I recently read a book by our one and only Scott G.F. Bailey, and I was shocked at the darkness in it. I wrote to Scott and said, wow, this is really dark. He said, yeah, I know. It's an adult novel, and it disturbed me not with the subject matter, but the tones of the novel. Honestly, I have never read a YA book with such dark tones. Usually, even in YA novels that deal with darker subjects, the tones seem to be handled on a lighter level. Maybe, though, Miss Gurdon is really talking about tone in her article, not subject matter. Maybe there are YA books out there that I haven't read that are really, really dark in tone. Teens can handle subject matter. Adults can handle subject matter. I think it's tone that can really make the difference. I appreciated Scott's book. It was amazingly well done. I appreciated the darkness he portrayed because it contrasted the world in a way that helped me appreciate what he was really saying in that book - and I think he did it through tone. I wouldn't have seen those things otherwise.
I agree with Michelle, that there is absolutely a difference between tone and subject matter. I recently finished Speak a young adult novel (from about 10 year ago) that is about a girl who was raped just before she started highschool. So, the subject is dark, I suppose. Yet, I personally wouldn't call it a dark novel.
You can have all sorts of horrible things happen in a novel: rape, torture, murder, the end of the world, etc. Yet it can still be an upbeat, heroic novel if the heroes win out in the end. Although, I should add that tragedy and melodrama can also appeal to young adults, anything with a grand gesture. What is not appealing are stories which are more ambiguous, and neither victory nor victorious martyrdom are achieved.
For instance, the young adult novel Unwind and the adult novel Never Let Me Go deal with the same subject, but in completely different ways. The characters are the same age. Yet the tone of the books are completely different. Unwind is all about the need to fight an unjust authority, and Never Let Me Go is about the impossibility of fighting an unjust authority. Unwind is about winning; Never Let Me Go is about losing.
What is likely to be darker -- a grandiose dystopia, where robots tear the arms off of people and crowds cheer until a cyborg gladiator overthrows the master computer and liberates everyone? Or a story about a real estate agent who gradually realizes her cheating husband doesn't love her anymore but is only staying with her because she's dying of cancer? The first story would probably be gory and lurid and appallingly violent. The second could be tender and bittersweet and realistic, but it could also be much darker and more mature in a way that the cyborg gladiator story is unlikely to be. It depends on the writing, of course, and these are just hypotheticals. But just on that one line synopsis is it hard to guess which storyline is more likely to appeal to teens?
Of course, maybe more adults would be interested in the gladiator as well, and that's the real problem with "Young Adult" these days. Its more a mood than a demographic. Plenty of adults read YA. Some adults exclusively read YA. So writers are basically forced to write YA even if they didn't intend to, and often bring to it an alien mood. Do I have an example? You bet. Gifts, the first in a so-called Young Adult trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. Now, don't get me wrong, I LOVE Ursula Le Guin, and Gifts was a lovely book. But I'll be stuffed and dressed and roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey if this was a Young Adult novel. IT WAS NOT. It was about a young adult, which is not the same thing. I think it's sad that these days publisher can't seem to tell the difference. There was nothing gory or violent or profane about Gifts, and I doubt any parents would object to their kids reading it. But it struck me as a reflective, resigned book, not a victorious epic, and not something I would have enjoyed at all when I was a teen. I already bought the other two books in the series, but I'm not sure I'm ready to read them yet.
Why didn't the publisher market Gifts as adult fantasy? I think it's pretty obvious from a promotion perspective. I've been searching for book reviewers, for instance, and for every reviewer of mainstream, epic or adult fantasy, I've found two dozen YA reviewers. Maybe the numbers are even more skewed, even a hundred to one. So I decided my epic fantasy, The Unfinished Song, is YA. Since my protagonist is fourteen, I can get away with this, although the cagey reviewers have noted that the series is really epic fantasy. On some level I must agree with Gurdon, because I've found myself toning down some scenes that originally would have been a bit more, ahem, explicit. I just feel weird having things too explicit in a YA series. But I can only change so much without imperiling the integrity of the story, which I won't do.
When I think back to what I read as a teen, I have to say it puts the whole brouhaha in perspective. I never read young adult novels. I started reading adult novels in second grade. I read books with rape, torture, death, concentration camps, fascism, adultery, murder, military coups, incest and infanticide. I preferred novels with happy endings. (Still true.) But I didn't mind a rocky road on the way to that happy ending.
So, has YA literature become more explicit and violent? Probably. Are twelve year olds of today reading anything more explicit that what I read when I was twelve? Keep in mind my ninth grade reading list included The Gulug Archipelago, Slavegirl of Gor, Clarissa, 1984, Patty Hearst Her Story, Lolita, and a lot of other books, both trashy and classic, that were not aimed at fourteen year olds.
Just think. If Nabakov were writing Lolita today, he'd be told it's YA because Lolita is twelve.
Some people are defending the content of YA novels because this reflects the darkness that invades the lives of teenagers. I question that theory. I didn't read those books because they reflected my own personal reality, or situations I was likely to encounter. Fortunately, I was never sent to a gulag, kidnapped by terrorists, seduced by a sadist, or sent to a BDSM planet. I loved Clan of the Cave Bear, I hated Catcher in the Rye. Guess which one involved a character being raped by a Neanderthal? (Another teen experience I inexplicably missed out on.) I don't think teens read for different reasons than adults. They read to find out about what it's like to be human, to find out more about themselves, but also about people who are not themselves.