When I was young there was no such thing as YA. You simply went from reading children’s novels to reading adult novels. So one year I was reading Tove Jansson and the next year I was reading Stephen King.
When I was a "young adult" of 13 I read Stephen King a lot. Reading novels like Christine and The Shining didn’t feel like other kinds of reading. Up until then I had thought of books as something very good for me, like All Bran for the mind. I had liked books, but I had always read things that my parents or teachers would have approved of and therefore I felt that books belonged to that world – the world of school and education and parental approval.
But Stephen King novels were something else. They were more like rock music or scary movies. The kind of thing that could get you into trouble, and that could entertain and thrill in illicit ways. Mainly though, they were dark.
There has been a lot of discussion about darkness and YA this year. Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie for his (admittedly bleak) The Bunker Diary. And the likes of John Green and Lauren Oliver have turned death and dying into commercial gold. I suppose the archetypal YA novel now is something like Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay, in which the narrator hovers between life and death following a car crash.
Now personally I am not always a fan of this romanticising of death. It seems a bit naff to me, a bit emo and unreal and sometimes unintentionally silly. But that’s just me. And there is a lot of great dark stuff that teenagers love, too. My all-time favourite teenage book is Bridge to Terabithia, which is sentimental but in a way that feels very real.
The fact that there is still this debate over YA darkness shows that some people still feel there are certain things teenagers shouldn’t read. There is still, in other words, a kind of missionary do-goodiness lurking out there among some gatekeepers. And that’s fine, but the thing to remember is that the world now is one of instant access. Teenagers watch and listen to all kinds of things. It is the nature of being a teenager to seek out intense stuff. Stuff about death and sex and love and fear. Teenagers are the bravest, most curious, most philosophical, most open-minded readers there are, which is why so many less-than-young adults like writing for them.
If we ever head down the American path of banning certain books, or turning the editorial process into one of censorship, we will risk turning teens off books, and sending them elsewhere – to their X-Boxes, for instance. To the internet. And they won’t ever come back to books.
We need to understand that children’s stories have always been dark – see the Brothers’ Grimm, for instance. And while certain conservative-minded people have always liked to point the finger at certain art forms (rap music, for instance) as scapegoats for problems in society, I think this spectacularly misses the point. The world is messed up. For teenagers these days, facing worse job prospects than the two generations before them, in a world that seems to look scarier by the day, they need stories that reflect this.
Just as people like to listen to the blues when they are sad, they like to explore dark stories in dark times. Teenagers can often handle these dark subjects better than we can. We shouldn’t patronise them. Let art live, and let readers find the stories they want to read. There aren’t any fences to the imagination, and so there shouldn’t be any for books. If book-reading teenagers are going to become book-reading adults they need to feel like there is a book out there to match their every mood. However intense and dark that mood may be. Stories are a comfort, they help us handle reality. If we won’t allow the darkest stories, we are stopping that comfort – the comfort of experience, echoed – when it is needed most.
Matt Haig is the author of several books for children, teenagers and adults including Echo Boy and The Humans.