Walking the tightrope, toeing the line – YA and the duty of care

Of all the myths and misconceptions about YA, few are quite as pervasive as the idea that every YA book is one of two things: fluffy and trivial or dark and depressing. For every thinkpiece deriding adults for reading silly YA stories and therefore somehow dumbing down literature as an art form, there is another article wringing its hands that YA is “too dark”. Plenty of journalists and commentators have spent earnest paragraphs trying to decide once and for all what counts as “too dark” for teenagers, as if that darkness is something that exists only within the pages of books; that the power to shield young people from emotional traumas belongs to writers and librarians and booksellers.

Even if YA books about depression, suicide, drug use, murder, death and rape ceased to exist, these things will still happen in real life. To teenagers. Teenagehood is essentially an isolating experience, even for the most social of young people, and experiences like mental illness or personal trauma only exacerbate this. We know that young people who are suffering seek out stories that speak to them; depressed teenagers read books about depressed teenagers; suicidal teens will read books about suicidal teens, and so on. They are looking for reflections of their lives and experiences; they are looking, consciously or not, for guidance; hope; answers. Denying them this need is just another way of turning our backs on suffering under the guise of protection.

The duty of care within YA is a contentious issue in and of itself, with some arguing it is a necessity unique to authors of books for children and teenagers, while others say that writers should have the freedom to express topics without worrying about gatekeepers. It is my view that both of these things are true; the answer is, as so often, a bit of both.

The heart of the solution is, to my mind, truth. Writing is all about the truth of experience, whether or not it is in a book about a young wizard, a roof-skipping orphan girl or a teenage assassin in an imagined royal court. Stories come to life when they feel real, and this is the case for all genres and age ranges of books. It is this very thing that causes such problems in so-called “issue books”. If you are writing about suicide, how truthful should you be? Does a duty of care mean you are duty-bound to write a happy ending? Are you failing your readers if you don’t?

Suicide in YA has been something of a trend over the last couple of years, with books like All The Bright Places, I Was Here and My Heart And Other Black Holes all dealing with the subject in very different ways. They tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Will this character die?
  • This character’s friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/family member has already died and this is the aftermath.

The former is by the far the most popular, for the simple reason that it tends to make a better page-turner. It’s also a nice formula for a twist. Ha! You thought she’d die, didn’t you? Gotcha. Oh, you thought he’d live? Surprise! Enjoy your tears.

If done right, these books can cut like a knife – in a good way. If you’ve experienced these kinds of thoughts, reading them in someone else’s mind can make you feel less alone, even as it hurts. Through the character’s experience, you can begin to recognise the possibility you have in your own life; how you could do things differently. This can change a teenager’s whole life.

Done wrong, these books can read like how-to manuals or exercises in emotional manipulation. They can feel cheap, cruel or even downright dangerous. You imagine a lonely teen, arms scarred, head full of pills and razors, reading a book about suicide and finding only hopeless darkness. If she was doomed, then so am I. This isn’t scaremongering: this is a real danger, made even worse by books that go into frankly horrifying detail about potential methods and scenarios.

I think we need books about suicidal teenagers as much as we do happy ones, but it’s true that they carry an extra burden of responsibility. Pretending otherwise is to deny the power we have as writers to an audience still learning who they are. We can do this without patronising them or denying them their own experiences. On the contrary, we can honour them with counter-narratives and hope.

It does a disservice to the depth and integrity of YA to focus so much on whether an ending is happy or sad; as in all fiction, what matters is that an ending is earned and feels true. Sometimes people live and sometimes they die, in real life and on the page; not all stories can end happily. But there’s always room for a sense of hope and it is this that can make all the difference. In darkness, even the smallest light can brighten a room.