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[GUEST POST] Stina Leicht on The Prevalence of Dark YA Fiction

Stina Leicht‘s debut novel Of Blood and Honey, a historical Fantasy with an Irish Crime edge set in 1970s Northern Ireland, was released by Night Shade books in February 2011. She also has a flash fiction piece in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s surreal anthology Last Drink Bird Head.

The Prevalence of Dark YA Fiction

During the last panic over the dark trends in YA fiction, a few questions cropped up over and over: “Why are our kids are so attracted to dark literature? Why do they seem to think the older generation are out to get them? Or is this attitude merely being projected onto them?” I believe this trend in dark fiction for young adults happens for a reason, and yes, they do sense hostility from older generations. They’ve good reason for it. It exists.

Before I go much farther I want to point out that tension between generations is as old as humanity, and it isn’t worth panicking over. In fact, I seem to recall a certain older generation not that long ago shouting, “Never trust anyone over the age of thirty!” (Humans do have short memories, don’t they?) This is normal. Growing up is stressful and scary, and if YA literature is to remain relevant it should reflect that aspect of becoming an adult. Dark fiction aimed at teens is nothing new. One particular series, The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher, was a favorite of mine as a kid. In it, an alien race conquers the planet. They rule using mind-control devices implanted in humans at puberty. The process is called “capping” because it takes the form of a fine metal mesh surgically installed close to the scalp. Once capped, the person loses certain aspects of their personality so that they become more docile workers for the aliens. It obviously addressed my fears about becoming an adult. As a young girl I was quite aware that there were certain freedoms I’d have to give up when I became a woman. I was concerned I’d lose my identity and justly so, as it turned out.

Kids aren’t stupid, nor are they totally oblivious to what goes on in the world around them. Childhood has a frightening under-layer that adults tend to forget. It’s a mixture of powerlessness, frustration, and uncertainty, compounded by a lack of information–at least that’s what I remember. As adults we tend to forget what it was like to be told you could be anything, do anything and then be shown by the outside world that this simply isn’t true–not yet, certainly not easily and maybe not ever.

There is hard data to back up this point. A New York Times article analyzing United States Census data recently outlined the current financial crisis and the groups hardest hit. It illustrates in black and white that the younger generation’s fears of the older generation are justified. The part I want to draw your attention to is this:

“Perhaps no households have weathered the downturn better than those headed by people 65 and older, whose incomes rose 5.5 percent from 2007 to 2010. By contrast, household income for every other age group fell. Among people ages 15 to 24, it plunged 15.3 percent.”

Teens and young adults are among the hardest hit by the current economic downturn. I’d venture to say that they’re among the most effected during any economic downturn. I believe that darker fiction tends to trend during dark times because human beings often use storytelling to cope with reality. Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular are a terrific means of looking at the problem from various directions and thinking of solutions. If nothing else, it provides the hope that one can live through the worst. Certainly, every young adult is different, and dark fiction isn’t for everyone. However, such trends in general aren’t bad. It’s a means of expressing a very real fear.

8 Comments on [GUEST POST] Stina Leicht on The Prevalence of Dark YA Fiction

  1. If you hadn’t bolded that sentence about the economic downturn, I would have.  


    It’s important and overlooked.  It also explains why there are so many young people in these “occupy” demonstrations, but that’s not here or there.


    Fiction, especially genre fiction, tells us truths in a different form.  Have you heard Lev Grossman’s interview on Studio 360, where he explains that genre fiction is NOT escapism, but a way to present problems and issues of the real world in a different way? The prevalence of YA fiction in a dark mode is a reflection of that phenomenon, I think.

  2. Paul, I agree with you. While I feel there’s certainly a time and a place for escapism, I feel Sci-Fi and Fantasy are at their best when they address the real problems we face. A reading diet strictly comprised of escapism is like living on marshmallows alone–it isn’t healthy. And it makes me wonder about anyone who declares that Sci-Fi writers are falling down on the job because we aren’t 100% focused on being happy about the future. Obviously, I feel we need to invest some brain power in forward thinking. However, one should consider the era in which the “happy” Sci-Fi was born. The 1950s were a very different time for America, economically and politically. It’s important to remember that everything has a context. Anyway, I’ve not heard Lev Grossman’s interview. I’m going to hunt it down now. 

  3. I agree completely.  I learned very early in life not to trust bland reassurances.  As soon as somebody said, “There, there, everything is going to be all right,” I knew I was being lied to.  I read a lot of “suitable” stuff, simply because I read pretty much anything you gave me, but only the dark stuff rang true.  I realize that there are supposed to be limits on how dark (or at least how graphic) a story or film for the young should be, but it is difficult to draw the line between drawing limits & presenting a false optimisim. Kids (we didn’t call it YA then, & the target age range between kids & teens was often fuzzy) do smell lies.  They will not tell you they have noticed the lie.  They will just add it to the list of reasons you can’t trust adults.  All young distrust adults on one level–it’s almost like an instinctive awareness that they are not the same species–but you want to keep their list of reasons as short as possible, or you may not be able to win their trust back when they get older.

  4. Michaele, I hear you. There are times when “It’s going to be okay.” feels like you’re being told to stick your head in the sand. In such instances, you *should* be wary. On the other hand, there are also moments when you need to hear those words in order to bolster you courage and keep moving forward. Hard to tell when which is more appropriate. It’s situational–just as trusting adults is situational. These are things we all learn while growing up.

  5. I would have speculated that the hostility of the old toward the young had some unique aspects in this generation, unrelated to the depression.

    • Never before has mere selfishness and self-will been considered a legitimate and legitimizing reason for any human act. These days, it is commonplace to respect the choices of others, even when those choices are stupid or wicked. This atmosphere of moral anarchy lends itself to both the perception, and the reality, that the older generation cares more for itself than it does for the youth. Spending all the wealth of the young by running up intergenerational debt is merely a monetary example of this.
    • Never before have there been an organize faction of anti-child activists, both zero growth population advocates and people who just don’t like kids. Surely children notice this.
    • Never before has motherhood and childrearing been routinely and stereotypically presented as a grinding and unpleasant chore, if not outright slavery for women. Children, as you say, are not stupid, and notice that it is now commonplace to regard the sacred task of bearing and raising them as a malign chore. 
    • Never before has the divorce rate been so high. This act of plaing one’s self before one’s family is unprecendented in its popularity and in the absence of public approval. Children raised in single-parent households may well regard any fiction that does not portray the world as a scary and uncertain realm haunted by monsters as unrealistic.
    • Never before has there been so many childish and childlike adults. There are 30 and 40 year old men in this culture who act like children, and like spoilt children. They play children’s games and watch children’s cartoons and in several respect compete with children, occupying their same mental orbit, so to speak. This competition between overlarge and normal sized children may well spook the small children, or be interpreted as a sign of hostility.
    • Never before has such a concerted effort been made to force adulthood onto children at such young ages, especially when it comes to both sexuality and sexual perversity. Children are exposed to concepts and images and abominations at remarkably tender ages by rather self-righteous partisans who demand that the children of others be acculturalized to their worldview. But even without this, it is no longer the norm in this society to protect children from either news reports or from grotesque and graphic ideas and images which earlier generations would have sheilded them from. The result is that children are laden with burdens too heavy for them, ideas shocking to their young minds. This gives rise to the idea that the universe is dark and horrible.
    • Never before have so many children been so aware that their brothers and sisters were killed in the womb by their mother. They can easily imagine the baby that with joy and wonder they felt kicking in their mommy’s tummy, is now gone, and mommy is hollow-eyed, and for some reason little sister is never going to be born.  The thought surely occures to at least some of them ‘that could have been me. Mommy could have killed me.’ The legalistic distinction which says an undeveloped human is not a human is too nice and subtle to be clear or comforting to a child’s mind. 

    So while I would agree with the general point of the article, I would say that this antipathy between the older generation and the younger is indeed real, and is an outgrowth of the Culture of Death, and therefore morbid imagery has a greater sway over the imagination of the young than has been seen heretofore.


    John C. Wright

  6. John, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

  7. IN RE John and Stina’s disagreement, it might be interesting to look at YA fiction in the 1930s.  I don’t know how much SFF there was (the original Tom Swift series was even earlier than that, right?  So there must have been some.  Sorry for my ignorance), but that period had more of the economic trouble Stina describes with less of the personal trouble John describes.

     I have no idea, but surely some reader here can help out.  How dark was 1930s YA SFF? 

  8. George, YA as we understand it is a recent phenomenom. Young Adult is transitional literature–that’s why it’s called “Young Adult” and not “Children’s.” It’s intended for young people who will soon be adults. Therefore, it touches on adult topics that are effecting them and/or will soon effect them. That transition stage wasn’t available when I was a kid. When you outgrew the children’s books, you moved to adult books–which is why I read Dickens, Twain, Poe, Bradbury and so on when I was twelve.

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