Magazine article Insight on the News

Youth Fiction Takes a Stark, Eerie Turn

Magazine article Insight on the News

Youth Fiction Takes a Stark, Eerie Turn

Article excerpt

It's a hard, cruel world out there, judging by books aimed at the younger set. Literature for teens is full of rape, torture, demons and more -- a trend that has dominated the last decade.

Although fantasy epics like the vastly popular Harry Potter volumes are getting all the attention, the trend in teen-age literature has been toward stark, reality-based fiction. "Young-adult" books, or books aimed at readers 12 years old and over, consistently explore themes such as rape, mental illness and murder.

"Teen-agers love to read them because they're so miserable," says Ann Tobias, a children's book agent based in Arlington, Va., about "four-D books" -- her term for novels of death, divorce, drugs or dismemberment.

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

"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 Dan Dailey, publisher of the children's book-review journal Five Owls. "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, is a tough balancing act for authors. "A friend of mine scoured the news reports of all these schoolyard killings, looking for common denominators," says Dailey. "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."

Consider Making Up Megaboy (DK Publishing, $16.95, 64 pp), a 1998 book by Virginia Walter. The novel concerns 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, although they suspect he longs for his parents. The murderer, who remains silent, simply draws sketches of Megaboy, an imaginary superhero. …

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