Into the Dark for children’s Lit

CJ Skuse stitches them, Melvin Burgess kills them and Matt Whyman eats them

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival, I attended a talk titled: Truth, Lies and Death – an interview of three very talented authors: CJ Skuse (Dead Romantic), Melvin Burgess (The Hit) and Matt Whyman (The Savages).

For the sake of differentiation, their novels were quickly boiled down to: CJ Skuse stitches them, Melvin Burgess kills them and Matt Whyman eats them. Such is the fate of characters in their recent novels released for young adult readers.  All of the novels deal with death to some degree but don’t be put off, the prose of all three books is frequently humorous and the narrative – without over-egging it – has solid values at its core.

Over the last decade or so, teen fiction has been said to have become increasingly dark. The themes explored are often related to life’s harsher and more painful experiences and whether we like it or not these are the topics that fascinate the young adult reader. The teen wants to know about death, love/sex, relationships and drugs. Are these topics too dark for a young audience? Or as journalist, Meghan Cox Gurdon puts it, are books covering self-harm, dystopian futures and violence normalizing pathology? Anyone who says yes must be deluded, no? Our youth are expected to choose the curriculum that will shape their education and possibly their future but we cannot trust them to consider difficult topics such as death and drugs without them going off the rails?

Teens live in the now; their reactions to life are rarely seen through the veil of consequence. What novels that investigate these issues do, is take them through that veil, makes them live these decisions through fictional characters, characters with whom they can identify. Melvin Burgess’ novel, The Hit, uses a very clever device that brings the idea of consequence to the reader in the form of a drug called Death. The pill once taken gifts the recipient with super-youth; allows them to achieve their full potential as a human but only for one week, the catch is that after the end of this week, the recipient dies.

The Hit by Melvin Burgess (Chicken House)
The Hit by Melvin Burgess (Chicken House)

CJ Skuse’s novel sees her protagonist create the perfect boyfriend (ala Frankenstein) by taking body parts from already dead boys, allowing her character to fulfill her every wish with regards to image alone. But once the perfect boy is built, will she, in the end, be satisfied or will she discover more about life, friendship and herself in the process?

Dead Romantic by CJ Skuse (Chicken House)
Dead Romantic by CJ Skuse (Chicken House)

Some people are worried that their teens are too influenced by the somewhat dominant boyfriend figure that has cropped up in novels such as, Twilight that apparently reduces the heroine to a simpering bag of hormones. These censorship criers are concerned that their daughters will think that it is normal to have a boyfriend who is controlling, dangerous or manipulative. I would hope not! I know that I read Wuthering Heights when I was fourteen, where the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff could not be considered anything but destructive. The attraction of reading such a book was the doomed romance that both characters shared but at no stage did I wander out into the Irish countryside searching for a hotheaded, moody and manipulative Heathcliff of my own.

One of the biggest teen sensations on TV at the time was ‘My so called Life’ a series starring Clare Danes that charted the trials of teenage life as experienced by ‘Angela’. What engaged me was the intensity of emotions that the characters portrayed and of course, Jared Leto who starred as Angela’s love interest. The characters on the show frequently sneaked out to go to raves or alcohol fuelled parties but I know the only way it affected my life was a bad red hair dye, which you know, I would have probably experimented with anyway.

It is easy to forget the ‘adult’ in our young adults and easy to ask others to take the responsibility of censoring what they might see, hear or do but most of these novels help many young adults understand that when they feel strong emotions or when life throws hard choices at them that they are not alone and importantly because their themes spark curiosity, these novels keep our young adults reading.

Just as I was creating this post, two new articles quoting two very experienced children’s authors came to my attention. Here is what they have to say (click links to read):

Let the children read the books they love says Neil Gaiman.

Don’t be afraid of writing for children says John Boyne.

Olivia Kiernan is author of novel, Dawn Solstice

Follow on twitter: @LivKiernan

On facebook: Olivia Kiernan (Author)

Dawn Solstice


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