Some of those people are kids who grow up in an openly hellish situation, who are easily labelled as at-risk youths. Then there are other kids, like me, who grew up in private hells.

Sure we were low income, but our lives looked great on the surface. I was a good kid. I was on a sports team, I didn’t get into trouble, I got decent grades, and I was funny. Plus, I had friends. However, that’s what I let people see; brush away the dirt and you’ll see how poverty, alcoholism, rape, sex, borderline eating disorders, abuse, abandonment, bullying, and cutting affected my life. You would never see the girl who dreamed of having the guts to let her knife slide a little deeper. I couldn’t die knowing that my mom, the only person who gave everything to protect me from the cruel world, would realized how badly she had failed in spite of working three jobs to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and the electricity turned on. So, I hid all external signs of my hell behind the guise of a normal childhood. No one even noticed when I switched from cutting my skin to cutting the hair at the nape of my neck to keep people from knowing what I was experiencing.

I am a statistic filed in the wrong column because I purposefully put myself there. While in my hell, with no one to guide me or to help me, the only thing that kept me sane was reading. When quizzed about or ranted at for having my nose buried in a book day after day, I couldn’t tell anyone why I preferred my fantasy world to the real one. I couldn’t tell them why I was obsessed with reading fiction about oppressed people who struggled against impossible odds to overcome terrible things. I couldn’t tell them that I was learning how to become a better, stronger, wiser, honorable, and compassionate person by reading about wizards, aliens, and vampires. I couldn’t tell them that these were fantastical metaphors for the horrors that I struggled against in my real life every time I stepped out the door to go to school, to visit the babysitter, or meet new people.

If it weren’t for writers like Lloyd Alexander, Roger Zelazny, Robert Asprin, Piers Anthony, J.R.R. Tolkien, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Stephen King, and Anne Rice, I might not have made it through my teens. Sometimes, the only thing that kept me from cutting my wrists instead of my hair was that I needed to know what happened in the next book. Sometimes those books even showed me that people could experience far worse than I had endured and still make it through the day. Heck, if Frodo could make it to Mount Freakin Doom, so could I. I learned how to be the hero of my own story.

In her essay, Bick discusses something similar, which deeply resonates with my own experiences, in this excerpt from “The Monsters in Us All: In Defense of YA Literature”:

….many, many children do live in hell. According to a study by the Foundation for Child Development (and as reported by CNN), more than twenty percent of children in the U.S. lived below the poverty line in 2010. That’s one kid out of every five. As documented in this companion study, the number of impoverished American kids hasn’t been this high in twenty years. Over five hundred thousand are homeless—and that number doesn’t begin to take into account impoverished children around the globe or those who struggle to survive in incredibly violent settings under desperate circumstances.

So . . . that’s a lot of kids in hell. We just don’t see them because they’re not our neighbors.

Now, if you do want to know about some kids like that, talk to a very wise librarian I met a few weeks ago at ALA. She works in Anaheim, and the population she serves lives with violence, gangs, drugs, rape, incest . . . you name it. Know what those kids like to read? They devour contemporary novels that accurately depict their reality. And you know why? Because, in those novels, the kids triumph. They find a way out of hell. These books are quite hopeful because the teens in them do succeed where their parents and society have failed. These novels are journeys of growth from and through darkness toward the light.

When I see someone like Gurdon questioning the kind of literature that helped me to stand up against the bullies in my school, I can’t help but to wonder what kind of charmed life she must have lived to never need to know how to kill a vampire. I also find myself cheering for people, such as Ilsa J. Bick, who rise up in defense of dark literature in order to help clear the air and to protect the stories that helped me navigate my way through my own private hell. I am sure there are kids who lead a shiny happy existence and who would be deeply disturbed by reading a book like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, because that’s a pretty dark book, but I also think that it teaches them a little something about the real world so that they have some frame of reference for when they find themselves knocked on their butts for the first time. Now, take a kid who gets knocked on his butt every day. Harry Potter really isn’t going to give that kid much help; he’s going to be looking for stronger literature that better reflects his own experiences.

Maybe part of the reason dark fiction is so popular among young adults is that kids’ lives are much more complicated today than they have ever been in the past. Maybe there are a lot more kids wearing “normal” masks than adults think. And maybe, like me, they will turn out just fine in spite of their questionable association with deadly orcs, decaying zombies, and beautiful vampires.

And, yes, even now, I am afraid to hit the “publish” button on this post, but I didn’t travel to Mount Freakin Doom for nothing.

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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3 Responses to Growing Up YA Lit-Style: A Personal Essay

  1. Kristan says:

    No you sure didn’t.

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you for your bravery and your honesty, for sharing your story with us. I was touched.

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