The Truth About Why We Teach ‘Dark’ Books To Young Adults

An article in the Wall Street Journal addresses the relevant, and difficult question regarding ‘darkness’ or negativity in young adult literature.

“Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?”

And this is a question that many teachers face in their classrooms. Why is it that we teach books about death, abuse, addiction, and pain to young kids?


Admittedly, I’ve asked this question myself many times, especially as I leafed through my younger sister’s assigned reading in her pre-teen years, finding that she was reading about depression and suicide. Or, in sixth grade, when I came home with a book called, The Notebook Girls, from our recommended reading list, only to find my mother appalled at the excessive language, sexual references, and drug use within the pages.

For parents, this type of ‘recommended’ or even academic reading can be alarming. It can raise questions of purpose, and bring about fear that reading about these negative topics will instill improper values in young readers. For teachers, it can also be difficult, as we are expected to teach material that often deals with larger issues, some, perhaps, even beyond our expertise.

This is difficult. And the question is, is it necessary?

When I think about my reading experience in my younger years, I remember being drawn to these ‘dark’ books. I wanted to read something that was honest. I wanted to read something that was real. Sure, the appeal of the forbidden was alluring, but I also didn’t want life’s harsh realities to be hidden from me. I wanted to know what was out there, understand it in my own way, and experience it through the pages.

In an article, “Why Can’t Teachers Assign Happy Books?” author Millie Davis writes,

“Reading about everyday fictional teens rising to the occasion (and, spoiler alert, in YA books they almost always do) allows actual teens to imagine themselves doing the same, within the lower-stakes conflicts and contexts of their own lives. This is empowering, and hopeful, words that I would use to describe many YA books. Even the dark ones. Especially the dark ones. These “dark” books may seem to be about death, about illness, about pain, but really they are about life. The kids get that, even if the adults sometimes, do not.”

There is, perhaps, a lot of truth to that statement. Perhaps having students exposed to the reality of literature is good for them, healthy even. Perhaps it can teach them about the world, help the live vicariously through the text and characters. Or perhaps this exposure is too much for their young, developing brains?

What are your perspectives–would love to hear them!


Photo Credit: Robyn Budlender


  1. interesting ideas! I personally think that sugar-coating and censoring the harsh realities of life is only going to make kids sheltered and naive in the long run. Literature is a way of learning from other people’s experiences and reading is an important part of developing empathy and understanding – something that’s vital for children to learn at a young age.

    1. Yes, I completely agree. But then I think about the 11-yr-olds reading about sex and drugs and wonder if that’s too young or too negative of exposure? I’m torn!

      1. Good point – though I assume that even if they don’t read about it, they’ll be seeing it everywhere on TV/films/advertising/internet etc.. unfortunately these things are such an ingrained part of our culture I don’t think there’s a way to completely shelter children from it even if it’s kept off the school curriculum

      2. Yes, so true. I think that goes into a whole other issue–censorship for children in the media–but when teaching this type of literature comes into the academic curriculum? That’s where it gets sticky.

  2. I loved the line, “The kids get that, even if the adults sometimes, do not.” Sometimes it feels like our students are being babied by their helicopter parents. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for. There is definitely a balance between choosing books that are age and maturity level appropriate, but for the most part, I think that the “dark” books are important for kids to read – they are the books they will remember and learn from. Honestly, the dark stuff is the conflict and drama and plot of the story – how can you write a great book with just sunshine and rainbows?! There was a quote that I was reminded of in a news article a few years ago when the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was removed from the curriculum in an Idaho school. Parents were upset about the language and sexual content, but a director of public libraries, Gretchen Caserotti, opposed the removal of the material and made a great point. She said, “Teen fiction is often a reflection and extension of adolescents’ realities. We believe books are a powerful and safe place for kids to see outside themselves and explore a world that is increasingly diverse and complex.” I think her comment makes sense. That’s why adolescents have long been drawn to books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower: they’re looking for a bit of truth amidst the chaos of growing up.

    1. I completely agree. I think there’s such a fine line because we want to educate our children, our students about the real world, but we also want to (especially when they’re young) shelter them from things that they might not have the mental capacity for. So tough. But when we bring forth these things in an educational context, I think that’s where it’s important for them to learn, rather than to explore on their own, if that makes sense. At least in the classroom we can shape what they absorb.

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