Youth Fiction Takes a Stark, Eerie Turn: Literature for Teens Is Full of Images of Rape, Demons, Torture and More

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It's a hard, cruel world out there in books for the younger set.

Although fantasy epics such as the vastly popular Harry Potter volumes are getting all the attention, the trend this decade has been stark, reality-based fiction.

Teen-age literature, termed "young adult" for those 12 and over, is full of adult themes such as gangs, rape, mental illness, animal torture and demon possession.

Ann Tobias, a children's book agent based in Arlington, calls them "four D books" - about death, divorce, drugs or dismemberment.

"Teen-agers love to read them because they're so miserable," she says.

"I think a lot of kids do read this stuff," says Dan Dailey, publisher of the children's book review journal Five Owls.

"A friend of mine scoured the news reports of all these schoolyard killings, looking for common denominators. In every case, the one constant he came up with was: There was no significant adult taking a positive role in the child's life. "What that says to me is that so many kids are isolated."

Thanks to the hip-talking J.K. Rowling, the 34-year-old British author of the Harry Potter series, children's book authors are increasingly seen as players in the book world.

Which means the race is on to figure out what the teen set is really thinking and feeling.

Much has changed in children's literature since the days of Dr. Doolittle and his talking animals. Children's books are a universe of more than 5,000 titles a year churned out by fewer than 100 publishers for 72 million Americans 18 years and under. The most popular children's books - such as those of Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" - stay in print for decades.

"Harry Potter has been an interesting phenomenon," says Cathi Dunn MacRae, editor of Voice of Youth Advocates magazine in Lanham. "It appeals to a wide variety of ages even though it was meant for 8-12 year olds. Now it's really hot to read Harry Potter if you're 17 or 18."

Kids still love fantasy, she reports; that is, "anything with quests in them." Children love a protagonist who triumphs over the adult world. Occasionally Harry Potter will have an adult mentor or helper but usually the adults are not there or they are befuddled or helpless.

"Escapism is great and the Harry Potter books are absolute fun but you can't wave a wand or fly on a broomstick to solve your problems," says Mr. Dailey. "Writers for young adults really need to show kids creative solutions. Kids are not hopeless unless you let them be that way."

The balance between fantasy, where nothing is real, and reality fiction, which can be too real, marks a tough balancing act for authors. Sometimes children's views of reality are misinformed, reports Beverly Mefferd, a children's library assistant at Mary Riley Styles Library in Falls Church.

"Kids consider the problems of racial harmony as ancient history," she says. "They don't consider [racism] to be a problem now. They firmly think this was in the past."

But they are aware of other problems. Consider a 1998 book by Virginia Walter.

"Making Up Megaboy" is about a 13-year-old boy who calmly walks into an inner-city grocery and kills its elderly Korean owner. A cast of narrators - the newspaper reporter, the cop, the social worker, a teacher and his junior high friends - cannot fathom why the boy shot someone he didn't know.

The murderer, who remains silent, simply draws sketches of Megaboy, an imaginary superhero. All the police can determine is the boy longs for his parents to rescue him. …