Missing The Hope In YA Fiction

“Fear is a powerful emotion, and it’s driving current trends in YA publishing.” This is the leading line of a recent Publishers Weekly article, “Spotlight on YA.” Books highlighted here touch on timely topics ranging from illegal immigration to Islamophobia. The article also notes that teen thrillers are on the rise, saying that “today’s audiences crave dark, suspenseful storytelling and hairpin plot turns.”

I have absolutely no issue with books that take on current topics, and/or shed light on the difficulties faced by particular subgroups of society. I think reading across different cultural experiences and societal injustices benefits anyone’s worldview, and I also appreciate the concept of books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which explore traumatic experiences and help make these issues more public.

But for myself, I’ve always read darker, grittier, or grimmer books as a part of a palette that also includes escapism and hopefulness. My heart and my brain can only spend so much time focused on unrelenting pain and despair. Even though a book needs drama to stay engaging, one of the big draws for me to YA Fantasy always was the general sense of hopefulness that it tended to have. Young characters usually aren’t fully cynical yet. They believe good can defeat evil, because it should. They have grand plans for their lives, and believe they can change the world, or the galaxy. They have a contagious overall optimism, even in books about war, or in books where Lord Voldemort has taken over the government. Adults can learn a lot from that kind of fresh perspective and perseverance. Too often I think we (adults) fall into believing that the world can be no better than it is. And this sense of fighting a constant uphill battle against corrupt and self-serving status quos that will never improve feels like it’s bleeding even into fantasy novels.

Darkness in children’s fiction isn’t new. There have always been books like My Girl and The Bridge To Terabithia, which take on death and grief. There’s nothing wrong with books reflecting issues that kids might have to face, whether it’s death or racism or abuse. But I can’t help but feel like the balance of books offered with a focus on the harsh realities of life, or even the harsh realities of dystopian life, has been shifting. And to an even greater extent, the tone of the books has shifted. Somehow the hopelessness in so much of classic adult literary fiction (I’m looking at you, Tolstoy), seems to have spread. It’s not the difference of a carefree, pastoral (or suburban) existence versus an existence in the sewers living off of rats. Rather, it’s the difference between a character facing grand challenges surrounded by at least a few helpful friends, versus a character facing grand challenges surrounded by people who might or might not be trying to kill him, and surrounded more widely by people who have nothing but their own interests at heart. One type of story implies that there can still be some camaraderie, some trust, and some hope even in the face of colossal problems. The other story implies that the surrounding world has nothing to offer but selfishness and near-certain doom.

Or is this just me? Maybe I’m simply wanting to read more light, hopeful fiction lately. I admit, I’m a bit bemused by the general growth of looming dangers in the world fueling a desire for thrillers and dystopian settings in entertainment. I usually find enough dystopian stories listening to NPR—when I’m reading before bed, please give me a happy ending. Also, a set of characters who don’t seem completely self-serving or defeated from the start.

What do you all think? Is this just me, or have you been seeing this too? I’m also very open to any good suggestions of YA with a sense of hope still in it. Feel free to chime in!

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