Writing: What’s Death Got to Do With It? Is YA Fiction Too Morbid?

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For those who know me – and read my blog – saying that I love Young Adult fiction is probably a bit of an understatement.

I really LOVE YA Fiction.

I think its fantastic and brave and vibrant, and its going through a bit of a surge at the moment. I mean, there’s always been cross-over fiction (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) but I know a whole host of adults who are consuming YA fiction like a box of Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers. You only have to take a look at Twitter to see the brilliant YA blogger community – made up of both teenagers and adults – who support and champion new YA writers with an excitement that is more catching than a cold.

I’ve got the bug. I am both a reader and an aspiring writer of YA fiction, and a huge supporter of authors who are knocking out some seriously good YA novels.

But why is it so popular with adults? According to John Green, the writer of the WONDERFUL The Fault in Our Stars, the reason he reads YA fiction is because of its “uniroinic emotional honesty.” In an article produced for Cosmopolitan magazine (here), Green says, “when you’re a teenager, you’re often doing so many important things for the first time — everything from falling in love to grappling with heartache and loss. You also begin to ask the big questions of humanness: What, if anything, is the meaning to all this? What are my responsibilities to myself and to others?”

I think that’s a great statement.

Its such a stereotypically teenager thing, isn’t it, the idea of having to make sense of the world.

But what I don’t think is discussed is how we never actually grow out of this. We’re continually searching for these answers throughout our adult lives and constantly learning about ourselves and the world around us in the process. No-one has it all “figured out” – and no-one gives us a How to Guide to Life on our eighteenth birthday – which is why I think we are drawn to stories about navigating love, life and death, and – despite our cynical nature – the overwhelming sense of hope that these stories and characters seem to provide us with.

But is all this a little too much for teenagers?

All this talk about death and dying and illness – all these terrible things that life throws at us. I mean, its hard enough having to deal with them as adult, right?

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Is YA Fiction too Heavy? 

Over the weekend I read an interesting article in The Guardian on this particular subject (for the article in full click here) and where they raised the question: Is Young Adult Fiction Becoming Too Dark?

Well. I suppose you only have to scan the shelves of the Teenage section to see that there are some pretty death-heavy topics being written about, from stories told through the eyes of a child with a terminal illness (Jenny Downham Before I Die, John Green The Fault in Our Stars), to children having to overcome the death of loved ones (upcoming novel The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss, The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling), and even suicide (Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky). I can see why some people – parents in particular – might be a little concerned.

In terms of my own writing, I have struggled with transitioning into YA writing. It didn’t happen straight away. I started writing fiction for adults and my first attempt at writing a novel (which will never see the light of day) was written while studying for my MA in Creative Writing, and was a ghost-story-type-affair aimed at an adult audience. It was only when I wrote a short story from the point of view of a young person (and when someone told me they like my writing style in this genre) that I decided to pursue YA and I’m so glad I did. I LOVE writing for young people and I LOVE reading YA novels but its difficult. I struggle with subject matter. I’m constantly second guessing a choice I’ve made – am I taking it too far? Is that too dark? Can I really swear that much? Is it OK to talk about sex? Drugs? Drinking? Abuse? Is it OK to talk about death?

But I think it is. And most importantly, I think its necessary that we continue to do so.

Think back to your teenage years. What were the issues that concerned you? Did you know someone who had died? Did you ever feel low? Did you wish you could have spoke to someone about the way you were feeling?

I certainly did.

And that’s what I think books are. Someone to get lost with. Someone to go on a journey with. Someone to cry and feel with, and live vicariously through. Those characters are just like us (even if they happen to live in some post-apocalyptic fantasy world) and in the end, when they find hope or love or peace, we find it with them.

In a way these novels about death and dying, and everything in between, are as far removed from being morbid as we can get. By definition, when someone or something is ‘morbid,’ the interest in subjects such as death and disease are characterised as unhealthy and abnormal, and I don’t thing this applies to YA fiction. The curiosity is natural and a part of growing up, which is what these novels are about and exactly what these characters are doing.

They are also extremely positive. They teach us not to be afraid in times of grief and show us ways to be strong and hopeful.

I think Sian Cain hit the nail on the head in her piece for The Guardian when she said:

“Despite what you may hear, young adults are adults too. Sometimes they die, sometimes they know people who die. To deny YA readers the chance of finding comfort in literature is only a comfort for those denying them, out of some misguided pomp of moral authority. Whether they are grieving or curious about death (or life), young adults can be reassured by the power of knowing that their innermost feelings can be mapped on to others; that despite whatever feelings they are feeling, it is not unimaginable that someone else (fictional or real) has felt it too. What a ghastly comfort for one to have.”

It ain’t pretty, but neither is life, and its so important that these novels exist.

I whole-heartedly support them and plan to keep writing what I think I should be writing – what feels right to me – but I may have to curb by enthusiasm for swearing.

Which books do you feel helped you through a tough time either as and adult or child?

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3 Replies to “Writing: What’s Death Got to Do With It? Is YA Fiction Too Morbid?”

  1. It might sound ridiculous but for me it was Harry Potter. Going through a rough last year at school I immersed myself into the magical world as my escape. I still find that now it is what I run to to escape from the BS of adult life. Completely agree with your post Emma, even now I love to bury myself in someone else’s world.

    1. For me it was Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy.’ I consumed those books in a matter of weeks when I was feeling down. There’s something about the main character, Lyra, and her bravery that instantly makes me feel better.

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