Girls Gone Dark: Teen books go bleak. Should we worry?

Let's face it, PopWatchers. Though we might spend our days laughing about last night's I'm a Celebrity… or dreaming about the possibility of a Saved By the Bell reunion, we can't ignore the fact that we live in pretty dark times. That might be the reason why so many of our budding young adults are shirking light-hearted teen books for reads like the anorexia-centric Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, or the death-centric If I Stay, by Gayle Forman.

The death and destruction-focused book genre has become huge for teen girls, with books like Stay and Wintergirls lining the bookshelves where Sweet Valley High-esque books once reigned supreme (read Katie Roiphe's fascinating Wall Street Journal article for more detail on this phenomenon). But it's interesting how much a difference a few years could make when it comes to our younsters' sensabilities. After all, it wasn't so long ago that I was a teen myself, and I can tell you that most people my age deliberately avoided all depressing literature in the late 1990s (though it should be said that the quality of these contemporary books far surpass the I'm 16 and Dying genre from my youth). Instead, we buried our noses in Louis Sachar books, or in tales from the Goosebumps and aforementioned pink-plated Sweet Valley High series.

Seeing this change in teen interests leads parents to question just one thing: Could this newer, darker literature be harmful for teens? Roiphe says no, since most of the books end on an uplifting note that seems to indicate that good times are around the corner. And I have to agree. What's the danger of literature that allows our youngsters to confront the problems facing them and realize that they're not facing them alone? And teens can tolerate only so much mindless dribble—I dumped most of my brainless, Clueless-type reads in favor of classic literature by the time I hit 16. It's nice to see that there's now a non-Judy Blume genre for girls that helps them cope with angst.    

PopWatchers, do you think the genre is dangerous or beneficial for teens? Are you fans of these books? And what did you read as a teen?

Comments (28 total) Add your comment
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  • harry


  • Snarf

    I have always been a reader. I remember getting engrossed by Alfred Hitchcok and the Three Investigators, Judy Blume, The Dark Cauldron series, and JRR Tolkein. Somehow by the time I was about 17 I had also found the time to go through Austen, Dickens, Wilde, and most of Shakespere by my own vocation.

  • Jess

    Being a teenager myself, sometimes the darker books are just more interesting. It’s hard to read about a candy-coated world with perfect perky characters when real life isn’t that way at all. Maybe death is a bit much, but realistic books are always better.

    • Jessica

      I think that dark books are far more interesting. It seems like they are filled with much more suspense. I can relate to a few of the darker books. This one book that I read that was a really good books that’s rather dark is Cut by Patricia McCormick. It was really good, but it kind of leaves you hanging. It makes you want more though! So yeah, I agree, dark books=better.

  • Meredith

    I am not a big fan of the dark books (maybe because I’m not a teenager?). Frankly, I think it’s possible to have really high quality YA lit that isn’t totally angst-ridden. That being said, some of the dark and depressing books are really good. They just bum me out, so I tend to avoid them.

  • Erin

    I agree with the author of the WSJ article in her closing paragraph, when she says these books are ultimately about triumphing over adversity- and that’s a lot less depressing than the shallow, morally bankrupt worlds of the Gossip Girl style books.

  • Adele

    Having read Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, I rather refer to it as “hope-centric” or “love -centric” or family-centric”. Yes, there is plenty of death in the book but if that is all you take away from it, then you missed the point of this fabulous novel.

  • Sarah

    I personally think that the most popular YA books have a healthy combonation of darkness with a dash of humor. For example: John Green’s Paper Towns is a great book sounds horribly depressing but is actually one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a while. The same goes for Scott Westerfield with Peeps. And anything by e. lockhart is going to have some dark elements. But these are books that are the most realistic, that’s why teenagers relate to them. No one lives in sweet valley, but no one lives in some dark emo place all the time either.

  • Theresa

    I agree with Sarah… John Green’s books especially are examples of teen literature that can tackle difficult, real-life situations in an appropriate and beneficial way for teens. Books like these reflect the real world, not a fairy-tale one, and by doing so allow the readers to learn more and take more from it and apply it to their own lives…
    In the end, they’re usually inspiring– stories of the beauty and hope within this crazy world we all live in. And Green, like many other YA authors– Marcus Zusak for instance– is able to do this while still creating a funny, amusing, wonderful journey that is at times filled with heartache. ‘Tis life.
    Both YA authors and teenagers are not given enough credit. Teens can comprehend the material and understand it, and authors such as these should be commended for their great works.
    That being said, I haven’t read Anderson or Forman, but I imagine they fall in the same category.

  • Angie

    Having been a teen in this past decade I can comment that when I was reading the depressing literature required for class (Invisible Man, The Awakening spring to mind) I read Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Harry Potter, and Gossip Girl.

  • Jo

    See, I was a teen in the 1980s and remember a lot of my female classmates carrying around the Flowers in the Attic books. It features a family of four kids, locked into an attic for years and years by their bizarre family. Girls reading dark lit is not a new phenomenon.

  • Lea

    If I remember correctly, no one, but no one, can enjoy a good dark book more than a teen. The hormones and the drama lend themselves like nothing else to bleak and grim. I remember reading everything I could get my hands on. The only generic-age-related stuff I read was Scifi for boys. I do remember my non-reading aunts pushing Nancy Drew on me since that’s all they knew. (I couldn’t get past the mildewed corny covers–no wonder they never read anything after that tripe.) I plowed through Crime and Punishment at 15 and it took forever before I knew who anyone was and what exactly was happening. I enjoyed it immensely. I think teens should read everything. It’s a way of discovering the world without losing money or your virginity.

  • Lauren

    I think these books are realistic. Life isn’t rainbows and butterflies, especially for teens when they are going through all sorts of new things.
    Wintergirls and If I Stay are amazing novels by great authors and there is much more to them than people think. I highly recommend. They are worth a read.

  • Tipper

    Books are always beneficial. I would never, ever say that a book should not be read or is harmful, for that way lies book burning. As for why young adults are attracted to dark lit? Precisely because they are pre-teens and teenagers–they are the epitome of angst. The older you get, the more you want to escape reality, but, for the young, reality is what you crave to know and understand and be apart of. These books fill a niche, one that will never go away and is definitely not something new.

  • Lauren

    I’m 15 and I’m reading the classic literature among “new” classics. Currently The Picture of Dorian Gray, soon The Scarlet Letter. I could only get the first half of Little Women though, I just didn’t like it. But I have to admit that I did read the Gossip Girl series, (Guilty Pleasure!, along with the tv show.), although it started getting monotonous with the last few books.

  • Birv

    Agreed with Lauren on “life isn’t sunshine and rainbows”. It is a) depressing that people see teenagers as foolish, easily-swayed buffoons with nothing but fluff between their ears that can’t tell reality from fantasy and b) ironic how concerned people are about BOOKS considering the heavy sex and gore factor of just about every single film and television show to come out in the last 10 years.

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