Popular opinion on the “book circuit” – ie public & school libraries and Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, as well as among The Big & Small Publishers Of Both Paper Books And Ebooks – appears to be that teenagers love to read the following because teenagers are responding to the grimness of “life”:
The TWILIGHT series
The HARRY POTTER series
The HUNGER GAMES series
The GONE series
The HIDDEN series
The HUNGRY CITY chronicles
The LIFE AS WE KNEW IT series
Lisa Belkin, a New York Times online writer, is quick to say, “Why are all these book so dark? Then again, isn’t dark what teens do best?” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/what-your-teens-are-reading/
Of course, the instant assumption is that teenagers in the early part of the 21st Century have much more horrible lives than any teens in any other time in history.
I beg to differ and postulate that what teenagers face today is different in specifics but not in substance. In order to give some brackets to my defense, I will limit my timeline to the era with identifiable “teen literature”, beginning with the early 1800s.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (1812): US declares war on England; Napoleonic wars in full swing; US invades Canada; bubonic plague in Egypt, Istanbul, Bucharest, and Malta; Felling mine disaster
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott (1814): War of 1812 continues; Napoleonic wars continues; Britain burns down Washington, D.C.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838): Rioting in Mexico; Cherokee Indians begin Trail of Tears; Central American Civil War begins; Boors slaughter Zulus in South Africa; women allowed to vote somewhere in the world for the first time; major smallpox typhus plagues in the US; (Dickens depicts deplorable conditions in central London, in particular child labor, death and poverty)
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844): USS Princeton explodes; Jews allowed to return to Jerusalem for the first time in hundreds of years; massive flooding of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers; French invasion of Algeria continues in bloodshed; Paraguayan dictator ascends to his office; yellow fever has ravaged the South
Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes(1857): Major US earthquake; Second Opium War breaks out in China; largest slave auction in US history and slaves declared not people in the US; Tokyo earthquake kills 100,000; the India Rebellion; Panic of 1857 causes financial tremors all around the world; Mountain Meadows Massacre (120 Arkansas settlers passing through Utah are slaughtered by Mormons); SS Central America sinks with all hands (425); Reform Wars of Mexico begin; the end of the Third Bubonic Plague Pandemic; yellow fever in Portugal, smallpox in Australia, influenza in Europe, North America, South America
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860): assassination of Venezuelan leader; massive strike of 20,000 in New England; settlers massacre 60 native people in California; First Taranaki War in New Zealand, Maori revolt; Qing army of 180,000 destroyed in China; record-breaking storm sinks 100s of boats, kills people on east coast of England; wars of formation in Italy; PS Elgin rammed and sunk in Lake Michigan, 100s die; Ecuadoran and Peruvian wars; Christians and Druzs kill each other in Damascus; there are 4 million slaves in the American South; influenza in S, N America, Europe
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865): US Civil War breaks out; Abraham Lincoln assassinated; steamboat Sultana explodes on Mississippi, 1700 dead; Brazilian and Paraguayan navies clash; cholera epidemics in Egypt and the Middle East; rebel uprising in Jamaica, British execute 600;
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876): defacto slavery; poverty; Batak, Bulgaria massacre of some 5000; war in Turkey; Indian Wars; Serbia and Montenegro declare war on Ottoman Empire; tornado in India kills 200,000; samurai banned from carrying swords in Japan
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884): defacto slavery; poverty; siege of Khatoum, Sudan begins; Colchester earthquake, UK’s worst; Germany takes possession of Togoland and Cameroon; earthquake shakes US from central Virginia to southern Maine inward to Cleveland; Sino-French War continues; terroristic Texan cowboys attempt to murder deputy sheriff for arresting one of their pals; Korea succumbs to rebellion bankrolled by China and Japan; economic depression in US; Japan established police training schools in every prefecture; India, Germany cholera pandemic
Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson (1886): country of Myanmar (Burma) presented to Queen Victoria as a birthday present; German parliament objects strenuously to deportation of Prussian Poles and Jews; anti-Chinese riots in Seattle; 20 blacks murdered in Carrollton, Miss; Haymarket Riots in US; fire burns Vancouver, BC to the ground; hurricane destroys Indianola, TX; earthquake levels Charleston, SC; Montreal, Canada smallpox epidemic
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894): first significant protest of unemployed Americans, Coxey’s Army; May Day Riots in Cleveland; president of France assassinated; Japan and China go to war; women allowed to vote in Australia; Korean Donghak Peasant Rebellion ends with Japan and Chinese “assistance” fighting each other; Osage Indians become the richest people on Earth; Bubonic plague in Hong Kong; Russian flu winding down around the world
Moon Fleet by J. Meade Falkner (1898): Spanish-American War begins with the explosion of the USS Maine; Massacre of protesters in Milan, Italy; Philippines declare independence from Spain; Turks slaughter 700 Greeks and Brits in Heraklos, Greece; Brits take over Sudan; Empress of Austro-Hungary assassinated; Chinese Empress overthrows government; British conquer and burn Benin City in Africa; tripanosomiasis epidemic in the Congo
I would observe that while SOME of these books are indeed grim reflections of their times; not ALL of them are. I'm fairly certain that the balance of "dark" to "light" books is skewed to dark in the 21st Century where the 19th Century skewed to hopeful.
It’s my considered opinion that we need more positive literature for teenagers to read. The supply of that literature is CONTROLLED lock, stock and barrel by the adults who write, publish, market, buy, suggest, check out and assign books to young people.
Perhaps it is time to wake up and smell the coffee and quit excusing our adult angst by telling ourselves that “isn’t dark what teens do best?”
I’d counter that ridiculous assertion (after 32 years of teaching 3rd graders through 12th graders who were special education, gifted-and-talented, English Learners; and average kids in a first ring suburban high school that is ½ non-white and 75% free-and-reduced-lunch) with this: “HOPE is what teens do best!”
It’s about time for adults to stop pandering to their own sense of failure at bringing the utopic vision they were sure they’d been gifted with and start giving young people the tools to create THEIR OWN vision of the future. That includes SF, F and Contemporary fiction that offers solutions and hope instead of the angsty attitude of "accept that things are crap and do the best you can".