This is the underlying concept in writing fiction. A novel is a lie we tell to understand some deeper truth. The most fantastical story can feel completely real if, deep down, it's telling the truth. Conversely, some of the "truest" stories can seem like absolute lies if at heart they are not authentic.
The drive to reflect reality is the impetus for some big things that are happening in YA fiction right now. The We Need Diverse Books campaign (a worthy cause, and I'm proud to know some of its greatest champions) is in essence a call to tell the truth. Reality isn't a thing that happens only to the nerdy white girl with a crush on the star basketball player. Everyone has a story, and a lot of stories have historically been overlooked.
But whose reality?
There's another angle to this question than that regarding diversity. It's a question of darkness. How dark is too dark? Do we ignore someone's reality because it isn't suitable for teens?
Given what I've seen published, I would say the market's answer to that is no. Take the contemporary book Speak, published almost sixteen years ago now, which deals with the subject of rape, or more recently the historical books Code Name Verity and The Book Thief, two of the most haunting tales I've ever read, both set during World War 2. Or consider the violence of The Hunger Games or the racism of Harry Potter. All of these books have been best sellers. All of them tell the truth about some very dark realities.
Several months ago I had a conversation with my grandmother about Code Name Verity specifically. She told me it had been recommended to her, and after reading a few chapters into it she couldn't understand why. It was too bleak for her taste.
I could see why it might have been recommended. My grandmother enjoys books that teach her about a new setting or a way of life she hasn't been exposed to. She might otherwise very much like a book about some of the early female pilots.
Why do people want to read about the darkness? she wondered. When she was growing up, the heroes in her stories always saved the day and came out on top. Why has that changed? Shouldn't we encourage young people with stories about courage and selflessness resulting in victory?
But for so many teens, that's not reality. They try to be brave. They work hard, they sacrifice, and yet nothing changes. A lot of teens deal with darkness. And in some parts of the world, the darkness is very dark indeed. I spent my teen years worrying over exams and stressing over how to make time for all my different activities. In other parts of the world, people that age have been working for years for an income that doesn't fully meet their needs. Some of them are even sold to abominable practices by their own mothers simply to provide enough food for the family. What about their stories? Should they be told?
I'm not saying all stories should be dark. Not even close. To date all my writing has had happy endings.
But some of my ideas don't. Every year I live I find in myself more compassion for those whose realities are bleak. Their stories are no less real than mine or anyone else's. They should be acknowledged in some form.
Perhaps if I had read stories like that when I was a teen my compassion would have been quicker to develop. Or perhaps not. Maybe emotional intelligence is something that takes more time to grow.
And yet I look at all these books that tackle the darkness, and I think, maybe not. Maybe there are teens out there who will read the hard stories and finally find emotional release because they see their own lives reflected in the pages. And maybe there will be other teens who, like me, have no concept of the hardships other people face and who need to learn some humility and compassion.
But what about innocence? Isn't that worth preserving? Won't exposure to darkness cloud the heart of someone still learning to navigate the world?
And honestly I think sometimes that's a very valid question. Studies show that exposure to violence, for example, can breed violence. We do need to be careful to preserve goodness.
But on the other hand, I think sometimes we mistake ignorance for innocence. How many of us grow up knowing where our clothes come from and how they can be affordable enough that we have more than three outfits to wear? How many of us are aware of how our luxury food consumption affects people in other parts of the world? So often what we see as innocence is ignorance of how our own behavior can be harmful to other people. There's nothing innocent about causing harm to those we share this planet with.
So back to the question, then: How dark is too dark?
I think in part, the answer varies from person to person. People mature at different rates, and some might be more ready to handle a hard book than others.
But also, I think it comes down to this: is the darkness there for its own sake, or is it there for a greater purpose? There is darkness in the world, and we have a duty to learn about it.