Astrophysicists hypothesize that dark matter, which neither emits nor absorbs light, makes up 83 percent of the universe. Keep this in mind as you walk into a bookstore and saunter through the young adult and teen fiction sections. Read the titles. Glance at the cover illustrations. Dark matter now seemingly fills 83 percent of the available shelf space.
From orphans pursued by a larcenous relative to wizards battling for control of a magical realm and vampires and werewolves contesting for love and blood, to quasi-gladiatorial bouts to decide who gets to live—works by such authors as Lemony Snicket, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins become cultural phenomena, filling bookstore shelves and evolving into blockbuster movies. Many parents and educators express concern over the depiction of raw violence and exploration of dark themes in children’s and young adult fiction, not to mention the films that follow them. They ask three questions: Will this material harm impressionable, young minds? Why is such violent, supernatural, and dystopian fare now popular? What should we do?
First, let’s be honest. Anything can be harmful, especially when filtered through a sinful nature. Even Scripture has been used to justify slavery and the subjugation of women. Challenging works of fiction such as The Hunger Games trilogy are not dangerous in and of themselves. In fact, all genre fiction reinforces traditional moral structure.
The values of friendship, loyalty, courage, and honesty play as central a role in these darker works as they do in the Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables series. That stories have a beginning, middle, and end conserves our ideals about the nature of time and experience. That actions have consequences underscores our moral sense of causality. That fidelity to one’s family and friends binds communities to a common good and purpose establishes and perpetuates our attachments to one another. That the hero or heroine ventures out on a quest or mission that tests and challenges these ethical ties and moral verities highlights the strengths of these virtues rather than revealing the weaknesses. In fact, the uncovered weaknesses are perversions of these values.
The adults in these works often are portrayed as clueless, cruel, or well-meaning but ineffectual characters. The youthful heroines and heroes must confront and battle alone the forces of evil. Some fear that these portrayals undermine young peoples’ respect for their elders, but I disagree. First, all stories are told from a particular character’s perspective. Second, as Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment, his work on the import of fairy tales, young people confront a frightening and dizzyingly complicated world with odds stacked against them. Adults have access to the resources necessary for life, and are not surprised when tomorrow follows today. These works tell young people that they can confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles and not only survive, but also prevail through courage, cunning, perseverance, and friendship.
Why are such works attracting a large readership now? Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we all feared nuclear annihilation and the disintegration of civilization. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove seemed, for us, a documentary. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies were not fanciful speculations, but real possibilities. Darker themes in fiction represent responses to deep anxieties permeating a culture. Young people in 2012 must deal with more numerous and often more insidious fears. The literature in question does not perpetuate or exacerbate the anxieties; it helps young people face, engage, and overcome them.
So, what can concerned scholars and parents do? First, we must understand the importance of the larger view. Writing never happens in a vacuum; neither does reading. All reading takes place in the midst of two communities. The first comprises everything created by all of one’s prior reading. The second includes the people around us who, through discussion and interchange, shape our attitudes, opinions, and judgments—friends, family, and classmates. This conversation is crucial, and the point at which adults can make a difference. If we take Ephesians 6:4 seriously, we will listen to our children and students with respect, patience, understanding, and generosity, and will be sympathetic toward their efforts to understand and engage their world.
Through this conversation, we build the capacity in the young to make moral decisions by themselves and for themselves. It’s not what young people read, but what they do with what they read, that counts. Our interchanges with our children and students enable us to help frame the conversation and contribute to the learning that follows. By engaging with them, even reading the books they read and seeing the movies that shape them, we immunize them against dangers that we may not even perceive and probably cannot understand. Such immunization does not “provoke our children to wrath” but rather promotes understanding and righteousness, and is, therefore, far superior to quarantine.
David D. Esselstrom, Ph.D., is chair and professor in the Department of English. firstname.lastname@example.org