Sex and Drugs and Violence — Oh My! 

Has teen fiction always been this dark? Or have adults just started noticing?

Tender Morsels, a recent novel from the respected literary publisher Alfred A. Knopf, features a teen protagonist who is molested and induced to miscarry by her father, and later gang-raped by a local group of boys. She escapes with her two children to a fantastical other world. "Now, doesn't that sound like an R movie?" posits Trevelyn Jones, Book Review Editor of the School Library Journal.

What's surprising isn't the dark subject matter, but that Tender Morsels is a young adult novel, which means that the book's targeted readership are teens generally between the ages of thirteen through seventeen — a demographic that wouldn't be admitted without parental consent into an R-rated film.  

As it turns out, Tender Morsels is one of Jones' favorite young adult novels of the year. "It's basically about what it means to be human, in spite of what you have been through in your past," she observes of Australian writer Margo Lanagan's story, a reinterpretation of the fairy tale Snow White.

In a year when a film like Twilight, based on Stephanie Meyer's sensuous young adult novel about a relationship between a teenage girl and a vampire, racks in unexpected sales at the box office, it's hard not to notice the dark content matter of contemporary teen fiction. Among the top entries in Publishers Weekly's October 2008 bestsellers list for Children's Fiction: There's Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, a novel set in a futuristic world where teens participate in deadly televised competitions. Or Ellen Hopkins' Identical, in which one sixteen-year-old is sexually abused by her district court judge father.

But teen fiction has always been dark, argues author Cassandra Clare, who penned The New York Times bestselling novel City of Bones, part of her futuristic young adult fantasy trilogy about demon hunters. "Kids have always loved dark stuff," Clare says. "Books about death, books about bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes, books about dead animals and terrible ghastly illnesses — I read all that stuff as a teen."

If there's anything different now about dark teen lit, Clare see a new attitude emerging toward the content matter. "What we have now that strikes me as a newish trend is a lot of romanticization of darkness and monstrosity," she says. "Vampires aren't scary now, they're sexy."

But another, more defining trend is that young adult fiction has overlapped beyond its originally intended market. "I think that the biggest difference is that teen fiction has recently been very successful, which has made people more aware of it," says Holly Black, author of acclaimed teen urban fantasy series called The Modern Faerie Tales (and co-author of the popular children's series The Spiderwick Chronicles). In an era when book publishers are making cutbacks to their release lists, the young adult market has seen notable growth. "The publishing in that area has just mushroomed," observes Jones, "so naturally there are more [dark novels], but there's just more of everything in the YA area."

And who's picking up on what the kids are reading these days? Adults. "I can't tell you how many adults I see on the subway reading Twilight," Jones chuckles. Clare points to the success of series like Twilight and Harry Potter, both of which have been made into film franchises, as possible reasons that adults have started reading teen titles. "I just think that now adults are picking these books up and noticing," Clare says.

In fact, Library Journal recently started a column called "35 Going on 13," which lists select teen novels that adults would also be interested in, with a explanation of "Why It Is for Us." In one instance, the column notes why Jack Gantos' The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, a gothic novel of an obsessive mother-daughter relationship, would be suited for grown-ups: "This book is almost too subversive for teen readers, who are more concerned than we are with what the neighbors will think."

The reviews in the School Library Journal make a point to flag any releases that contain more mature content, in part to assist school librarians when they are put in the difficult position of defending certain titles to parents. If there's anything that bothers parents about what the kids are reading these days, it seems to be language and sex. "Interestingly enough, nobody ever complains about violence," Jones observes. "Somebody is beaten to a bloody pulp, and that's just fine. But put in a four-letter word or mention sex, and some people go berserk."

Still, Jones argues that if there's any medium to tackle dark subject matter, literature is the best place for it. "In a book, your choice of words can leave some to the imagination and still make it appropriate for a young audience," says Jones in her comparison of books and films. "So it's a whole different thing from what you have to show and what you can tell without becoming sensational." While Tender Morsels might sound shockingly mature in a quick plot synopsis, Jones counters, "But it is done so well that it works."

Black argues that the reading choices of teens should be respected. "I do think that it's important to note that teen fiction must speak to the real concerns of teenagers, or they will choose to read something else," Black says. "Teenagers have to make choices about drugs and sex and lots of other things that adults may be uncomfortable acknowledging, but literature must."

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