How Far Is Too Far?: Navigating the World of Young Adult Fiction

Few of us are immune to the sensation that is Stephenie Meyer. She dominates the bestseller lists, reduces teenage girls to catatonic wrecks, and has the entire literary world talking. Readers choose labels such as “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” with the aggression of soldiers preparing for battle. Even I, a snob with a natural aversion to the subgenre of supernatural fiction, could not deny the sudden rise of the enigma that was Twilight. Journalists and peers alike claimed that Meyer’s creation had ousted J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from popular consciousness; others believed it merely filled the hole Rowling’s recently-completed epic had left. However, at that point in time, it appeared that Meyer had risen to a level that many writers can only dream of. A level beyond criticism and complaint; a level so high that the rest of the world could only look up and admire.

My expectations were high for Twilight. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be as enthralled by it as the rest of the female population appeared to be. I wanted to speak their secret language, to be ‘in’ on that juicy secret that no-one could stop whispering about. No, I did not possess the thirst for the paranormal that others did. Once I purchased the novel, I put this aside. In my mind, the best novels are those that transcend their genres. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is so much more than a love story. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is beyond classification. Am I saying that I expected Twilight to scale the heights of a classic novel? No. I was, however, prepared to put my reservations aside and enjoy what others had described to me as a revelation of a modern novel.

I was bitterly disappointed. Perhaps I was always going to be. My opinions on Meyer’s writing, the characters, and the nuances of the plotline are, however, irrelevant. They were my opinions. Many of my peers held different ones. Meyer was still a sensation. Yet, once my large number of nitpicks and complaints had faded into the background of my subconscious, one objection would not be silenced so easily. It simply didn’t ring true. I am not talking about the sparkling vampires or their lack of fangs. I fully appreciate that the vast majority of supernatural fiction operates under its own laws. I am referring to the relationship between the central characters: Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

While reading Twilight, I had no comments — negative or otherwise — on the lack of sexual content. It is all about what is suitable for the story, after all. However, I felt more than a little unsettled during plot developments such as Edward’s confession that he often snuck into Bella’s room to watch her sleep, and the revelation that, if Bella and Edward were to become too intimate, he may be overwhelmed by the desire to drink her blood. I discussed the latter with two friends of mine, both of whom are converts to the Twilight cult. I claimed that I could not be the only one who found this creepy and unnatural. You could hear the crickets. Evidently, I was.

This was my stark wake up call. Through diligent scouring of several Internet message boards, it appeared that for many girls in similar positions, Twilight was not just light reading, it was a way of life. They obeyed this book as if it were their Bible. They viewed Edward Cullen as their perfect man, and put themselves in the place of Bella Swan, the leading lady. I began to worry about girls I knew nothing about. I feared the reality of the world would be an unequivocal shock to them. Teen pregnancy statistics are alarmingly high. While I am not necessarily interested in discussing the pros and cons of abstinence, I cannot help but feel that books such as Meyer’s promote a dangerous naïveté. They prepare many girls for a world they will never know. Novels such as Twilight explore issues such as teenage relationships and sexuality by not exploring them at all. This don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy provides many students with skewed and narrow views of their society. How can they deal with hormones and deep emotions if such things are implied to be almost taboo? It is a dark world that we live in, and while I do not believe that teenagers should either be exposed to or protected completely from this, I believe that it is crucial to prepare them.

‘Preparation’ is a theme that runs through a large number of young adult books. This is a subdivision universally referred to as “edgy.” Translation: these are authors who deal with dark subjects, and do so in a — usually — realistic and honest way. The world of edgy fiction is full of ugliness, things that go unspoken, and taboos. For better or for worse, it is a world that most people will find themselves in at one point or another. However, is it right to discuss them? Should our youth really be forced to read about subjects that they may not be ready to understand? Is it preferable for literature to exist in a parallel world, where readers can find solace instead of confrontation?

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is one such novel. Anderson takes us inside the head of Melinda Sordino, a darkly humorous and artistic teenager trying to survive her first year of high school. Melinda is an outcast. She has been ever since a blurred trauma over the summer. As a result of this, she lost her friends. Strangers stare at her in the hall. She is bullied, teased, and ignored. It is a sharp contrast to the rise of Bella Swan, who achieves almost stratospheric popularity in a matter of hours after moving to the new town of Forks, Washington. It is a girl’s dream: she is the center of attention. All the boys want her. Almost all the girls are her friends. Those who are not are simply jealous of her.

While I would hope that no teenager would have to endure what Melinda goes through in the course of the Speak, it is realistic. The subject matters are dark, but not without good reason. Sex is mentioned. There is a scene that would be described as ‘of a sexual nature.’ It is not gratuitous. It is not exploitative. Yet it was painful and, to even this sheltered 15-year-old, it felt real. It is a cautionary tale of sorts. Teenagers are encouraged to be proactive. They are warned about all-too-true events. By the same token, there are redeeming features in Melinda’s life. It is not all a theatre of pain. Her friendship with an equally artistic girl, Ivy, and extremely tentative bond with her lab partner, David, is hopeful and touching without becoming saccharine or slipping into the dangerous territory of the deus ex machina. A lot is left unresolved at the end of Anderson’s book, but that seems appropriate. Not all teenagers will find doting, irresistibly handsome boys such as Edward Cullen, but most of them will be okay in the end.

On the other hand, I do believe that a certain limit should be in place. Consider Identical, by Ellen Hopkins. It traces the path of identical twins in their teens, and their fall into drug use, destructive relationships, mental instability, sadomasochistic sex, and general risky behaviour as a result of rape, incest, and a largely absent mother. A variety of taboo topics, certainly. I, however, found fault not with the issues Hopkins explored, but the way in which she did it. No gruesome stone was left unturned. The majority of the twins’ depraved acts were described in details that verge on being too horrific to imagine. Unlike authors with similar works, Hopkins seems incapable of knowing when to ‘leave it to the imagination’, so to speak. Although I am a self-confessed fan of edgy literature, Hopkins’ prose often turned my stomach. These characters seemed to exist for the sole purpose of having more misery inflicted upon them. One of the few bright spots in the protagonist’s life is her relationship with a boy who is so perfect that he borders on the unrealistic. Although I concede that the problems raised above are important, the graphic content of the book seemed largely unnecessary.

Ellen Hopkins book signing

Many believe that these books allow them to protect their children by educating them. Yet is the exploitative and excessive nature of books such as Hopkins’, which seems to use education as an excuse to shock, preferable to the blissful oblivion of Meyer’s universe? I believe it is a question of balance. There is nothing wrong with enjoying novels like Twilight as light reading. However, letting it dictate the way teenagers live their lives, the way Meyer’s saga has, is a mistake. It prepares them for an unrealistic and imaginary society. Teenagers should be made aware of conundrums that they may be forced to deal with, in a sensitive and appropriate manner.

There is no concrete recipe for this, and it is a matter of personal choice. By the same token, I believe that it is in the hands of the writers and the editors to capture the happy medium. I don’t believe that all explicit content should be removed from young adult books. However, I believe that the excessive scenes in Identical added absolutely nothing to the book, while the honesty and realism in Speak was crucial. And was it really necessary for Meyer to portray Edward Cullen as such a “dream man”? It is my personal opinion that some deeper and franker discussion of the problems facing a couple that consists of a century-old man and a teenage girl needs to occur. I am not suggesting that Meyer should imply that Cullen is a repressed pedophile. However, an inkling of behaviour that could be considered “normal” would have made the book a much stronger read. Is it normal for a girl to be so blasé after finding out that her “soul mate” sneaks into her room to watch her sleep? I am not so sure.

Furthermore, I cannot believe it would be so harmful for a few of the teenage population to be made aware of “issues”, if done with the correct amount of sensitivity and care. I would like to see a new age of writers follow in the path of Anderson, books that can talk openly without fear of censorship, but walk the fine line between discussion and exploitation. Through denial, we shelter and damage our children. Through the kind of “excessive confrontation” that Hopkins promotes, they could become fearful of the world around them. No one lives a life of complete misery or delight. It is — and always should be — a fusion of both, and that is the life that the young adult writers of today should promote.