I just came home after a day out (my birthday, if you must know) and found out one of our authors was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article. Being someone who is always thrilled when someone gets publicity, I started to read. Unfortunately, Cheryl Rainfield (one of our new authors) got lumped in a category of YA books that are “dark” and “depressing.” Now I haven’t known Cheryl for very long, but so far her blogs are wonderful and she’s becoming a treasured member here. Yet it made me think about the current market of YA books about depressing versus nondepressing.
I should also admit my bias: I am writing a first draft of a novel concerning a real-life event. I don’t want to say too much about it, mostly because I don’t like talking about current projects too much. However I will say I’ve met people connected to this event and they’ve been lovely, plus I’m getting amazing feedback. But the event is pretty dark. It’s the kind of event that would make someone question their faith in God. Yet there’s something telling me that I need to write this story, I want to write this story. Also a dear friend is reading a novel of mine which concerns a young girl dealing when her father dies. Yeah, another chuckle-fest. Yet I’m hoping that it finds a home.
Whew! Okay, on to the blog:
When I was a freshman in high school, I read all of V.C. Andrews’s books. Ah yes, the Flowers in the Attic books where a family of four children were kept in an attic for two years by their evil family. Oh the hilarity! Yet it didn’t make me incredibly depressed or lock up a family in an attic (well, I didn’t have an attic); it made me think wow, thank God I don’t have a crazy grandmother. And let’s face it, the story was a bit twisted with, as Heidi Durrow pointed out in her NPR podcast, having Romeo and Juliet being brother and sister. Cue up the ick! And yet, I think I loved the V.C. Andrews books because they were so dark and twisted; they did make me feel like whew, my life might be pretty darn boring, but at least it’s not Twisted with a capital T.
Last year I read several of Ellen Hopkins's books. Hopkins has written about drug use (crank), child abuse, child prostitution, and incest. Oh yes, all Debbie Downers of topics. However, Hopkins is an amazing writer who can get into a teen’s head, shows what’s going on when they are going through terrible things. In Killing The Monster, an anthology Hopkins edited that’s related to her first book Crank, a judge wrote how the impact of Hopkins’ novels can help teenagers stay off drugs. I, for one, am going to give her books to my niece and nephews when they turn thirteen. A flair button on Facebook says it all: Ellen Hopkins is my anti-drug. And that’s the truth, Ruth.
Laurie Halse Anderson was in similar circumstances last year when her classic book Speak was a target of an editorial to be removed from a school library. After the editorial was published, the YA community—including here at Red Room—rose up to support Speak. Women spoke for the first time about being sexually abused. Girls wrote about how Speak helped them tell their parents that they, too, were raped. If the fact a book can help save someone, I really doubt it can be considered depressing.
One of the topics included mentioned in the article that was “depressing” is suicide. I’m not making light of this; except for the movie Heathers there aren't many funny teen suicide stories. (Although Heathers did provide the classic line “I love my dead gay son!”) And yet I think of when I was in a Young Adult writing workshop, starting my first YA novel project. There was another woman there as well. She was starting out in YA as well, and dagnabit, her first draft was beautifully done. Her name was Nina LaCour, and her book Hold Still has won the Northern California Book Award for Children's Literature and the ALA Best Book For Young Adults. And maybe somewhere, it might make a teenager feel less alone.
The WSJ story opens with a mother trying to find a book for her daughter, but who becomes frustrated when she sees “hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her," and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff." Okay. When I go to bookstores and see YA sections, I see some depressing covers. However, I see the beautiful pink covers of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries books, which are hysterical. I see Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice books, which can be funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I see Beverly Cleary’s Jean and Johnny, Fifteen, Sister of the Bride. I also see Anna Godbersen’s Luxe books about life in New York’s society at the turn of the century. For every “deperessing” book cover, I see another book that is funny. Maybe the woman asked the wrong bookseller at Barnes and Noble? Or maybe I should get another job at Barnes and Noble to help people?
Last week I had the honor to go to the Jonestown memorial dedication in Oakland. Joined by Red Roomers Katie Burke and Jane Hammons, I went wondering what to expect. I was the witness to Jonestown survivors Leslie Wagner-Wilson and Dawn Gardfrey speak, along with Tim Carter paying tribute to his family who also died in Jonestown. Relatives like Juanell Smart, Carolyn Moore, and John Cobb paid tribute to their families who died. There was raw grief on their faces, making them look vulnerable yet whole.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Hey Jennifer, what does this have to do with depressing YA books? I tell you this because the event wasn’t depressing. It was alive with people hugging, crying, laughing. Families rubbed relatives’ names with crayons. It felt like I was part of something beautiful, that healing was going on right before me.
And this is what good YA should be: it should, to quote Flannery O’Connor: raise (peoples’) senses tormented or spirits raised, to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence. It should make a teenager feel less alone. It is to, as Leonard Cohen put it, to ring them bells, for there are cracks everywhere but that’s how the light gets in. No matter what, authors should keep shining that light.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries