‘Sick-lit’ for Teens: Moral Catastrophe or Storm in a Teacup?

What’s the next big thing in YA fiction?

According to tabloid UK publication The Daily Mail, it’s ‘sick-lit’ – ‘a raft of morbid novels, which all too often inadvertently glamorise shocking life-and-death issues’.

The newspaper has targeted a number of YA titles as ‘exploitative’ and ‘mawkish’. John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars (a Wheeler Centre best book of 2012), about two teens dying of cancer who fall in love, heads the list.

‘Parents should be vigilant if a child is reading a lot of these books,’ says a child psychologist quoted by the paper. ‘The next time your teen is curled up with a book, ask them what it’s about.’

The Times children’s book critic Amanda Craig says that she has been sent 12 of these ‘sick-lit’ books over the past year, but refuses to review them. ‘When you write for children, you have a moral and social responsibility,’ she says. ‘I think there is a cavalier attitude towards this in the publishing industry, especially as children as young as 11 are likely to be reading these books.’

Michelle Pauli, editor of the Guardian’s children’s site (which currently features The Fault in Our Stars as its teen book club pick of the month) has published a passionate riposte.

‘Illness, depression, sexuality – these are all issues that teens are going to bump up against in their lives, whether directly or at one remove, through family members, friends or representations in other media such as TV, films, and the internet. The Daily Mail seems to be suggesting that it is inappropriate for these issues to be looked at in the one place where difficult subjects have traditionally been most sensitively explored for teens: fiction written specifically for them.’

She also points out that writers and publishers of books for teens ‘think long and carefully’ about the impact on their readers – and that the ‘gatekeepers’ (booksellers, book groups, librarians, bookshop buyers) who stand between them provide added insurance.

Children’s publisher Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow says that seriously ill or dying children in books for children are nothing new, citing the death of Beth in Good Wives and two characters in the Harry Potter series as examples. (For a classic Australian example, think Judy in Seven Little Australians.)

In contemporary Australia, too, dark and challenging books for teens are popular with readers and critics alike. The three titles shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Young Adults last year were Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted, about a girl from a family of criminals, living in a depressed neighbourhood, who strives for a ‘normal’ life; Doug MacLeod’s The Shiny Guys, set in a mental institution and told through the eyes of a deeply depressed narrator who believes himself responsible for the abduction and murder of his younger sister; and John Larkin’s The Shadow Girl (the winner), about a homeless girl on the run from an abusive uncle, for whom school is a refuge.

Is it exploitative to publish books about dark or taboo issues for teenage readers – or is literature a safe place to explore such subjects? Are books for teenagers getting darker, or are we simply paying more attention to them as YA literature gains a higher profile (and higher sales)? And why are teen readers drawn to dark material?

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