The Dark and Sophisticated Turn of Young Adult Fiction

Of late there has been something of a spring of lucrative franchises emanating from the unlikely arena of Young Adult Fiction. From this corner of literature, usually scoffed at, treated poorly, or generally regarded as “kid stuff”, we have been provided with—if not bombarded by- some of the most pervasive pop culture icons in recent memory. From J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise (now in something of a graceful fade-away with completion of the movie series) to the damnable (IMO) Twilight Saga from Stephanie Meyer, Young Adult Fiction is on the come up. With the looming release of the first movie in the Hunger Games Trilogy it is increasingly apparent, within said genre, that there has been a recent turn to more sophisticated and darker subject matter.

The gradation from seemingly innocent kid stuff into a darker more sophisticated realm is well illustrated by the evolution of the tone within the aforementioned Harry Potter series. Rowling has been quoted as saying that it was always her intention to grow up the maturity of the themes in the series as the rambunctious wizards aged—whether or not this is so is immaterial, it has proven to be not only an interesting convention in fostering relevance across the series (which is arguably formulaic otherwise) it allowed the initial audience to grow older as the books were released while keeping their interest. Perhaps, it is difficult to assert which is the true motive—artistry or business, or perhaps some dastardly chimera of the two—it is effective regardless. The franchise has earned billions between merchandise, box office sales, and—oh yeah—book sales.

The stuff of Rowling’s novels slowly turn from your normal childhood wizard coming of age tale as it begins to deal with the ideas of deception, murder, espionage, war, self-sacrifice, and vengeance along with isolation, feeling different, angst, first kisses, and the normal faire of the genre. As such it allows readers of all ages to grasp on to some piece of the story and the marketability of the franchise transcends age demographics.

In accordance with this, once inspected, Meyer’s Twilight Saga starts at a somewhat higher level in the sophistication department (taste notwithstanding) in dealing with  unrequited love, making the hard choice between two love interests, breaking barriers and misconceptions, and love conquering…not to mention the understandable desire to have sex with the undead. While I don’t personally feel that vampires turn into disco balls in the sun (alas, I’m old school and believe their curse to but the less dazzling ball of fire and screaming ash), the idea of a dhampir (a child with a vampire father and human mother) eating its way through its mother’s uterus is fairly grotesque and is surprising to find in the chapters of Young Adult Fiction.

While Meyer’s Saga doesn’t have the depth of the imaginary world Rowling created it has been nonetheless uber-successful in drawing in (particularly) women and girls of all ages and has spun the entire series of books into movies (with the last one being split in twain in order to grab as many dollars and cram as many scenes as possible). A particular note of success must be put on the branding and merchandising of the characters and plot elements in the Twilight Saga (what with girls getting into street fights and rumbles over Team Edward versus Team Jacob turf disputes and such).

In the past year I had heard rumblings of a series that, at first, I dismissed as being unlikely to possibly live up its synopsis in the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I avoided this series like the plague after first hearing about it but upon a strong suggestion by Mrs. Jo Beth Roberts (the librarian at the High School I work at) I read the first book of the Hunger Games at the end of last month. I quickly devoured the other two books without delay. Having finished the trilogy so quickly, I found that it struck a chord within me that neither the Harry Potter nor the Twilight series could manage to do. I found the story to be action filled and smart Science Fiction/Fantasy that, in many ways, is mislabeled as Young Adult Fiction.

Set in a dystopian future, children in the nation of Panem between 12 and 18 are put in a lottery from across 12 geographical districts in the last remaining habitable environment for man to live after nuclear holocaust. Two from each district are chosen—one boy and one girl—making for 24 teenage combatants set to fight for the death . While Collins heavily borrows from 1984 and the Running Man particularly in her world building the characters are entirely her own and the story is nonetheless compelling for children of 11 and adults with MFAs alike as it deals with very sophisticated themes of survival, starvation, subjugation, revolution, and sacrifice.

This dark turn in the young adult genre, it could be argued, is indicative of the faster world our children live in today—that with all the technology and mass media that is in their face and at their fingertips, along with the relaxing of our moral fiber has created a market of young adults that are ready to receive teenage murder-by-archery and blood thirsty fetuses—and additionally that a population that is continually bogged down with bills, doom, and bad economy that the books we choose as adults to escape into are increasingly easy to read linguistically while dark and gloomy thematically. It could be argued that way. Then again, one could assert that this is a smart relabeling of books that might otherwise be considered horror or sci-fi/fantasy and some brilliant publishing marketeer simply decided “kids will eat this up”. It’s hard to tell and probably moot at any rate. Regardless, what we are left with is a clear change in course for a genre that had previously been dominated by Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys—with all due respect.

How does this bode for “See Spot Run” and other early reader texts? Only time will tell, but when we see spot running from zombies we’ll know that there’s no going back.

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One thought on “The Dark and Sophisticated Turn of Young Adult Fiction

  1. Hunger Games is well plotted and very adult, but I can’t say that I liked it better than Harry Potter.  Harry Potter is an opus.  Nice blog post!

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