Many parents of teenagers express to me their concerns about the darker themes cropping up in young adult fiction (or “YA” for short) in the past years. The concern that I often get from parents of teenagers is that while they are overjoyed their child is using a screen to read a book and not to secretly Snapchat, they are often left worrying if some of the themes are too adult for their teenagers.
YA has an interesting history and has transformed over the years. It is an ever-evolving genre that often reflects the larger conflicts of our times. Remember back to your favorite books from your teenage years. The books that you liked most often reached you because they reflected an experience that you may have had, wish you had or wish that you could forget. S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) is often thought of as the first young adult novel, and one that began the foray into treating teenage characters as important people with depth and substance.
For a while, the re-imagining of older fantasy themes was present in YA fiction in the popular form of Zombie apocalypses (a search of a YA zombie books brings up 237 books published in the last few years) and vampire sagas (the Twilight series and its thousand derivatives). While those YA novels took place in fantasy worlds but dealt with relatable teenage subjects, such as bullying, romance, sexuality, maturity, and morality, there has recently been a shift in YA fiction to more directly address intense teenage themes matter-of-factly and realistically.
Some of the most popular recent YA novels in the last years include Jon Asher’s novel about suicide, Thirteen Reasons Why, and Speak by Lauri Halse Anderson, which deals with sexual assault. Books like these may represent a shift towards a culture more open to speaking about mental health issues and sexual violence. These stories and others like them deal with issues like suicidal thinking, self-harm, addiction, sexual consent and sexual assault. For adolescents who may be vulnerable to depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, if they are also prone to reading, they may even be drawn to these novels to help them process and understand their own thoughts and feelings.
As Gayle Forman, a YA novelist, said so well, “It is the business of books to explore these themes, and the business of teenagers, too. Is it any wonder that they want books to help process what they’re experiencing around them, often for the first time?” And, as we say in the field of psychiatry, it’s best to process with others like a parent, therapist, supportive group or even a close and kind friend.
The prevailing idea about YA literature and this idea of ‘processing’ is that through a teen’s working to understand a character they can gain helpful emotional insight into themselves. They can then learn how to put into words their own experiences or the experiences of those around them.
Most readers crave to talk about what they are reading. Reading may seem like a solo activity, but as soon as two people begin talking about a book, it becomes a social one. If a novel has content about self-harm behaviors, addiction or sexuality, it’s best to address those themes with your teenager with a curious mind into how they experience what they are reading. And, be open to hearing their answers. The honest, non-lecturing, and “taking-them-seriously” attitude is why they may turn to (and keep reading) those YA books in the first place. Within these books is a hint about how teenagers want to be talked to, understood and treated.
Sara Powlowski, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She is currently a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Resident Representative for the AACAP Child Maltreatment and Violence Committee.