Give me magic, gadgets, monsters, zombies, everything that seems impossible, and throw in some tough chicks with swords. That's the stuff.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Musings on "Dark" Books

Who would have guessed that losing myself in a book would be the best way for me to find myself again?

I didn't always have a bright, shiny childhood. No, I wasn't abused, beaten, or molested. What I did have was a younger sister with a terminal disease. My formative years were spent visiting the kid's ward at the hospital - the side where they put the kids who were running out of time.

I remember seeing a little boy racing around. He must have been about 2. He looked so happy. I pointed him out to my parents, that he must be getting better now that he's running around. They got a weird look on their faces and told me that he was really sick, just having a good day at the moment. I then noticed his parents, the look on their faces. Similar to the look my parents had at times. A mix of happiness for a rare good time, a small tinge of hope that was dying as well. A few months later, I stopped seeing him and his parents.

It was the first time I really understood what was going on. That hospitals aren't just places where they "fix people", they are also waiting rooms for death. I also learned that sometimes it even happened to kids my age, or younger. Sometimes life just punches you in the face and there's not anything you can do about it. In time, no matter what my parents did (and even if they kick themselves over it to this day, I know they did everything they could) in time my sister lost her fight.

Who do you talk to about that stuff when you are a kid and every one of your friends has the normal sibling relationship? They aren't at hospitals, they aren't being dropped off at various houses so their parents can go to the next specialist, they aren't at funerals for kids younger than themselves. No one understood, and for the most part, the adults didn't know how to react to me. They could barely deal themselves, or they were worried about upsetting me. Truthfully - kids know. They know when you are hiding something and keeping it quiet doesn't help. Isolating someone because they had an experience you wouldn't want to wish on anyone doesn't help.

I needed a refuge of my own, and I found it in books. Sometimes they were just fun reads to take my mind off the real world. Sometimes they dealt with "dark subjects" - death, violence, life without the sunshine and rainbows. I remember my dad giving me a copy of Bradbury's Halloween Tree. He told me he thought I would like it, but I think he knew I needed it. And I did. I needed that story of kids battling with death. Needed it like air, like water, like my own sanity. Sometimes it's not enough to just have a happy ending. Sometimes you need a little of that darkness to remind yourself that you are not alone, you are not the only one who has struggled, and though it might be hard, it might kick your ass for years, you need to fight on. 

Writers far more eloquent than I have commented on the WSJ article on the prevalence of "dark subject matter" in young adult books. Yes, death, violence, rape, cutting, anorexia, abuse, addiction - all of these subjects are disturbing, as they damn well should be. I am a parent, I understand the inherent need to protect your child, to never want them to have these experiences. At the same time, they also have to learn that rape and murder are abhorrent, the pitfalls of addiction, the consequences of self-destructive behavior.  And if they have experienced them, as too many have suffered, then they also need to know they are not alone. I'm not saying that every book should have a "moral theme" or that all kids should be forced to read them, but I do believe that the choice should be there.

I also see it as an opportunity - I found with my parents that it was much easier to discuss a "sensitive topic" in terms of a book that we all read, than to have the "parent-child lecture" where truthfully I zoned out about halfway through (sorry mom and dad, but I doubt it's that much of a shock). I am not looking forward to the difficult discussions that I will have to have with my own kids, but you can be sure that books will play a part. I'm trying to keep my head out of denial-land.

So I won't be banning books that have a topic that is uncomfortable, or leads to difficult questions. I'm not going to have my head in the sand either - I'll know what they're reading, and most often, we'll be sharing books. I'll try to remember how much I needed my own answers, how I needed to explore the world and find my own place in it. And I am indebted to a vast number of authors who allowed me to accomplish some of that through their words.

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