Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

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Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Mira » 12 Jun 2011, 18:32

So, I'm alittle nervous writing this. because I know it's controversial. I know alot of people may disagree with me, and that's okay. I really hope it doesn't affect our Bransforum friendships though, because I really value those!

This is really long. If people don't want to read it, I understand. I had alot to say.

So, I read the WSJ article, and although I don't personally agree with the moralistic tone, I do agree with what she says about violent imagery. I recently read a YA book that was extremely well-written, but the story line involved torture, starvation, murder and images that were so horrible, it still gives me nightmares. And I'm an adult; my brain has stopped developing. That's not true of teens. I believe the human brain continues to develop until the age of 25. That makes young people more vulnerable, not to mention that they don't have the psychological defenses that adults have.

We seem to understand that intuitively with movies, but somehow with books.....it's not there yet.

The primary defense of these books is that it will help abused children work through their trauma. This, to me, is a very shaky assumption. I believe these books may help heal some kids, but they may damage others. These concepts express my concerns:

a. Re-tramatization. If a child is trapped in a nightmare situation they MAY be helped by reading about how another child triumphed over it. That is one, very positive outcome. However, other children may find that their trauma is triggered. It becomes real and active for them, and they become something called "re-traumatized". This can be a very frightening experience. Probably one way to think about this is someone who has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because they were in the war, and they hear a backfire, and they being shot at all over again. I have to admit I only skimmed this article, but it looks good, and it includes a section on re-traumatization: http://gainscenter.samhsa.gov/atc/text/ ... _paper.htm

b. Contagion. People who are psychological wounded can be vulnerable to hearing about self-destructive behavior and copying it. So, someone reading about a protagonist who is self-destructive may decide to do the same thing. A really interesting example of contagion is what happened in Asia around bulemia and anorexia, disorders that were rare until Western Culture brought it. Here's a link to an article about that: http://www.healthyplace.com/eating-diso ... enu-id-58/. Here's an article about how celebrity suicide can increase thinking about suicide in the population: http://jech.bmj.com/content/61/6/540.abstract.

c. Secondary trauma. People can be traumatized not only through direct victimization. They can be traumatized by HEARING or SEEING someone else being traumatized. This trauma can be very severe. For all of those children who are NOT being abused, reading is a very intimate experience, and I believe they could be vulnerable to secondary trauma by reading about horrific situations happening to children. I can't prove it, I don't think there is any research, but this really begs the question: what about the children who are not being abused? This is a good, brief article about secondary trauma: http://www.childtraumaacademy.com/cost_ ... age02.html

d. Lack of an alternative world. I don't have links for this, this is more personal experience. I was abused as a kid, and what I looked for from books was escape. I wanted to know there was another world that was better than the one I was in. I'm not saying all kids are like me, but I think there great value in helping an abused child know there are worlds where people are not abused, and giving them books that model psychologically healthy interactions and loving connections.

So am I completely condemning these books? NO!!!! Something I recently learned in Grad school is adolescence is being extended in our culture. Because the population has a longer life expentancy, people are working longer, and young people are entering the working world and becoming independent later in life. A new age group is emerging, with new challenges. I believe that this group, age range around 18-29, is the right group for these books. Not coincidentally, I believe alot of the YA books that are being written by people in this age range (not all, but many), and I think they are actually writing books appropriate for their peers.

I think a new genre is emerging, one that is targeted to the Young Adult crowd. I'd personally recommend a new genre be developed called "Teen". That way, people writing for a teenage audience will keep in mind that these may include very young, vulnerable people: 12, 13, 14, 15, 16.

I believe, more than anything, what children in this age group need are books that are wholesome: nutritious and good for you. They may include triumph over adversity, or even abuse, but written about gently, not graphically. Wholesome. That would be my wish for MG and Teen books.

If you read this to the end, thank you! I appreciate the chance to express my concerns.

I'd be very interested in other's thoughts about this, as well, if you want to share them.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby maybegenius » 12 Jun 2011, 23:33

I understand your concerns completely. And I'll be the first to admit that while I 100% champion YA literature that is both dark and difficult to read because of the nature of the content, I personally have a really hard time with scenes of torture and extreme violence, especially sexual assault.

That said, I think it's important to make a break between "teen" and "child." While I very much agree with you that "young adulthood" is being extended out beyond age 18 these days, the fact still remains that teenagers are at a different stage of mental/physical/emotional development than children. Their minds are most certainly still in development, but a 16-year old has a very different worldview and maturity than a 12-year old. Generally speaking, of course -- there are certainly incidences of very mature 12-year olds and very immature 16-year olds.

I think the concept of certain content being triggering or "harmful" to certain people extends even to adults, really. I am an adult, but I know full well what sort of content will trigger and upset me, even though I'm mature enough to handle it. I think the same can hold true for teens. Young people are often smarter and stronger than we give them credit for. I imagine that fewer teens than we think are being truly damaged by the material available in YA because it is so rarely gratuitous. The violence and horror can be extreme, but it nearly always serves a grander function -- either to impart a message, or illicit empathy, or reflect a realistic and relateable experience in such a way that it moves readers. I can't speak for every teen, no one can, but I think the teens who specifically seek out this sort of content do so because it speaks to them in some way.

When authors claim that their dark books help teens work through trauma, I don't think they intend that to mean that these books are intended as therapy, but more that teens can find themselves in the pages and feel less alone. Less weird and othered. I definitely don't think all YA is created equal, and as with any genre I certainly think that there's some "bad" stuff out there that's just needlessly exploitative. It does happen. Overall, though, I think darkness in YA isn't for the shock factor or because authors have fallen into the "bigger, badder, bloodier" trap. I think it's often used as intentional metaphor and a tool for expressing a deeper idea.

All that said, there are such a huge array of personalities out there, and some people are going to be more sensitive to hard topics than others. Which is another reason why YA is so great -- there are books for those teens, too. I would never tell anyone that they SHOULD like dark books or that they're WRONG for being upset by the content in a given book, because that's not fair. If teens are sensitive to dark themes, then they should absolutely have other options, and they do.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I feel there's a place for darkness in YA, and a place for less visceral imagery. The former will speak to some, the latter will speak to others. Both are important to have available for whoever needs them. Ultimately, I don't think either is inappropriate for teenagers. Such books are intentionally written for that age group, and because it varies so widely, both have a place there.

Thanks for bringing this topic up, Mira. It is a hot button issue, but it's an important one to discuss.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Sommer Leigh » 13 Jun 2011, 11:15

First, bravo for being willing to talk about a subject that gets a lot of people upset and you did it in a way we can all learn from. I think it is important to remember that controversial issues should not be ignored because someone is going to get upset, but it is important to remember that you're talking ABOUT the issue and not trying to talk DOWN the opposing side. I think you approached it beautifully.

There are three pieces of the argument that I keep coming back to when discussing this subject:

1. Not all kids (or adults) are the same. Their experiences, their mental health, their parents, their background - there are as many varieties as there are kids. What one kid is ready for, one might not be, and what one needs from their fiction to get through high school, another might find uncomfortable and inappropriate. There is a lot of time and room in between 13-19. There is no blanket term or guidelines or rules or laws that can be set down for all books and all kids. I am proud of parents who take the initiative to be a part of their kids reading habits and I feel for them because it's not an easy task. I think the parent and the kids need to work out what they should be reading together, utilizing awesome librarians in the process. I draw the line when one parent tells another parent what their kid should be reading (especially when they imply they are somehow bad parents for letting their kid read something they have determined to be "inappropriate.")

2. For the most part, kids are very, very good at self-regulating. They won't read books that make them uncomfortable or confuse them. This is a general statement, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions, but for the most part if a kid isn't ready to be reading about sexual exploration or torture or murder, they won't. They will read books that align with their tastes and/or needs. That being said, kids are not going to be put off reading a book on a subject that they want to read about even if their parents tell them no. My husband sees this sometimes at his school when kids have to sign permission slips to read certain books for class. One student once told him that his mom wouldn't sign the permission slip, but she couldn't stop him from buying the book at Borders with the money he earned at his job. And he went right out and bought it even though he wasn't allowed to read it with the class. I don't say this because I'm thumbing my nose as parents because they have no control over these things, I say this because I think there has to be another answer somewhere in the middle. If a kid is ready and wants to read about a certain subject, instead of blocking them and pretending like they'll listen, maybe it's time then to start asking why they want to read about it and then read it with them. I also think parents should trust teachers to approach tough material in a way that is good for the kid - not damaging, even if it is a subject matter the parent didn't think they were ready for their kid to read.

3. This last point is a little harder to say without sounding snooty, and I really don't mean it that way. If you wipe any other argument off the table and all of the defensive reasonings why a book is important, I keep coming back to this: Writers do not have any obligation to teach an important message, provide hope, happiness, or easy reading. They don't have an obligation to parents or teachers or society to write a certain type of book. Writers write stories. They tell stories. Some of the stories they want to tell are dark and some aren't. It's great if a story teaches about strength, identity, friendship, the power of family, self-esteem, self-empowerment, education...but no writer, now or 100 years ago has ever been obligated to tell certain types of stories or teach some deeper meaning. It is not our job to nurture. I think we'll get into some trouble if we start thinking a dark book has to have some light at the end of the tunnel in order to be validated as a book worthy of being published or read.

4. Lastly, the word "dark" doesn't mean anything. It's being used as a place holder for "any book that offends me" and that worries me a whole bunch. Who decides what dark is too dark and what do critics propose happens to these "too dark" books? Take them from libraries? Remove them from bookstores? Make kids have to show an ID before they buy them? Or do they just want a particular book to be stigmatized so parents know when to stay away? What exactly is the end game (which was never covered in the WSJ article) and what criteria should be used to decide what dark is too dark? It's not simple: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak has torture, murder, assault, and the darkest, worst human suffering - but it is about World War II and is considered one of the most important and powerful books of the last five years. It's being taught in schools and awarded medal after medal for its story. Is it too dark? Or are we just talking about "fluff" dark - werewolves and vampires? Or just books with swear words and sex? See, it's awful complicated.


I want to see more discussions about what to do with all these thoughts and ideas. It seems like there needs to be a middle place where the opposing sides can come together. The knee jerk reactions are the ones that scare me the most, usually made by someone who hasn't read a particular book but "heard" about its content. We need to get rid of those reactions and get down and dirty and talk ABOUT books with tough content. We need to get away from the impulse to lump types of books together and say "All books like this are bad." That doesn't help anyone and just creates confusion and anger and all the toxic responses.

I don't know what that middle place is that we all need to get to. That's the frustrating part.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Margo » 13 Jun 2011, 13:03

Mira wrote:I believe, more than anything, what children in this age group need are books that are wholesome: nutritious and good for you.


I disagree, both as someone who has worked with a population that comes from horrific childhoods and as someone who had a difficult childhood (loving parents notwithstanding). A good example of how two people with similiar experiences and similar backgrounds can have totally different opinions and preferences.

First, as to the idea of contagion, there's a big difference in a book that describes, in negative detail, the act and repercussions of (for instance) a girl dealing with her pain by cutting and a whole cultural movement glorifying something like anorexia -- every television show, every magazine and a good number of parents praising underweight females. I have yet to see that data that supports contagion for something that is not passively accepted (and promoted!) by society. If society is promoting torture and self-mutilation, we've got bigger problems than The Hunger Games.

I don't believe that simply portraying dark thoughts and dark behaviors encourages them. I was relieved to read about characters that felt as angry/ marginalized/ cynical/ bitter/ self-conscious/ even self-loathing as I did at various times in my childhood. The last thing I needed to read about was a Beaver Cleaver world to make me feel like I was even more of a freak, like I was the only one with these problems, like there was something wrong with me.

Glamorizing those dark thoughts and behaviors is another matter altogether.

Perhaps someone would like to share some of the YA books they have read that glamorize self-destructive behavior?

[Edit: I should note that even as a young teen, I thought the 'wholesome' books the other girls were reading (because their parents chose their books for them) were intolerably Pollyanna. I'll go one step further and suggest that the desire to whitewash YA lit is akin to "Don't tell anyone what Uncle Charlie did to you." Hide it. Forget it. Pretend bad things don't happen to good people. And, by the way, insure that it keeps happening because no one will talk about bad things.]
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Cookie » 13 Jun 2011, 15:41

I think everyone has brought up good points from both sides of the debate.

While it is true that everyone has their own levels of comfort and tastes when it comes to books, the point I would like to make is that if all YA were wholesome and innocent, teens would just look to adult books to find the "darker" themes (which is what I did). Taking the dark out of YA isn't going to shelter them or prevent them from reading dark books. If they want to read it, they'll look for an alternative source. And if there are kids who can't handle the material, or who don't like reading about it, like Sommer said, they won't. Teens are pretty capable of deciding what they can and can't handle. They aren't stupid (for the most part). I think it should be left up to them to decide what they are ok with as far as reading material.

Telling a teen that they can not read (or watch) something because you do not approve of it is the fastest way to get them to read (or watch) it. Nothing piques their curiosity more than telling them the content is unsuitable. I remember when Buffy first premiered, I was about 11 or so and my mother wouldn't let me watch the first episode. What did I do? I went upstairs and watched it in her room. After that, she decided the show was ok, and we watched every episode together.

What I didn't like about the article was that the writer made it seem as though all YA was dark and only dark, which is far from the truth. There is plenty of light, fluffy, "Wholesome" books out there for those who are looking for it.

And speaking from experience, sheltering them will not protect them from the bad in the world. Sometimes it does more harm than good. Not always, but enough. Which doesn't mean to say that you should expose your children to everything nasty and bad in the world, just that you shouldn't completely shelter them. Hiding the depravity in the world isn't going to make it go away just as exposing them to it isn't going to turn them into juvenile delinquents.

I personally think the entire debate is kinda silly, considering what is required reading in schools. If teens are required to read adult books in school with questionably dark material, what is so different about reading dark YA? And like Sommer also said, who is to decide what is dark and what isn't? There are plenty of books that you might be uncomfortable reading, which I have no problem with, and vice versa. And to suggest Fahrenheit 451 and Ship Breaker as safe books is contradictory, and maybe a little ironic? I think it boils down to a matter of taste. Just because someone doesn't like some of the material, doesn't mean it isn't suitable for everyone. Alternatively, just because someone does like it, doesn't necessarily mean it is.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Chantelle.S. » 13 Jun 2011, 16:29

I have to agree with all the points the OP made.

There are dark YA books and there are the fluffy YA books. The issue is that no person aside from the writer (and the readers of that author) can tell you which category the book falls under, so a lot of the time young adults are subjected to reading something they don't want to read. I got fooled into reading a book titled Uncle Vampire once, thinking that it was a book about vampires. As a teenager I was in the habit of picking my books via title rather than reading the synopsis on the back. I was confused the whole thing through until it became very evident that it was about a family member sexually abusing the main character who was in their early teens. I wanted to burn that book afterward, and I complained to my mom about it, too.
Personally, I don't mind the bit of darkness in YA since I write it myself. But there is a line that you just don't cross. You know, that line between dark-fantasy and dark-reality. I don't WANT to read about things that are real, like drugs and abductions and murder. Not unless there's something about one of those elements that make them surreal. I have enough stress time dealing with reality, I don't want to be reading about reality as well.

In hindsight, there are probably young adults out there who specifically WANT to read those books to 'guide' them in a way. But that would be up to the reader's discretion - if they know what they're buying into, then all the power to them. It's the other young adult books that are laced with extreme themes that are just a bit TOO realistic that get to me. It does come down to a matter of taste, too. I think the only antidote there really is, is for parents to step up and pay attention to what their kids are getting into, as with all things. If a young adult is suffering from suicidal notions, you DO NOT want to give them a book to read that portrays a kid committing suicide and finding that the afterlife is better/worse. Likewise if a teenager is getting bullied at school, you don't want them to read a book about another bullied teen who accidentally dies due to the bullying and the guilt trip the bullies are sent on/the horrors they face in jail to 'get their own back', a vengeful bullied teenage ghost coming back to haunt the bullies until they all jump off a cliff, or any reading matter as such.

Every book sends out a message. You don't know if the message is positive or negative until you've read it, and then it might not be your cup of tea.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Margo » 13 Jun 2011, 18:11

Chantelle.S. wrote: I got fooled into reading a book titled Uncle Vampire once, thinking that it was a book about vampires.


Was it required reading for school or a book club?

Chantelle.S. wrote:If a young adult is suffering from suicidal notions, you DO NOT want to give them a book to read that portrays a kid committing suicide and finding that the afterlife is better/worse. Likewise if a teenager is getting bullied at school, you don't want them to read a book about another bullied teen who accidentally dies due to the bullying and the guilt trip the bullies are sent on/the horrors they face in jail to 'get their own back', a vengeful bullied teenage ghost coming back to haunt the bullies until they all jump off a cliff, or any reading matter as such.


My apologies if this sounds harsh, but as someone who has worked with suicidal clients, I have to say that this is not the way it works. It VERY much has to do with the individual.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Chantelle.S. » 14 Jun 2011, 19:47

Margo wrote:My apologies if this sounds harsh, but as someone who has worked with suicidal clients, I have to say that this is not the way it works. It VERY much has to do with the individual.

Not at all, I was just generalising. Reading things like that might be therapeutic for some, but it might send others over the edge. Since every person's case is different, I can't say for sure it's a positive or a negative for someone suffering of one or the other condition to be reading fictional material on it. Books tend to romanticise death, which is not recommended reading for anyone who has suicidal notions. Especially not the young adult audience because they're still very gullible and easily influenced by peers/media/books, etc. Again, I'm just generalising.

And no, the Uncle Vampire book was for leisure reading - it ended up in my stack pile of library books.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby CabSav » 14 Jun 2011, 22:17

Just slightly to one side of all this. Young/new adults themselves also seem to be writing some very bleak fiction. I recently participated in an recent exercise where I critiqued a whole classroom of work. 90% of the class was first year tertiary -- which over here is around 19 y.o, or at least definitely under 21 -- with the remaining 10% mature-age students like myself. Every single one of the younger class members -- without exception -- wrote bleak, dark stories about being killed, raped, beaten or dismembered, often two or three nasty things happening in the same book.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Margo » 15 Jun 2011, 08:01

CabSav wrote:Every single one of the younger class members -- without exception -- wrote bleak, dark stories about being killed, raped, beaten or dismembered, often two or three nasty things happening in the same book.


Any indication as to why they had chosen those themes?
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Sommer Leigh » 15 Jun 2011, 10:28

I just got an email from the librarian at my husband's school asking me to design a flyer for an upcoming author panel on Bullying at my husband's school and there are 3 really really really fantastic YA authors attending. One of the author guests was the author of one of the books mentioned in the WSJ article. I can't wait to discuss this with her. I would like to record the event, and I'll try to share as much of it with you all as I can. It is coming up in July.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Claudie » 16 Jun 2011, 15:48

CabSav wrote:Just slightly to one side of all this. Young/new adults themselves also seem to be writing some very bleak fiction. I recently participated in an recent exercise where I critiqued a whole classroom of work. 90% of the class was first year tertiary -- which over here is around 19 y.o, or at least definitely under 21 -- with the remaining 10% mature-age students like myself. Every single one of the younger class members -- without exception -- wrote bleak, dark stories about being killed, raped, beaten or dismembered, often two or three nasty things happening in the same book.


Now that's interesting. YA isn't my age range, I don't live in the States (and trust me, it makes a difference), nor do I hang around teenagers much, so you can all take what follows with a (big) grain of salt but...

My first thought at reading that they wrote a lot of bleak stories was that it proved that these nasty events are a part of their world. Not all of them, and I'm certainly not saying that the teen who wrote the rape story had necessarily been raped but to me, such a high proportion of dark stories in your group indicates that they are concerned about violence, rape, murder and other such occurances.

I honestly would rather see teenagers speak of these things to each other and reflect on them than to see the heavier topics buried.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Don Zolidis » 17 Jun 2011, 19:08

I don't write YA, I don't read YA, but I do teach writing, and I've taught it to kids ranging from 12-22 or so. I'm also not so old that I don't look back at what I wrote when I was 17-21 or so (or more fairly 17-25) and shudder. I'll agree that 90% of all teenage writers and even college-age writers write bleak, dark, disturbing things, often with themes of violence, and frequently sexual violence. When I look back on my writing from that time period, I wrote bleak, dark, disturbing things with themes of violence (not quite so much sexual violence, but there were a few plays about torture in there.) My first "serious" story, was about a kid who committed suicide at the end. I can't tell you how many stories I've read from teenagers that play out the exact same way.

Mostly, I don't think their stories reveal their world much. I was happy and well-adjusted, writing stories about suicide, and I'd say that the vast majority of my students who write about suicide and murder are happy and well-adjusted. Because they are writing about things they know very little about, these stories are quite frequently very bad (as was my work.) Why do they do this?

1. A lot of teenagers are morbid. Seriously. Who is the biggest audience for horror films? Go watch Saw I-IV. This is what they are digesting on weekends.

2. I think we all think that serious, powerful, important literature must plumb the darkest depths of the soul. Therefore, if someone aspires to be a great writer, they tend to go for the headline-grabbing stuff, not realizing that it's the connection you have to the material that's the most important factor. I think that most of these "dark" stories are really just kids trying to be "powerful writers."

So I'm not terribly worried about the darkness in YA - but I have to say I decided to write MG, not YA, because I didn't want to get that dark with my work. I wanted it to be fun for me.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby maybegenius » 18 Jun 2011, 12:49

Don Zolidis wrote:Mostly, I don't think their stories reveal their world much. I was happy and well-adjusted, writing stories about suicide, and I'd say that the vast majority of my students who write about suicide and murder are happy and well-adjusted. Because they are writing about things they know very little about, these stories are quite frequently very bad (as was my work.) Why do they do this?


See, I think this is a key factor in this discussion. There's this underlying assumption that the only kids who would be drawn to "dark" themes are kids who are themselves dark, depressed, abused, suicidal, victimized, etc. Surely any kid who is "well-adjusted" won't have any interest in suicide, death, abuse, and rape! I find it to be a faulty assumption. Even "happy, well-adjusted" kids can understand and appreciate the darker aspects of the human condition. As you mentioned, many people are intrigued by the morbid. Also, a lot of these "dark" YA books aren't read for their literal violence and troubling themes. It's a metaphor for adolescence. Adolescence itself is a dark time. Even for those "happy" kids. Emotions hurt, rejection hurts, letting childhood go hurts, discovering that life isn't fair hurts, learning your parents are mortal and fallible hurts. Even their very growing bodies physically hurt.

All the blood, pain, violence, abuse, experimentation, struggles, etc. that are found in these darker YA books are a manifestation of those hurts. One does not have to experience abuse to want to explore and learn about it. One does not have to be suicidal to understand how that frame of mind might come about. It's true that not everyone deals with these growing pains by seeking out these themes, but many do.

I also think writing about these things without having experienced them is part of the exploration process. It's usually misguided and inaccurate, because people do tend to have pre-set ideas about how these things work. Hopefully by beginning to explore, that leads to wanting to actually research and learn more so that they're not writing out of ignorance. I think anything that can open the door for discussion (perhaps by being confronted by someone who says, "This is not how sexual assault and recovery works. I should know, it happened to me.") and hopefully lead to empathy is a good thing.
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Re: Concerns about the darkness in recent YA

Postby Mira » 24 Jun 2011, 13:37

Guys, thanks for all the thoughtful responses.

I had some difficult news right after I posted this, so I'm sorry I got distracted and dropped the thread. But I found it really interesting to read through and see other people's perspectives, which were all interesting and well-thought out.

We have a bunch of smarties here at the Bransforums. :)
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