(I originally wrote this from a bookseller's perspective for something else. However, we decided not to comment on the article after all, so I'm posting it here instead. What have been your thoughts on this issue?)
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal printed an article on young adult fiction that I assume was meant to be provoking. Filled with gross generalizations and fairly extreme examples, the article titled Darkness Too Visible basically complains that nearly all books published for teens today are filled with dark topics that leave teens with nothing to read. (In the interest of space, I am grossly oversimplifying the author's argument. I highly encourage everyone to draw their own conclusions by reading the article themselves here.) According to the author, teen fiction has become "So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18."
What teen section is this woman shopping in?
I read literally hundreds of books a year, most of them teen or upper middle-grade. (I am not exaggerating. On a good day with no interruption, I can read three full teen novels in a 10 hour period.) I don't like books with kids getting molested, or that have incest, or include gory, unnecessary violence, so I don't read books like that. Yet, I still manage to read tons of books every year.
Of course, I'm not saying those dark books aren't out there. Problem novels have been a staple of the YA cannon since the genre was first identified 40 years ago. And I'm also not saying that some of those problem novels aren't graphic or dealing with some difficult topics. If the topics seem more gruesome today, it's because they are no longer quite as taboo as they once were. Incest and child molestation has always existed, but people often (especially in the past) refuse to talk or acknowledge it. Teens cut themselves, fight addiction, deal with eating disorders and homosexuality. It may not be commonplace, but for the teens experiencing these problems, the pain is very real. However, nowadays people are better informed about these topics, both the causes and the effects. It's less surprising that such subjects now find their way into a very small portion of YA literature. After all, all literature is a reflection of the society which creates it. YA literature is no exception.
But despite the ever present problem novel and the current vogue for dystopic fiction (not even mentioned in the article), a majority of teen fiction does not fall in the "dark" but "light" category. After all, many readers, especially avid ones in my experience, read books for the fun escape, and these dark, hard-hitting books are not exactly "fun". They can be moving, gut-wrenching, or chilling, but they are rarely "fun". So, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite teen books that are fabulous reads about utterly frivolous subjects.
(Unlike the Wall Street Journal, I have not divided these books by sex. Many of these books can be equally enjoyed by boys or girls.)
The Gallagher Girls Series -- Starting with I'd Tell You That I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You, this fun adventure series centers on a group of girls at a school for spies.
The Heist Society Series -- Also by Ally Carter, I always handsell this one as "a teen's Ocean Eleven." Yes, it's about kids that are international art thieves, but the books are just so darn cool.
A Brief History of Montmaray -- I'm not normally a huge historical fiction fan, but this book and its sequel are fantastic. Set on the fictional island kingdom of Montmaray just before the outbreak of World War II, the teens on it try to save their home (and lives) from Nazis.
Before I Fall -- On the surface this would seem like a dark book since it's about a girl who dies in a car accident, but as the main character relives the last day of her life over and over, she grows and changes so much that the book is just amazing.
Death Cloud -- I'm a sucker for a good mystery, and this first in a new teen Sherlock Holmes series is just good, clean fun. Yes, it's a murder mystery, but in an adventure, not gory kind of way.
A Matter of Magic -- I love books where an author takes our world and its history and then tweaks it in some way. In this book (which is really two novels packaged in one), Wrede writes two great adventures set in a Victorian London with magic. I also really like her similar Sorcery & Cecelia novels that she co-wrote with Stevermer.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones -- She is marvelous; she is brilliant. She also recently died, so there won't be any more new books from her -- something my co-workers are tired of me bemoaning. Two of my favorites are Howl's Moving Castle and its companions and Dark Lord of Derkholm and its companion.