Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Let Them Read Books: Dark and Violent Young Adult Fiction Opens Teens' Eyes to Real-World Issues

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Let Them Read Books: Dark and Violent Young Adult Fiction Opens Teens' Eyes to Real-World Issues

Article excerpt

In 2012, exactly two weeks after Trayvon Martin was shot to death for being young and black and wearing a hoodie, I sat in a dark theater watching children as young as 13 years old kill each other in The Hunger Games. While the movie hit a little too close to home, that didn't seem to be the case for the room packed with teenagers, who broke out in cheers every time another contestant fell by the wayside, leaving Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the movie's heroes, one step closer to victory.

Shortly thereafter, I brought up my experience to a room full of youth ministers. I asked them if they were having these conversations with their students about violence in pop culture. How did they help kids interpret a world that held both Trayvon Martin and The Hunger Games? Their responses ranged from, "What's The Hunger Games," to "I didn't realize that was so violent. I'm not going to let my kids see/read that!" No one had the answer to my question, which was how to respond to these hard questions in a way that makes sense to young adults.

No one can deny that most of the popular literature for young adults portrays a dark world--darker, perhaps, than the world in which we want our children to believe.

I remember reading The Outsiders in middle school and sobbing when Johnny said goodbye to Ponyboy in the hospital, as he lay dying from a broken back and third-degree burns. But the book also taught me about class conflict, family, and friendship. It taught me that growing up is hard, but it's something we all have to do, in one way or another. After all, as the poem by Robert Frost attests, "nothing gold can stay."

Today's teenagers are reading The Hunger Games, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Divergent ... the list goes on and on. And it's understandable parents' and educators' first reactions are often to protect children from difficult issues. We don't always want kids reading about sexual violence, racism, drug abuse, and murder, much less facing these problems in real life.

In April 2015, the American Library Association released a list of the most frequently challenged books in the country. These are books that parents, teachers, and government bodies most often protested against including in library collections, mostly school libraries, although public and academic libraries are no strangers to criticism either. Eight out of the 10 are books aimed at children and young adults. The reasons given included the portrayal of violence, sexism, drug and alcohol abuse, language, suicide, and homosexuality. But is taking these books out of the libraries really protecting children and young adults?

Teenagers today live in a world where they have to face these issues. They live in a world where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin can be shot on his way home from the convenience store. According to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 13 young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 are killed every day.

Another study, this one conducted by the United States Department of Justice in 2014, found that 1 out of every 9 girls under age 18 is sexually abused by an adult. Pretending these issues don't exist in literature will neither solve these problems in real life nor give kids the resources they need to survive.

When done well, literature provides a lens through which to interpret the world around us. Young adult literature is no different; it allows teenagers a way to make sense of the world in which they live. Teenagers don't have to suffer horrific abuse to feel alone in the world; this is a fact of teenage existence in many ways, and books give them a way out and a hope for the future.

In an essay titled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood," Sherman Alexie (the author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) writes, "I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life. …

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