Darkness in YA Novels: Can Teens Benefit From Reading About Others' Rough Emotional Experiences?

25/10/2013 14:12 | Updated 23 January 2014

The day the doctor told us our baby was a girl, I closed my eyes and hoped my daughter's adolescence would be less traumatic than mine. When I was in seventh grade, I was twelve going on eight--naïve, flat-chested, yearning to travel back to sixth or fifth or fourth grade, when hormones had not existed and my friends were still my friends. I cried a lot; my emotions ruled me. It felt like they might be the most powerful things in the world.

My mother is a teacher, and I spent a lot of afternoons at the library with her while she checked out books for her class. I remember the day I found Go Ask Alice in the back corner of the teen section on one of those revolving carts. There was no picture on the cover. The author was anonymous. I turned to centre (still my habit) and fell under the spell of the dark and dangerous life of Alice. I shut the book and looked around--had anyone seen me reading it? Had my thrill been recognizable? I hid the book behind the toilet in the library bathroom and spent the next week reading it while my mom drifted through the children's section.

I read about the too-short high of crack. I read about sex on ecstasy. I learned how to take a pregnancy test, about overdose and suicide. I know I read these things because recently I flipped though the copy I now own and they're all still there.

But do you know what I remember about Go Ask Alice? I remember how much I related to Alice--became Alice--when I was reading it. It wasn't because I'd ever done a single thing from that transgressive list above. The book didn't make me want to smoke a rock or get pregnant. What mattered to me was that Alice was struggling to be understood. She felt ostracized, isolated. She was more honest in her published diary than I was in my own at home.

Go Ask Alice made me feel less alone. It helped me to articulate how my middle school life felt. It gave me a fighting chance against my emotions.

These days, I am privileged to meet middle school girls who sometimes tell me my books saved their lives. I infused my new book Teardrop's main character with many of my readers' painful anecdotes. Eureka is a girl who, after a crushing loss, shuts herself off from the world. Like I was in middle school, she's desperate to find a way to connect to the world outside her body and her mind. I decided to give Eureka's emotions as much force as I could, to explore what would happen if a girl's emotions really were the most powerful things in the world.

I hold my daughter now and I think about what she will endure in those turbulent years to come. I hope I don't become afraid to let her read a book like Go Ask Alice. And even if she feels the need to hide a future book from me, I hope I remember how a touch of danger can save your life.