Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

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22 thoughts on “Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there Annabel, with the comment about the escapism. Reading was (and still is!) my coping mechanism and has always been a help when there are issues. If I was reading only this kind of literature it *wouldn’t* help. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be books dealing with real issues – far from it, they need to be there to help people work through things. But there have to be alternatives, which unfortunately doesn’t often seem to be the option in a modern publishing world which wants to sell just one kind of thing at a time!

    • It seems that there is a recent explosion in these books – mostly by US authors I admit. Suicide lit has replaced black covers and vampires … at least the Twilikes did provide escapism!

  2. Hear, hear! Not that I am advocating a return to stereotypes and tally-ho jolly midnight feasts with lashings of ginger beer, but a little bit of escapism every now and then is good. Life is hard enough for teenagers – they need something they can identify with, but also something to allow them to forget for a while.

  3. I echo these thoughts. While it’s important to not sweep under the carpet such mental health issues but to talk about them, I wonder if the proliferation of such literature only intensifies and adds to feelings of despair. Maybe it’s the same as the concentration on only negative stories in news media tends to exacerbate a communal feeling that crime is on the increase, a terrorist is around every corner and things are generally getting worse: is that really the case or do we only get that impression because the ‘breaking news’ tickertape feed at the bottom of our screens makes it seem more immediate and all-pervasive?

    • I heard on the radio yesterday that the success of Buzzfeed and other similar sites is due to it being so upbeat – it does cheer people up. Do you remember when newsreader Martyn Lewis was ridiculed for asking for a good news story at the end of the relentlessly negative bulletins. At the risk of sounding flippant, we need those cats and dogs doing silly things.

  4. Couldn’t agree more with all the correspondents above, and Gaskella herself. I’m an OU student who will have to write an essay about YA literature shortly, and who has strongly objected to ‘The Bunker Diaries’ as a Final Assessment Option.
    Last week we were commemorating the suicide of one Young Adult in our family [ a few years ago. We all still grieve.] I then found myself in the role of consoler to two other people who were bereaved by suicides during last week. Real life is quite enough: why the fiction?
    Bishops and others this week are urging that we need to build up communities of every kind and have vision for our lives. That’s not just a ‘Think About Your Political Behaviour’ call, or even ‘Join A Religion’ [They are a big-hearted lot, them bishops.] They are echoing our question here: what vision are we offering to youngsters in all spheres?
    What sort of writing would help?

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your family and friends’ experiences. *hugs*

      I was shocked by The Bunker Diary – I was glad to have read it but I have mixed feelings about it. It was cruel and sadistic, however, the child protagonists within had such strength which saves it from being a mere snuff movie in book form. I probably could write an essay on this one!

  5. Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it as a trend, but it is true that one of my favorite YA books of recent years (13 Reasons Why) is based on a suicide.

  6. As someone who, like Angela above, has had a teenaged friend/loved one commit suicide–while I was still a teenager–and as someone who has struggled with suicidal ideation for years, I have to say that I do find books like The Perks of Being A Wallflower *exceedingly* helpful. Escapism in literature exists for young people in Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman et al., and sometimes that’s exactly what you want, but sometimes you want an author to sit down with you and metaphorically put an arm round your shoulders and say, “Yes. I know how it is, and it’s terrible, and none of your friends will ever know. But I do, and here’s a story all about it.” That accounts in large part, I think, for the success of John Green, amongst others. Teenagers cling to books like this as lifelines; I certainly don’t think that books like The Year of the Rat or I Was Here or Thirteen Reasons Why have a particularly negative impact on adolescent readers. Books like Go Ask Alice, which make a virtue of scaremongering, are much worse in that regard, I think–but they also represent a pretty out-dated publishing trend, the YA misery lit of the late ’80s and early ’90s. What’s being produced now is much more impressive for its emotional generosity and open-heartedness.

    • Again, Elle, I’m really am so sorry to hear about your own experiences *more hugs*.

      I’m so glad that you find these books helpful and I haven’t said they’re not. In particular, Perks is probably the best I’ve read too. There always has been the occasional one like Perks, but since the John Green effect, they have become the latest publishing must-have and it feels as if they have displaced the vampires from the shelves – you could read nothing else but tough teen lit for months and months these days.

      • Yeah, I feel that–and sorry, perhaps my comment read a bit defensively! I do think there’s a certain Wind In the Willows-type innocence that no longer exists in children’s lives, or rather doesn’t exist for as long as it used to. And I do think that’s sad; I loved those sorts of stories as a young reader and certainly did escape into them. But in some ways I think that’s positive, as it suggests that children are more likely to be equipped to deal with trauma when it occurs to them, as opposed to, say, thirty years ago, when all of the horrible things that we’re just now hearing about were going on, and yet very few children (I would imagine) could articulate what was happening to them to an adult who could have helped.

        • Not at all defensive Elle – I’m very pleased to hear younger perspectives on this subject – it helps us all understand better. When I searched the blogosphere, I found many similar views from young adults.

          I’m three decades older than you so am trying explain my middle-aged adult perception which is inevitably cynical and nostalgic. I don’t want to pretend I’m cool by reading these books – I’m just interested (and strongly believe that the best YA writing is worth reading as an adult too).

  7. Really interesting post and discussion. It’s good to hear from Elle who has found these books helpful — I would worry that reading about it might make someone that way inclined more prone to actually doing it. But perhaps emotional generosity and open-heartedness is the key. And though escapism is great, and may work well when you’re feeling a bit down, the kind of depression that may lead to suicide almost certainly wouldn’t respond to it.

    • Harriet – I do think they are helping to foster the more supportive and non-judgemental attitude towards mental health issues that we are arriving at today. Elle put it so well.

      I can’t vouch for the quality of any but the few I’ve read, but it was the quantity of these books now on the shelves that provoked my post! As the mother of a young teen, I’m interested in YA publishing as you know.

  8. Thank you everyone for your wonderful comments. As a parent, reader and reviewer of YA books from an adult perspective, I felt compelled to get my thoughts down about the subject.

    It is reassuring to hear that these books are helpful, and please do continue to share your recommendations of the best of them. Thank you and *hugs* to everyone.

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