Ok, so there’s a lot of dark YA lit because teens want to read it — both the Literature and the popcorn. There’s also tons of light YA lit. (And if the mother at the beginning of Gurdon’s column couldn’t find any, perhaps she should have asked an experienced professional — at an indie bookstore or library if she couldn’t find one at Barnes & Noble — rather than fumbling through the YA section on her own.) Sure, there are trends, but YA is no more one-note than adult lit is.
But there is an awful lot of dark, heavy stuff on the recommended lists — the books we as educators assign and give awards to. In the last few years of Printz winners there’s abject poverty, environmental apocalypse, child labor, abusive parents, children as murderers, terminal illness, child abandonment, suicide, terrorism, and teen pregnancy, just to name a few. These are excellent, deserving books and I adore many of them, as do my students. But the darkness seems over-represented. (Note: tone is important, obviously, and I don’t want to make this all about a context-free list of content markers. But I would argue that while every one has some form of “happy ending,” the tone of most of these books is just as dark as their content implies.)
There are plenty of exceptions, obviously, but there is a general belief in our culture that “dark and heavy” = quality. This reaches far beyond YA lit; for instance, how often does a romantic comedy win Best Picture? Every year our high school students look at the summer reading list and say, “Is there anything on here that’s not depressing?” And the list is mostly adult books! (The answer, by the way, is definitely yes, but we had to add some lighter books deliberately for that reason, and they often aren’t “canon.”) Do we believe that it requires more skill to make someone cry than laugh? Is it more worthy to address painful subjects? Do we feel that stories have more truth if they end tragically with a touch of uplift? I’m asking these questions honestly; my mind’s not set here and I hope you’ll tell me what you think about my premise or the reasons behind it.
It does seem worth taking a look at our instinct, as gatekeepers, to recommend the intense Holocaust novel as “Literature” over the love story with a happy ending. If some kids at some moments need dark YA to save them (and I do believe that they do), they also sometimes need to be saved by a light or funny book about people whose lives aren’t perfect but mostly turn out all right. I know I do.