Every generation says it. Unfortunately it’s true. Kids today are so different from when I was a kid. I feel like teenagers are a world apart from my high school days, and that was only like ten years ago! The world is changing and adults are flailing their arms trying to keep up. My family is pretty spread out. My mom is 45, I’m 29, my brother is 19, and my sister is 13, so it’s easy to trace the changes from one decade to the next.
My mom was in high school in the 80s. You know, the days before computers and internet. If you wanted to look something up, you had the encyclopedia. Want to call someone? Pick up the land line at home and if they aren’t there leave a message with their mom. Music? Cassette tapes. Giant boom boxes or a personal cassette player with headphones. There were a limited number of channels on tv. MTV was just launching and played pretty simple, basic videos. Sure, kids had problems. Cocaine usage became big in smaller towns in the 80s, spreading from cities, to college campuses, and then to towns. Teenage pregnancy was becoming more frequent. Standard teenage drama. But on the whole, life was easy and good. The Cold War ended. The Berlin Wall came down. The economy was good.
I was in high school in the late 90s and early 2000s. We had multimedia encyclopedias on CD Rom and floppy discs. Pagers were the hot thing. When I was sixteen I was one of the first kids in my school to get a cell phone because everyone wanted a pager for some reason. Cells were the same price and could do more; I never figured it out. Of course my phone was the size of a small car with an antennae that stretched to the ceiling, but I felt cool. Cds were the preferred music format. TV seemed infinite;so many channels! MTV’s videos had bigger budgets, but were played less frequently. Riding the wave of “The Real World,” shows were becoming more popular. We had bigger problems. Columbine happened. There was a crack-down on clothes that could be considered weapons. We started lock-down drills. Prayer was banned in school. Heavier drug use was more prevalent, like Oxycontin and something called Meth. Several of my classmates dropped out because of pregnancy. One girl missed our graduation to have her baby. The economy wavered, wars were fought. Life didn’t seem so bad, but maybe that’s because I looked at it through teenage eyes, it had a different tint.
My brother just finished high school and my sister is about to start. Wikipedia and Google are the way to go and things are saved on USB drives. People don’t call on cell phones as much as text…and do everything else. Mp3 players carry thousands of songs in one tiny format. TV isn’t only infinite, it’s moved outside its box with Netflix and Hulu and streaming on the internet. I can’t remember the last time I saw a music video on MTV. The economy is in the tank. We’re still at war. Kids can’t carry backpacks to school anymore unless they’re clear. Drugs are everywhere. Pregnancy almost seems to be accepted (and sometimes even glorified–see MTV). School shootings are more frequent and have bled over into colleges. Teen suicides are at an all time high.
If you’ve scanned the YA or Teen section of your bookstore lately, you may have noticed these changes reflected on the shelves. Stories are getting darker. They cover drug use, pregnancy, abuse and neglect. Even the fantasy titles out right now are dark. Dystopic worlds with teens killing one another and fighting/leading wars and rebellions. This isn’t exactly new, I mean, look at “Lord of the Flies,” but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent. Agents have been requesting darker, edgier, grittier titles.
This year is the 50th anniversary of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. Sure the protagonists fought against a government of sorts, but there was a lighter feel to it. I came away from that book feeling good and smiling. Lately, while the books are good, they leave a darker sense of foreboding at the end. It leaves me wondering: how far is too far? There have been several discussions on the AW forum asking how far to push the envelope when it comes to drugs and sex with teens. I think some of this grit is good. It starts teens questioning the world as they know it and looking beyond themselves to see a bigger picture. These stories help teens connect by showing them they aren’t alone. There are others who cut themselves or starve themselves or inject themselves. Others who have gone through it and found their way to the other side. I think it’s important to meet teens (and everyone really) where they are. But how dark is too dark? Is there a limit, a line, that’s too far? Or is the line constantly shifting and moving?
As I pointed out in the beginning of this post, the world is changing and teens are going through heavier things than they were a generation or two ago. I think YA literature should match some of these themes, but I also think it should lift teens out of the grit. One of my favorite things about reading is the escape. You read a book like “A Wrinkle in Time” and you’re transported to other worlds and it takes you away from yourself and your struggles. I don’t think we have enough of that in YA right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love books like “The Hunger Games” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” If you haven’t read them, both are about fighting to the death. In the first, a dystopic fantasy, the main character fights others for survival. In the latter, a YA contemporary, the main character fights the cancer killing herself and her boyfriend. The themes in both touch on issues that are prevalent today, but they don’t do much to lift the reader out of it. I think there needs to be a healthy mix and I would love to see YA focus more on the *lighter side of life and capture not just the current climate, but the feel of the 90s, and the 80s, and beyond.
What do you think? Should YA continue down this trail and match the feeling of its readers? Or should lighter, happier stories make a comeback to lift the readers out of their current situations? When it comes to the dark, gritty stories, how far is too far?
*Writing this post brought to mind a song I catch myself singing when I’m down. From Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” I give you, and urge you to listen to, this: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” (Just a warning, without seeing the whole movie, you may think this scene is sacrilegious–as a Christian it made me uneasy the first time I saw it–but remember this scene alone is out of context. If it bothers you, just minimize the window and listen to the words. I couldn’t find a good video without the scene. I also recommend watching the movie.)