Recently shopping for a book that my 16 year old niece and I could enjoy reading together, I noticed the obvious. 90% of the covers in the two long Young Adult aisles were black and red. Mostly black with blood and lipstick accents. There was a little white too. Fangs.
They weren’t all vampire stories. Closer inspection revealed monsters, zombies and my personal favorite, End of the World sci-fi. Seeking something a little more Judy Blumey (or in current day terms, Sarah Desseny), I lifted some brighter hued covers to learn that one of the MTV reality show contrivances of fame is churning out publications — the likes of which are, in my eyes, more grim than zombies and equally apocalyptic. Why do I say that? I don’t know. I shouldn’t judge things I refuse to read.
I ended up with a poorly written remake of Jane Eyre that I just couldn’t resist. I’ll zip through it and then get over my laziness and reread the actual classic.
The question remained: What’s up with this onslaught of brooding teen fiction? Is it my imagination or is something going on? Could the two wars and inflated materialism in our country actually be bubbling into teen pop culture?
I asked a friend of mine who teaches literature at a university and she pointed out that the NY Times had just addressed the trend in an article the other day. (I felt a tad smug for keeping in time with the Times.) Check out: New York Times>Opinion Pages – December 26, 2010 – The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction.
The piece includes a spot-on comment from Scott Westerfeld, whose trilogy starting with “Uglies” delighted me years ago (also with my niece). He says, “What is the apocalypse but an everlasting snow day? An excuse to tear up all those college applications, which suddenly aren’t going to determine the rest of your life?” Right?
It reminds me of a sentiment I had when I was particularly miserable working as a visual effects producer for one of my least favorite employers. While driving in to the office one day I realized I had a deep wish that there would be a fairly strong earthquake to prevent me from having to face my job. It didn’t take too long before I recognized my power in being able to make a career shift; a sudden rescue via natural disaster would not be needed.
For teenagers, though, there is a degree of genuine powerlessness that only aging can resolve. Escapism through story is not only a natural response, it’s healthy. And the best stories have always been wrought with frights and danger.
In Chris Cleave’s beautiful novel “Little Bee”, the title character says, “Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it. For me and the girls from my village, horror is a disease and we are sick with it. It is not an illness you can cure yourself of by standing up and letting the big red cinema seat fold itself up behind you.”
When I look at it that way, maybe all the blood and undeath rolled into our teen angsty soap operas is a sign of how safe things remain for most American kids.