It’s funny—people refer to high school students as “children.” Developmentally, yes, I suppose that’s what they are. But really, it’s not so simple. High school students of today have many adult concerns. They have jobs. They have serious relationships. They have sex lives. They encounter drugs, alcohol, and violence. They live in a confusing world where depression, eating disorders, and suicide are at a peak. They risk high stakes failures and successes. They live in a high pressure world where they are expected to simultaneously fill the roles of a sophisticated adult and a sheltered juvenile. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops. High school is not a more advanced version of the younger grades. It’s more like the real world. It’s a dark place. And, (apologies for the morbidity) the real world can be a dark world.
It’s no wonder, then, that today’s young adult literature reflects this. Take a title I read recently for the high school crowd: Looking for Alaska by John Green. Mind you, this is a fantastic book. It’s written with wit and beauty, wired with suspense and movement. I ask you to consider the content, though. The main characters, all 16-17 years old have realistically portrayed encounters with the following:
*persistent drug usage
*heavy cigarette smoking
*the fact that sometimes answers, closure, and comfort never come
All right. The point of this list is not to point out how shocking Alaska is. Rather, it’s to give a concrete example of what is going on inside most young adult lit today. Reading for young adults is filled with darkness, sorrow, and harsh reality. Of course, there are the bright spots as well. And the writing in this genre just gets better and better. But is the weight of the content getting too heavy? Sometimes I wonder if literature pushes us closer to the darker side than we really need to go. The question here really is this: Regarding adolescent reading material, how dark is too dark? There are two sides to my thoughts on the matter.
Point 1. Literature should not present a watered down version of life. If literature is indeed a pathway to truth, is it not more powerful, more genuine if it portrays the human condition in an honest way? I mean, if there is suffering in life, it doesn’t pay to give young adults literature that presents an overly-sunshiny vision—one that they know is false and therefore somewhat “fluffy” and pointless. If we want to motivate people to read, reading has to be alive, and that takes full disclosure about the world around us.
There should be a point. There should be some pain. There should be the chance to travel to the deepest, darkest recesses of what it means to be human. Evil, darkness, fear, loss: these things are what we least understand, but words can help us to explore these shadowy corners of our psyche. Reading can help us turn serious things around in our minds, contemplate them, discuss them, and hopefully understand them a little more. Part of me wants to believe that realism in literature helps ground us and prepare us for the hard times that are unavoidable in our individual lives and larger communities. Students are affected by the problems of the world, so why not offer them reading material that addresses the realities of those problems?
Point 2. On the other hand, there are times when the dark aspects of life become oppressive. You have a bad day at work, then have a spat with a friend over something meaningless. Then, you turn on the news, jump online, or check out a newspaper headline, only to find updates on war, economic hardship, scandal, and violence. Then, you start wondering why the heck we’re all here, anyway. It can get, well… demoralizing. After all that, who really wants to curl up with The Bluest Eye or The Grapes of Wrath? I know that last winter, when I was feeling pretty harrowed just by everyday life, my assignment to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking nearly put me over the edge. Books do make us feel. And that includes making us feel pretty bad.
This makes me think of my students—is it fair of me to expect them to endure a semester of depressing (and powerful and brilliant) reading on top of whatever hardships they already have to bear just from their daily lives? Without a doubt, these kids already know the world is dark. So why hammer the point home to an extreme degree? Literature can also serve to inspire and humor our lives, and this purpose is surely important. Seeing the potential for light despite the darkness is perhaps the most important thing we can learn from art. That’s one of the eternal underlying themes of more literature across cultural traditions—that light and dark will always be locked in combat, but that light can still win out. Well, postmodern literature may not allow us that comfortable vision, but I think that we need to keep it alive for the sake of all of our sanities, especially that of our youth. If we want them to inherit and lead a peaceful, harmonious world, we have to start by helping them believe that such a world is possible.
Verdict: There’s no need to water down the world for young adults. They know what’s going on. But we have to feed them a literary diet that includes hope and humor every once in a while.
“There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone straight from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” –Maya Angelou
We can’t have that.