About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Megan Cox entitled Darkness Too Visible which opined that young adult literature is too dark, too gratuitously edgy. An outcry on the kid lit twitter and blog spheres ensued because the article smacked very clearly of prejudice and censorship. (I have to shake my head with a big ‘tsk, tsk’ at WSJ. It was a bald attempt to sell papers. Talk about darkness.) After the pitchforks were put away, however, there was much discussion about the value of the dark in young adult literature. Really good stuff.
Last weekend, AustinSCBWI hosted its annual conference and featured a talk by Donna Jo Napoli who spoke about How Writing About Terrible Things Makes Your Reader A Better Person. Thanks to Salima Alikhan, she recounts Donna Jo’s talk on her blog. Donna Jo’s talk engendered a very similar discussion at the conference and all this week on a list serve for Austin kid lit writers. Again, I revel in this discussion because I write a bit dark. I like looking under the stone as much as love feeling the sun baked warmth on the top. Why? Because it’s truthful.
One of my favorite books as child was Black Beauty. I read it over and over and over. Why? Because I felt like it was the first book that told me the truth about life and the truth it told was that there was cruelty, there was meanness. Did I grow up in a mean house? Not at all. But for some reason, I sensed the underbelly. I could hear the dark impulses in raised voices. I saw the sarcastic sneer in a smile. No one admitted to the darkness. Except this book. In it, I found a world that aligned with the one I sensed but couldn’t confirm. The love and compassion balanced the cruelty and despair. I felt reassured by it. Somehow, the dark and the light held me.
As a writer, I try to be careful with the darkness. Not by covering it up. No, I look at it straight on. But I think I am more interested in why something horrific happens. In my young adult manuscript, Particles, I wrote a story called Rogue Wave (which is based on a true story) in which a girl murders someone she loves. What drew me to the story was the events that led to the act, the forces beneath the surface that caused the wave to erupt.
You know that the phrase the banality of evil? It comes from Hannah Arendt‘s book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt posits that great evils are not done by extraordinary sociopaths but by normal people who accepted the premise of their leaders and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. When I write a story, I don’t think on a global dystopian level like say, The Hunger Games, which, btw, is very much dealing with the banality of evil. Instead, I focus on the individual. I think about the hurts that are visited upon children and how they either over come them or succumb to them. In Rogue Wave, for instance, the child is pimped out by her mother. Her act later as a teen is a direct result of that hurt. I don’t forgive it. But I look at how evil can sprout in the most mundane of gardens.
Do teens need these stories? I needed Black Beauty. I need to know a truth that I felt was lurking in the corners. What I feel as a writer is a responsibility to the tell the truth much the same as Anna Sewell did. And like her, I choose to write for children and young adults because I feel just as passionately about love and hope and compassion.
Great post, Lindsey. I agree, books can give children a safe place to discover the truth about the bad parts of the world as well as all the hope and good that’s also there.
Sam, great round up of the conference on your blog. Thanks for the link love and the comment.
For me, hearing Donna Jo Napoli speak was the height of the conference. I probably read Black Beauty for the first time when I was in second grade. While not all other books available to me at that time were completely happy-go-lucky, this was the only one that touched on real darkness. By suffering along with Beauty, kids grow empathy for others and are less likely to tolerate cruelty in any form. Books like these bring real impact to the anti-bullying message.
Me too…I loved her thinking. Her talk was a great model of posing the questions we are thinking but not saying. And about Beauty, yes. You said it exactly perfectly.