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Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen in the film "The Hunger Games."

A house of dark mirrors

Stories of death and violence pervade teen fiction today. What’s behind the attraction — and should parents be worried?

By Lisa Van de Ven

They’ll text and tweet about it, update their Facebook statuses and probably infuriate their parents until they agree to take them. But next month, they’ll gather. In fact, come March, expect lineups of them outside your local megaplex. The Hunger Games hits theatres, and teenagers will be seeing it in throngs.

For anyone who’s seen the trailers, and by now they’ll be hard to miss, The Hunger Games is already at least somewhat familiar. In the dystopian world of Panem, 24 teenagers are selected annually to participate

in the ultimate reality show: fighting to the death in a “game” broadcast to entertain the frivolous masses in the Capitol, the city of the ruling class. Written by Suzanne Collins, the novel catapulted to the top of bestseller lists after its 2008 release and launched two successful sequels. Next month’s entry is the first of four films planned. The series is expected to be the newest teen sensation, heir apparent to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, another book-turned-film spectacle.

Sparkling vampires aside, The Hunger Games and Twilight certainly share similarities: teen angst set against a science fiction backdrop, with a female protagonist who finds herself in life-or-death situations. What might be surprising to adults, though, are the dark themes that run through both. In fact, they’re a defining feature; the premise of The Hunger Games promises death and destruction from the start.

Wander through the young-adult shelves at your local bookstore, however, and you’ll realize quickly that The Hunger Games and Twilight aren’t dark to be different. Rather, the entire section is packed with novels with heavy themes. There’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower: written by Stephen Chbosky in 1999, its profanity-filled 206 pages literally pull no punches; physical abuse, as well as drug use, suicide and sexual abuse all make appearances in the plotline. Yet it’s become a young-adult classic, with a movie in the works. Two recent bestselling teen novels, If I Stay by Gayle Forman and Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, both deal with girls navigating a world between life and death. The books are ripe with real emotions and catastrophic consequences, worlds away from the glamourized drama found in more dated young-adult fiction such as the Sweet Valley High series, where attempted rape, drug use and even kidnapping were treated in a more soap-opera style.

So what is it about these novels that keep teens turning the pages? More importantly, should parents be concerned?

“Something ruptures when you hit 12, or 13, or whatever the age is when you’re no longer a kid but a ‘young adult,’ and after that you’re a totally different person,” the main character, an archetypal high school mean girl, ruminates in Before I Fall.

It’s not a new discovery. In J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic, The Catcher in the Rye, teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield dreams of catching kids before they fall off the edge of a “crazy cliff”: “I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them,” he says. The novel, originally written for adults, has resonated for years with teenagers. And the cliff those children are falling from — the one from which Holden wants to save them — is adulthood.

There was a reason why Catcher in the Rye was popular with teens, and it’s perhaps the same reason that Hunger Games is too. The world of The Hunger Games is completely fictional, yet for teenagers, this place where youth are thrown into a vast arena and asked to fight things out — with no adults to guide them — has to sound familiar. High school itself must seem like a version of the same: teenagers navigating a new world on their own, fresh pitfalls around every corner.

After all, it’s not only adolescent books that can be dark, but adolescence itself. The cloak of childhood lifted, suddenly teens are faced with the harsh realities of life and forced to traverse the heightened world of high school, where how they look, what they wear, the stupid things they say or do will all be judged — and judged harshly — by their peers. The results can be dark and dangerous: bullying runs rampant, and new studies suggest that self-harming (such as cutting and burning) is also prevalent among young people. And if adolescence is like jumping off Holden’s cliff, not everyone survives the fall: according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide is the cause of 24 percent of deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.

Today, though, we’re more willing than ever to talk about the turmoil that exists in this time of life. There were always books that did, including some of the most enduring teen literature: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, for instance, or even the books of Judy Blume. The difference is that teen novels with dark themes aren’t the exception anymore; they’re pervading pop culture, becoming mainstream hits and blockbuster movies.

The thing is, though, these books aren’t popular just because they’re dark. They’re popular because, at least for the most part, they offer teenagers hope. At risk of spoiling the plot, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the one we’re rooting for in The Hunger Games, actually doesn’t die in the ring. In If I Stay, the character Mia has to decide whether to live or die after a horrible car crash that kills her parents; she chooses to live. Like a more subtle version of the It Gets Better campaign — targeted not just at gay and transgender teens but at all young adults — these books remind teens that high school ends and that life isn’t so black and white once it’s over. What they do now has repercussions, but adolescence doesn’t last forever.

It’s wisdom any parent might offer — they’ve all scrambled through the arena of adolescence themselves. But for teens, seeing it in the decisions of characters they grow to love can be more compelling. And maybe that’s why parents shouldn’t be concerned with the darker content in young adult fiction, but why they should always be aware of the dark content in their teens’ lives.  

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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