Dark and mature themes in young adult (YA) novels spark strong emotional responses — 3,651 controversial young adult novels were challenged between 1990 and 2010. More than 2,500 YA novels were protested against because of offensive language, and 723 due to religious viewpoint. The First Amendment guarantees that each of us has the right to express our views, including opinions about particular books. However, the First Amendment also ensures that none of us has the right to control or limit another person’s access to information. It can be argued that mature content in YA novels might have a bad influence on adolescents, and may help normalize conditions such as depression and pathologies such as self-harm. A number of people believe that banning or challenging books with dark themes is a good idea, but they don’t realize that dark themes in YA novels not only help young adults learn how to face complicated issues, they serve as lessons for young adults who so far might never have experienced any hardships in their lives. YA novels give voice to pained teens and help teach them to cope and get through their own problems.
“If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is,” says Meghan Cox Gurdon of The Wall Street Journal. Her point is that dark themes force adolescents to address the terrible ideas, issues, and behaviors that surround us. While some critics may feel that mature content in YA books may be too suggestive for young adults who may, for example, never have otherwise considered self-harm or drugs. They believe that if an innocent child reads a book in which the main character cuts himself to relieve feelings of self-hatred, this child, having been influenced by this act of self-harm, may later act in the same way to express his or her own feelings. YA books have so much sex, violence, and obscene language, critics claim, that a rating system has been proposed. Sarah Coyne, professor at Brigham Young University’s department of family life, says “When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don’t think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books.” Countless books have been turned into movies or TV shows, and only a fraction of the adult content is brought into the final production. In a study conducted between June 22 and July 6, 2008, one researcher found over 1,500 profane words in the top 40 children’s books from the New York Times bestsellers list. All but five books from this group had at least one instance of profanity. Most books targeted to children as young as nine contained offensive language. Even while this is the case, however, there is no study that shows that dark themes have a directly bad influence on young adults, who seem to gravitate toward stories of tribulation and triumph. We see no evidence to support the notion that reading about drugs makes a teen more likely to turn to drugs or that reading about depression will make a child depressed.
On the contrary, dark and mature themes can be very helpful to young adults, teaching them about very real, and urgent life issues and problems. An adolescent who has not yet been faced with extreme situations is likely not to know how to face them when and if they do arise. Dark YA books can offer some guidance. They can prepare young adults for hardships they may encounter sooner or later in their lives. Mature themes can show a troubled youth that there are solutions to problems; there is always hope. “I don’t write to protect them, it’s far too late for that,” said Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. “I write to give them weapons–in the form of words, and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters.” Unlike many other writers, Alexie realizes that young adults who are depressed or are hurting themselves or have substance-abuse issues have already been emotionally harmed and can’t be sheltered from trauma. Young adults who live “real-life horror stories,” as Alexie noted, can be helped by being allowed to read dark-themed YA books that help them realize that they are not alone in the world and that there are other kids like them out there facing similar problems. Dark books can teach adolescents how to sort through their issues. People, including teens with guidance from their parents, have the right to choose what they will and won’t read. The First Amendment includes freedom of the press—writers can write their stories and get them published, no matter their content. Young adults who need the support dark-themed books offer can’t be denied it just because there are critics who find such content offensive. Parents can even take a pen and censor their kids’ books, if they feel so strongly about what can be read in their own family. No government censorship is necessary to keep these books from teens.
After all, books with dark and mature themes merely mirror the real difficulties and complex situations that young people face today. If there should be any form of public outcry, perhaps it should be to address the greater ills of our society itself, and not only how society is reflected in current young adult literature. As Oscar Wilde noted, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
Stina Trollbäck, Age 12, Grade 7, New Explorations Into Science, Tech, and Math School, Gold Key