WARNING: The following post contains spoilers on the following books: “Swoon” by Nina Malkin, “Evermore” by Alyson Noel, “Valiant” by Holly Black, “Hush, Hush” by Becca Fitzpatrick, “Speak”, “Wintergirls” and “Twisted” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott and “Hooked” by Les Edgerton. Proceed at your own risk.
The biggest irony of YA – you write about teens, but you’re not allowed to write for teens. I already talked about this at length in my Morals, Values and other Capitalizations piece, and my opinion stays the same: If you stuff your children in grown-up clothes and encumber them with your grown-up expectations, you have no right to get indignant if a YA book contains the f-bomb, or if two teens engage into something more than chaste hand-holding.
But let us ignore the sex topic for now. Instead, let’s take a look at other things that make YA books “edgy”. More specifically, I’d like to talk about how alcoholism, drugs, bullying and other similar are being treated in YA books.
Last month, I read Nina Malkin’s “Swoon”, and while I loved the story, I kept going back to that part: The heroine and her cousin talk about sex, and her cousin compares it to doing coke – the first line was amazing, but every one after that was chasing the feeling of the first. Now, she’s not a drug addict in the book, but I wondered: is that plausible? I mean, that’s what they tell us at school, right – one is all it takes. It got me thinking about the times when I read a book where heroes get high, but then seemingly walk it off without that many consequences, and I wondered why it contradicts what we were taught about drugs.
To bring up another example, I’d like to talk about a book I personally detest more than any other one in the YA Paranormal genre. Now, I usually don’t hate on books – I might not like them, but it’s never personal. But “Evermore”, in my eyes, is worse than any other book I’ve read of this genre. Worse than “Twilight”. Worse than “Hush, Hush”. Worse than “Wings” and “Fallen” and “Halo”. This book represents all that is wrong with this genre – from the stalking hero, through the useless friends, to the whitewashed, privileged heroine who can’t even pick her nose without help. What enrages me most, though, is that after the heroine finally breaks up with her stalker boyfriend, she turns into an alcoholic.
This is wrong on so many levels, not just because it highlights how codependent Ever’s relationship is, but also because it is completely redundant. At least Bella’s jumping off cliffs moved the plot, such as it was, forward. Ever’s alcoholism doesn’t really make an impact on the plot, and after a few pages, she completely shrugs it off like it’s nothing and drives over to a party to save her friends. There are hardly any repercussions for her actions, and she doesn’t seem to suffer the consequences from her addiction.
Perhaps I am not fair, since I haven’t read any of the sequels and don’t know if this problem resurfaces, but let’s face it: Alcoholism is a serious affliction. Forget the physical repercussions – there is a good reason why most people turn to the bottle, and that reason often persists even after you get over the physical need. It’s something that needs to be addressed, and the fact that Ever barely considers the consequences of her actions on her family and friends pretty much told me everything I needed to know about her character.
This is something which comes up every once in a while when I read books – a problem like alcoholism, drug addiction, parental abandonment and child abuse are just thrown into the story without having any greater significance to the plot other than just being there. It’s the same in “Swoon”. It’s the same in “Valiant” by Holly Black, where protagonist Valerie gets addicted to a faerie drug dubbed ‘Nevermore’, but gets over it pretty quickly. Actually, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for “Valiant”, not least because I quite enjoyed that book and because I think it was well thought of, even if it lacked in execution.
To a much higher degree, we have this problem in Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Hush, Hush”, where Patch, the designated love interest, repeatedly threatens and sexually harasses Nora, our protagonist. Many reviewers have commented on the deplorable way Patch treats Nora and how his behavior perpetuates rape culture, but to me (at least at first), this faucet of his character didn’t invest me emotionally. One of the downsides of reading too much Paranormal YA is that after a while all books look the same to you; I’d seen the cover and read the synopsis – I’d gotten the gist of the story. Since Patch was obviously the hero, I didn’t believe for a minute that his behavior was NOT disguising underlying attraction or that Nora was in actual danger, and I don’t think I’m the only reader who was tricked into liking the book by this false sense of security that surrounds the whole genre. No matter how dark and grimy things get, you always know that everything is going to be fine.
Is all YA like that? No, of course not. Pick up any novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. “Speak” is about the aftermath of rape. “Wintergirls” describes the heroine’s journey through anorexia. “Twisted” is about a boy who wants to fit in, but can’t, and constantly has to fight anger and depression. In essence, all of those are ‘issue’ books, but the subject matter is always handled with respect and intelligence, in a way that suggests the author understands just what she’s writing about and doesn’t just use it as a plot device in her novel.
Another example of a YA which knows what it’s doing is “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott, a truly terrifying novel that sent me hiding under the covers with my thumb in my mouth. Seriously: Don’t go reading this if you’re depressed, it will not help your case.
The difference between those two kinds of novels I just described lies in the kind of problems these are. According to Les Edgerton, author of “Hooked”, there are two kinds of problems – a story-worthy one and a surface one. A novel’s plot is made up of many small surface problems, which the protagonist overcomes in his quest to deal with the story-worthy problem. What “Swoon” and “Evermore” do with their ‘edgy’ issues is make them handy plot devices, or surface problems at best, with little or no impact to the characters’ lives.
Compare this to “Wintergirls”, where Lia’s descend into anorexia is shown in such a visceral way that the reader gets pulled into her head. Anderson writes it in such a way that it literally shows how Lia is constantly correcting herself, suppressing her desires, silencing her reason. Or “Living Dead Girl”, where Elizabeth Scott shows the complete deterioration of Alice’s morals, and brings her to the point where she would do anything, and I mean anything, to escape.
“Living Dead Girl” makes an impact because it holds up a mirror to the reader and shows them just what can happen to your soul when you’re thrust into a living hell. On the other hand, having characters who can shrug off alcoholism or shoot lines without repercussions isn’t edgy. If anything, it’s lazy writing. It shows you’d rather have your protagonist do something edgy for a few pages, thus adding some shock value to the novel, than exploring their character and how their actions affect them. As readers, we ask ourselves: “Ok, that happened. So what?”
I’m not saying that all protagonists in YA should be straight edge, clean cut, happy-go-lucky, perfectly adjusted SWASPs. Quite the contrary – the more complex the characters, the better is a novel for me. But don’t just throw in addictions for the sake of it – show us how they affect the characters, and how they react. This is essentially why we read stories – to get a glimpse from another person’s reality and see how they live through it.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? How edgy would you like your YA to be? Do you think there's a line between realism and gratuism? And, for that matter, do you think every book with a teen protagonist should be labeled as YA? Do you think the label "Young Adult" signifies the rating of the book (like PG, PG-13), or the intended audience?