Heartsong Blog

Don’t fear bleak books for teenagers – and why we do

posted by Nicola Morgan on Monday 30th June 2014. 23 Comments so far.

I rarely review books but I did when Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks first came out, so I’m on record as thinking it brilliant and brave. Now it has won the prestigious Carnegie Medal, and a storm has brewed. Many adults vehemently object to the book’s bleakness, darkness and violence.

I’m not addressing whether it’s the right sort of book for the Carnegie because I want to tackle the wider issue of whether it’s right to write books like this for teenagers and whether it’s OK for them to read them.

I don’t seek to change the minds of those who dislike the book – anyone is free to dislike, even detest, any book. Many of the detractors are experts in children’s books; their opinions are strongly held and well-meaning.

What I want to do is shed light on the following things, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about adolescence, human nature and the psychology and science of reading:

  1. The reasons why many adults wish teenagers wouldn’t read such books.
  2. The reasons why many teenagers do.
  3. Whether it matters that they do.

1. Why do many adults wish teenagers didn’t read such books? Or, perhaps, that such books weren’t written?

Good adults are programmed by biology and culture to protect babies and children. We protect them from actual harm and, when we can, from fears and nasty thoughts. We hope they never have to deal with nasty things themselves, though we realise many eventually will. We know, somewhere in the logical part of our brain, that they must learn to take risks, one day, but we try to control when that risk-taking happens and how. This is right and proper. We want to “protect their innocence” as long as possible. This is understandable.

When I did my first talk as a YA novelist at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was floored by a question: “How do you feel knowing that you damage children?” It turned out that the questioner had 11 year-old grandchildren and since then I have often met this fear in parents or other relatives of that age group. Through my work, I understand how hard it is to move from being the parent of a child to the parent of a teenager. It’s tough to let go. And tougher when it’s the young people themselves who insist on pulling away – as they are biologically driven to do. We don’t like the fact that some of them choose nasty books. We worry.

So, adults who protest against novels like Bunker Diary are being nurturing and protective. That’s what we do with young children. At some point, however, we need to remove the cotton wool and tolerate bruises gained in the pursuit of knowledge and independence because they are not damaging. Bruises are temporary, after all.

Teenagers are not children. In the arguments about Bunker Diary, the word “children” has sometimes been used instead of “teenagers”. This is not a small distinction. “Adolescent” means “becoming an adult”, and that needs to be allowed to happen.

2. Why do many teenagers like bleak books?

First, let’s remember that all readers, within any age range, are different; some teenagers will and some won’t like reading such books. But why might some be drawn to dark stories? Because fiction is, among other things, for exploring emotions, testing them, feeling what experiences are like. Fiction is for breaking boundaries if we want to break boundaries, and for coming back safely as we wake up and realise that it was “only a story”. Just as when we wake up from a nightmare we feel relief that it was only a dream. Sleep researchers tell us that a purpose of dreaming may be to process emotions, stresses and fears healthily. I argue that fiction has that role, too.

The magic of fiction is that we get carried away into the fictional world and almost forget that we aren’t really there. That no one is; that it was all constructed inside a writer’s imagination. So strongly does this narrative transportation happen that we can end up having heated arguments about made up stories…

Teenagers often feel extreme emotions; their emotional and reward centres are highly active, bombarded by the changes in their lives, bodies and brains. Hardly surprising that they need extreme books, whether extremely frightening, passionate, funny, or sad.

And how do we practise empathy – that supreme effect of fiction – if we can’t practise extremes of feeling? Those extremes will be different for each person. Each of us has our limits. I won’t argue with yours if you will allow me mine.

Teenagers don’t always think the same things are horrible or for the same reasons as we do. Adults often require less or different stimulus to be shocked, saddened or scared. Many adolescents love watching horror films or reading misery memoirs. They sometimes feel the need to, perhaps to exorcise some of their fears, to practise the emotions, to test their limits. In safety.

In safety. Freely chosen. And you can stop the moment you want to. (In books, if not so easily in films.)

I remember the first time I cried in a film: Ring of Bright Water. You know the bit. The ditch. The spade. I was nearly twelve. I was shocked – and embarrassed because I didn’t know films or books were things you cried in. (I was born and had lived all my life in a boys’ school. Does that explain it? It did then. We didn’t have YA fiction, either.) When my mother said of course it was OK to cry in a film, I wanted to watch it again, just to cry again. And, remember, RoBW is not fiction. (Actually, at the time I thought it was, which was probably a relief.)

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The bleakest fictional ending ever. The moment when Winston gives in to his torturers and betrays his girlfriend with the searing words, “Do it to Julia” and, later, betrays himself and the rest of humanity. I know, it’s not a teenage book. But we make teenagers read it. We don’t tell them it’s too bleak for them.

3. So, does it matter that they often choose to read bleak books?

Hell, yes, it matters. It matters that they read, that they engage passionately and willingly with stories and reading. And it matters that if that is what they want to read, it’s there for them. Whether it’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Bunker Diary or whatever. It matters, too, in my opinion, that their choice is not disparaged. It matters that adults don’t imply that they are sick for enjoying it. (And adults are now using a vile term for books in which young people die. I’m not using it here as I think it’s also demeaning to the readers of those books.) We don’t have to enjoy the books they choose but we should be very cautious before undermining their enjoyment and choices. (Not all the adults have – I’m just saying we should make sure we don’t.)

On the other hand, carry on – teenagers like to read what adults don’t like…

But doesn’t it damage them? I think it might, conceivably, if you forced a young person to read a book that they didn’t want to read because it was making them feel things they didn’t want to feel or making their low mood worse. Or if the young person had to face ideas or scenarios they weren’t ready to think about. And if they had no way to process those ideas and fears healthily, by talking them through with others, for example.

I admit, too, that reading bleak books when you are already sad is not likely to be therapy. And that reading a book about suicide when you have suicidal thoughts yourself is a very bad idea. In The Teenage Guide to Stress, I recommend fiction as relaxation strategy, but I caution against reading books that make you feel sad if you are already sad.

But those are specific circumstances and Bunker Diary is not a book about suicide. Bunker Diary is a book in which the characters find themselves in a horrifying situation and try to work together to get out of it. (Regarding the Carnegie, I agree there’s a possible issue because it’s for a wide range of ages – 9-14* – and there are shadowing groups, in which a younger than 12yo might be in a position of reading before he or she is ready. But the responsible adults will handle that situation with care, I’m sure. We can’t exclude an eligible and highly recommended book because it only suits parts of the valid age range. Very few books suit a 9yo and a 14yo. Anyway, as I say, this isn’t about the Carnegie argument.)

*EDITED TO ADD: A commenter informs me that it’s actually 0-18!

Books don’t damage – they do change and transform us. Everything we read and hear and see and think changes us. We are never the same at the end of an engaging book as we were when we started. And that’s somewhat scary if you’re a caring adult nurturing an adolescent. But we have to be brave and trust teenage (as opposed to younger) readers to make their own choices and feed their thirst for knowledge and ideas, so that they can decide for themselves.

A friend of mine told me how her then nearly-twelve-year-old daughter started reading The Lovely Bones. After a chapter or so, the daughter had to stop, too scared to read on. So scared that she buried the book under a pile of clothes in a cupboard. Next day she took the book out and read the whole thing. Her choice. She was ready. Changed but not damaged. At any time she could have stopped again – and she would have if it was making her feel awful. But she knew it was a story. She knew how to read it. She took control as she explored her emotions.

So, for those teenage readers who want to push the boundaries of their emotions, we need brave and risky books like Bunker Diary, even if it’s too bleak for adults. If you can’t block them from hearing or reading about the dark side of the real world in the news, don’t try to stop them reading about such things in the safety of fiction, where they can explore and experiment on their own, without fear of actual harm.

Let go. Don’t stop caring, but worry less.

 

23 comments so far

  • Very well put! I think The Bunker Diary has been the most contentious Carnegie win since last year :-) it is a phenomenal story and deserving of the recognition!

    • Glad you agree, Matt! I know not everyone will, so thanks. Since I haven’t read the other books, I don’t know if I’d have voted for a different one, but I do know that I admire BD hugely and strongly believe that books like it, books that explore extremes, have a very valid place in teenage reading choices. Which is all I’m trying to say, really.

  • Well said. It is sad that the Bunker Diary is getting so much negative press. We held our Redbridge Children’s Book Award last Thursday and The Bunker Diary was easily the winner of our teenage category and our award is voted for by the students themselves, not adults. My personal feeling is that teens love bleak fiction. They often ask for those grim autobiographies like “A Boy Called It” “Ugly”etc. Plus it says something about the quality of Kevin Brooks’ writing if people find it so believable that they have such a strong reaction….and quality of writing should be what the Carnegie and similar awards are all about – strong, writing, strong plot and a story that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.

  • Yes, it was well written but I did not like it. I found it unrelievedly dark and lacking in hope. It is, as someone else said, cruel. I think it may be too disturbing for many people and I wonder what effect it might have on teens with issues. While I don’t think they should be shielded from the bad things – even if we could – I wonder if we need to glorify them by giving such books awards.
    I would far rather the hope that Sophie has at the end of Rooftoppers – we don’t know but we can hope with her and I think that is important in a world which has so many dark things.

    • Hi Cat – you’ve rather missed my points so I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I did say that no one has to like it. Or read it. You read it despite not liking it – which is not something I recommend to anyone, and exactly why I said that the only danger is when a) people are forced to read a book they aren’t ready for or b) when people read a book that makes them feel worse. The great thing about books is that we can stop them at any point. You obviously felt you had to read it. I haven’t read any of the other books on the shortlist because I didn’t feel like it. I may one day.

      My point is that there are good and positive reasons why some teenagers choose (*choose*) to read dark books, and every reason why they should be allowed to. As for teenagers with “issues”, I did specifically say that someone who is sad/depressed would not be advised to read a sad book if it might make them feel worse.

      But this is about reading choices and trusting teenagers to make those choices and even to make mistakes.

      I fundamentally disagree that BD has no hope. Hope is not generated by offering a “happy” ending. Hope is generated by seeing the good in the human spirit, and there is that aplenty in Bunker Diary.

      Of course you would far rather have a book with a happy ending, but we cannot only “glorify” books that end the way we wished them to. That would be too easy. We can all argue till the cows come home about which book is better and which book should win a prize, and there will be all different reasons for choosing one over another, but I would seek only to glorify good writing, however we might define that, and I don’t define it by whether the ending makes me feel happy or not.

      As i wanted to say very clearly, everyone is entitled to like or dislike the content of any book.

      • Yes, I think I understand what you are getting at – probably did not make myself clear. But we will have to agree to disagree over the hope issue – to my mind it gets dashed away each time. Of course books don’t always have happy endings – I’ve written something without a happy ending! And yes, I read things I don’t want to read sometimes because I think I should know what a certain young person and her friends are likely to be reading and be able to discuss their choices with them.

  • An excellent post, thank you – very valid points. We should remember that schools actively encourage pupils to read 1984 or Lord of the Flies which are just as bleak, but no one is complaining about that. One minor point though; the age range for Carnegie is not 9-14. It is for a book for children and young people so anything from 0 – 18! (I think you are misled by the recommended reading ages on the shortlisted books this year, perhaps).

  • Pingback: Don’t fear bleak books for teenagers – and why we do | Nicola Morgan | Culford School Library

  • Thank you Nicola. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve found this post very helpful. You’ve made some valid points in an area I hadn’t considered. With a newly emerging teenager in the house I feel more confident in being able to guide her having read this. So thank you.

  • It wasn’t the lack of a happy ending that I disliked about this book. I was disappointed that the ending was so full of nothing. I’m not explaining it very well, but one of my students read it and said she would rather have had what she called a proper ending. She felt it read as though the author had got bored with the story and just stopped writing. I thought it was an interesting response to the book.

    • I understand. In view of what it is that happens in the end, I’m not sure there was another way of writing it, to be honest. Also, endings of even the most innocent of books are fraught with possibilities to annoy the reader! We invest (as readers) so much, including, usually, hope, and our reaction to the disappointment of not getting the ending we want (or written “satisfyingly”) is understandably strong.

  • Having come to the end of yet another wonderful Carnegie shadowing experience with a group of amazing young people in my school, I have been gripped by the fascinating debate this book has caused! I have never, ever reacted personally to a book in the way I did to The Bunker Diary – just simply didn’t know whether to sit & sob, or quite what to do with myself. However bleak and relentlessly spiralling towards and inevitable end, I still felt the book was completely compelling because of the superb writing & structure. Almost all of my Carnegie shadowers (all year 8 and above) felt this was the clear winner for them. My experience of working with young people through reading groups & shadowing awards is that they are more than capable of self-censoring, but when they do read something the depth of understanding & perception they show never ceases to impress me. We need to be creating young people able to make their own minds up on everything they encounter. Within school they have a natural safety-net around them already – we give them the security now to be confident in their choices, which they will carry forward into adult-hood.

  • Excellent and eloquent piece that’s filled with important truths. I feel that it’s especially important to differentiate between kids and young adults in this context AND to allow the latter space to find their own route into and path through the world, including allowing them to make their own mistakes and find their own limits (heart-breaking and difficult as that might be) and hopefully in as safe a way as possible, so they can learn without risk of harm. Fiction, as you say, is an excellent space for them to explore this without that risk and that’s really as good as it gets.

    Very true also that kids and teens are excellent self-censors. I’ve seen my 9 year old niece shelve a book as ‘it’s not really right for my age-group’, only to return to it when she feels ready. I also have personal memories of abandoning watching The Exorcist aged about 13 (rare lapse of judgement on the part of my baby sitter!) and promptly sharing a bed with my younger brother, both quaking in terror, for about a month (!) The experience shook me, yes, but it didn’t do any lasting damage and it allowed me to feel in control, rather than controlled, which is a very useful and worthwhile thing for any teen to start to gain experience of feeling.

  • Wonderful, eloquent piece. I agree with every word, Nicola. Kids know better than adults what works for them. I see it daily in my own, whether it’s a hushed admission they’ve heard a swear word on YouTube, or talking about books and films that work for them, or reasons why others just don’t.
    It’s too easy to forget that we self-censored as kids. We read James Herbert and survived. We flicked through Harold Robbins novels to get to the racy bits. I can remember my brother showing me the reproduction pages in the Readers’ Digest Book of Family Health, and I don’t think I’m any the worse for it.
    We learned about war by reading The Silver Sword.
    We learned about death by reading Charlotte’s Web.
    We learned about love by reading Danny, Champion of the World.
    Trust children. Let them grow. Help them, guide them, but don’t patronise and stifle them.

  • An excellent blog post Nicola – I quite agree with you and it is really helpful to see the issues around teenagers and reading so well argued! In relation to ‘Bunker Diary’ specifically – my 13 year old daughter read it in one rapt sitting. We discussed it after we’d both read it as it was receiving so much negative press. We both felt that the humanity and spirit shown by Linus and Jenny and the close, caring bond they develop was key. Brooks bravely chose a bleak ending and the story is profoundly affecting. As a School Librarian I saw a number of boys who don’t read fiction much at all racing through this book and urging others to read it and discuss it with them

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