My sister, the educator, was grousing this week about an interesting blog post (sorry to say, not one of mine) on the question of whether Middle Grade and Young Adult books have gotten too “dark” for their target audience. The post’s author made an eloquent argument to justify the current “serious” themes but Sis’s response was “There has to be a happy [book], every now and then.
Well, that surprised me because my sister dear has never shied away from kids’ books with dramatic stories and tragic elements. She’s the one who turned me on to Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book (great stories that both start out with murders) and as a teenager, she devoured every Judy Blume YA story-with-a-taboo as soon as it came out. So I had to ask: “What’s the problem? You like dark.”
“Of course I do” she said. “But every story pushed at kids right now right now is all about dark issues. It’s dystopias and addiction and depression and death. Every once in a while, people need to laugh too, you know?”
“Well, yeah” I replied. “But didn’t the books you loved best as a kid usually bring on the tears?” (I wasn’t ready to concede.) “I mean people love Charlotte’s Web and it’s terribly sad, although some passages are funny. And readers learn valuable lessons in that book.”
“That’s the problem,” she said. “Kid books hyped today are filled with doom and gloom but they’re praised because they teach ‘valuable lessons’. (I could almost hear her hooking finger quotes through the phone.) “Kids need to have fun with books as well as life lessons. I remember lying on our Grandmother’s bed, reading Alvin Fernald, Superweasel, and laughing my head off at the story. At the time I thought to myself how much I was enjoying that story and I wanted to read more just like it.” She sighed. “Books need to have balance.”
Well, that got me, because she’s right. Stories are written to re-balance the world, at least for the writer. They’re read for entertainment and other reasons. Yes, some stories can have more dark than light (A Separate Peace comes to mind) while others run the other way (does anyone else remember Homer Price and the Amazing Doughnut Machine? See this for the illustration.) but even adult novels counter-balance sadness with humor. A tale of unrelieved happiness is sapless pap and no more engaging than one of ceaseless woe.
Dolly Parton said the secret to pleasing an audience was, “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, scare the hell out of ’em and go home”. That’s what good authors achieve. While their stories seek to create personal balance, readers need to feel laughter, tears, fear, and contentment by the time the book is done. As we close the last page, we know within ourselves the story has balanced our worlds as well.