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Youth Fiction Takes a Stark, Eerie Turn

The Washington Times
Culture section
December 17, 1999

Youth Fiction Takes a Stark, Eerie Turn
by Julia Duin

Literature for teens is full of images of rape, demons, torture and more.
It's a hard, cruel world out there in books for the younger set.

Although fantasy epics such as the vastly popular Harry Potter volumes are getting all the attention, the trend this decade has been stark, reality-based fiction.

Teen-age literature, termed "young adult" for those 12 and over, is full of adult themes such as gangs, rape, mental illness, animal torture and demon possession.

Ann Tobias, a children's book agent based in Arlington, calls them "four D books" -- about death, divorce, drugs or dismemberment.

"Teen-agers love to read them because they're so miserable," she says.

"I think a lot of kids do read this stuff," says Dan Dailey, publisher of the children's book review journal Five Owls.

"A friend of mine scoured the news reports of all these schoolyard killings, looking for common denominators. In every case, the one constant he came up with was: There was no significant adult taking a positive role in the child's life. "What that says to me is that so many kids are isolated."

Thanks to the hip-talking J.K. Rowling, the 34-year-old British author of the Harry Potter series, children's book authors are increasingly seen as players in the book world.

Which means the race is on to figure out what the teen set is really thinking and feeling.

Much has changed in children's literature since the days of Dr. Doolittle and his talking animals. Children's books are a universe of more than 5,000 titles a year churned out by fewer than 100 publishers for 72 million Americans 18 years and under. The most popular children's books -- such as those of Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" -- stay in print for decades.

"Harry Potter has been an interesting phenomenon," says Cathi Dunn MacRae, editor of Voice of Youth Advocates magazine in Lanham, Md. "It appeals to a wide variety of ages even though it was meant for 8-12 year olds. Now it's really hot to read Harry Potter if you're 17 or 18."

Kids still love fantasy, she reports; that is, "anything with quests in them." Children love a protagonist who triumphs over the adult world. Occasionally Harry Potter will have an adult mentor or helper but usually the adults are not there or they are befuddled or helpless.

"Escapism is great and the Harry Potter books are absolute fun but you can't wave a wand or fly on a broomstick to solve your problems," says Mr. Dailey. "Writers for young adults really need to show kids creative solutions. Kids are not hopeless unless you let them be that way."

The balance between fantasy, where nothing is real, and reality fiction, which can be too real, marks a tough balancing act for authors. Sometimes children's views of reality are misinformed, reports Beverly Mefferd, a children's library assistant at Mary Riley Styles Library in Falls Church, Va.

"Kids consider the problems of racial harmony as ancient history," she says. "They don't consider [racism] to be a problem now. They firmly think this was in the past."

But they are aware of other problems. Consider a 1998 book by Virginia Walter.

"Making Up Megaboy" is about a 13-year-old boy who calmly walks into an inner-city grocery and kills its elderly Korean owner. A cast of narrators -- the newspaper reporter, the cop, the social worker, a teacher and his junior high friends -- cannot fathom why the boy shot someone he didn't know.

The murderer, who remains silent, simply draws sketches of Megaboy, an imaginary superhero. All the police can determine is the boy longs for his parents to rescue him. So far, "Megaboy" has sold 11,000 copies; not dismal sales for a children's book, but definitely not a smash hit.

In Jerry Spinelli's 1997 book "Wringer," animals -- specifically pigeons -- are targets. "Wringer" tells of a town where all the 10-year-old boys are expected to take part in the annual Pigeon Day when adults shoot down thousands of the unlucky birds and the boys are dispatched to wring the necks of the wounded ones.

The book creates a perfect animal-rights scenario, as by the time the reader reaches page 40, he or she is convinced this is one sick sport. Conflict arises when one of the 10-year-olds befriends a hungry pigeon. Helpful adults are absent from the book until the end.

Adults are either dead or demonic in "Dancing on the Edge," a 1997 book by Han Nolan that opens with a Ouija board seance and an account of how the heroine was cut from her dead mother's body in order to be born. The heroine, whose grandmother is a medium, starts casting love spells for her friends, then sets herself on fire.

Despite a kidnapping attempt by her grandmother, the heroine slowly recovers from mental illness in the end. "Dancing on the Edge" was a National Book Award finalist and winner of a Parent's Choice Storybook Award.

Mrs. MacRae nicknames this genre bleak books: books about awful situations, dire straits and horrible children.

"Publishers are trying to publish more of the hard-edged stuff to bring older teens into this genre," she says. "Kids who read turn to adult books by the time they're 15. They go into John Grisham, Danielle Steele and Stephen King. They miss a lot of the stuff that truly reflects their lives."

The tale of a Hollywood princess taking on a mall-based girls gang ("Bel-Air Bambi and the Mall Rats," by Richard Peck) represents one common theme. The terrorizing of a boy by his school gang ("The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier) and a boy who joins a gang to avoid being placed in foster care ("A Rite of Passage" by Richard Wright) constitute other examples of kids in dire straits.

"I was a Teen-age Fairy," by Francesca Lia Block, published last year for the 12-and-up set, talks about pedophilia and how a teen-age model is lured into the world of drugs, sex and alcohol.

"Speak," a book out this fall by Laurie Anderson, is about a high school freshman who gets raped by a popular senior boy. Like the heroine in Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," she cannot talk about her ordeal.

Just out this Christmas is "Deal With It," a book that grew out of the Web site. It explains lesbian sex acts, how to find an abortion clinic and diagnose one's own sexually transmitted disease.

The 1995 book "The Dark Light" by Mette Newth tells of Tora, a 13-year-old Norwegian girl dying of leprosy in a dank hospital in 19th-century Bergen. The book is packed with reality: rotting flesh, puddles of vomit and blood, an attempted rape and the heroine enduring the amputation of her feet with no anesthetic. The only light in the book comes when one of the dying lepers teaches the heroine to read.

Mr. Dailey calls the reality trend "troublesome."

"A lot of it deals with just the problem aspects and there's very little wisdom in a lot of [the books]. I think one of the most important things in a children's book is to give them hope and help them solve challenges. Some of them just help these kids wallow in how awful life is but they don't show a way out."

Copyright © 1999 News World Communications, Inc.
Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.
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