A Literature of Risk

Posted Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 16:55
Teens dealing with violence and other risky behaviors can get help from young adult fiction
Illustration by the author

Risky behaviors remain very real factors in the daily lives of 21st-century  teens. Ranging from physical and emotional violence to drug and alcohol abuse, from risky sexual practices resulting in STDs and unintended pregnancies to driving recklessly and carrying weapons to school, these behaviors make up the main threat to adolescents’ health, according to the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health.

While the incidence of specific behaviors may wax and wane like the moon, one thing remains constant: “You have to realize that all adolescents are going to take risks,” asserts Lynn Ponton, author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do (Basic, 1998). “Adolescents define themselves,” she said in a May 10, 1999, New York Times article, “through rebellion and anger at parents or other adults, engaging in high-risk behaviors including drinking, smoking, drug use, reckless driving, unsafe sexual activity, disordered eating, self-mutilation, stealing, gang activity, and violence.”

The riskiest of teen behaviors involves violence and the resulting injuries that remain the leading causes of death among all youth aged 5–19. Of these deaths, 67% result from injury, 16% from homicide, and 14% from suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These are startling—and sometimes shattering—statistics. The CDC reports that “a number of factors can increase the risk of a youth engaging in violence.” Among them: “a prior history of violence; drug, alcohol, or tobacco use; poor family functioning; poor grades in school; poverty in the community; and association with delinquent peers.”

Violence and its consequences

It is hard not to think that some impact comes from growing up in a violence-ridden world—the real thing, as in the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, 9/11, international terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the imagined but powerfully visualized (and sometimes glamorized) violence in movies, on TV, on the internet, and in video games (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?). Indeed, according to the University of Michigan Health System, “Literally thousands of studies since the 1950s have asked whether there is a link between exposure to media violence and violent behavior. All but 18 have answered ‘Yes.’”

Accordingly, the exponential growth of a media presence in adolescent lives may give one pause. In his fascinating 2008 book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Harper), sociologist Michael Kimmel writes, “Today’s young people—from little kids to adults in their late 20s and early 30s—represent the most technologically sophisticated and media savvy generation in our history. The average American home . . . has three TVs, two VCRs, three radios, two tape players, two CD players, more than one video game console, and more than one computer. . . . American kids 8 to 18 spend about seven hours a day interacting with some form of electronic media; the average 13-to-18-year-old spends two hours a day just playing video games” (p. 145).

Kimmel, who teaches at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University, chillingly continues, “The dominant emotion in all these forms of entertainment is anger. From violent computer games to extreme sports, from racist and misogynistic radio show content to furious rap and heavy metal music, from the X-rated to the Xbox, the amount of rage and sensory violence to which guys have become accustomed is overwhelming. It doesn’t even occur to them that all this media consumption might be extreme.” Extreme and extremely desensitizing and ultimately dehumanizing, perhaps?

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, pointing out that “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”
As we have seen, young people have good reason to fear being harmed, and it doesn’t help that, as Kimmel notes, “The most avid consumers of this new media . . .  are young men 16 to 26. It’s the demographic group most prized by advertisers,” who, needless to say, cheerfully stoke the fires of that young male avidity.

Does it seem counterintuitive to now argue that we need more—not less—literature that addresses these same issues honestly and realistically? In the wake of the tsunami of violence inundating today’s YAs. do we really need books that embrace violence, too? Well, yes, I believe we do.

After all, the great gift literature can give its readers that new—and old—media can’t is the experience of empathy and sympathy. Books can take their readers into the interior lives of characters in ways that television and video can’t. They can not only show what is happening to characters but also powerfully convey how what is happening feels. Interactive games and media can, doubtless, improve hand-to-eye coordination. But books can improve heart-to-eye coordination and even, I would argue, create it when—as increasingly seems to be the case—it is altogether absent.

The shocking absence of empathy in today’s adolescent lives is nowhere more powerfully evidenced than in the epidemic of bullying that is plaguing America’s schools, playgrounds, parks, and neighborhoods.

Bullying ascendant

Bullying is hardly new, but the freshly minted attention it has been given increased dramatically in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings. Indeed, the CDC reports that an estimated 30% of all kids between the 6th and 10th grades (i.e., 5.7 million-plus) now report being involved in bullying.

If any good thing came out of the Columbine tragedy, it was the elevation of attention given to this epidemic and the very rapid emergence of a subgenre of young adult literature that continues to explore the many aspects of this issue with insight and, yes, empathy. Arguably the first book to emerge in this category was Todd Strasser’s chilling documentary novel Give a Boy a Gun (Simon and Schuster, 2000). In it Strasser charts the growing disaffection of two teenage boys, Gary and Brendan, who first dream of taking revenge on the people who have bullied them and then transform that dream into reality.

A number of other novels dealing with school violence have appeared in the decade since Strasser’s; among them are Ron Koertge’s verse novel The Brimstone Journals (Candlewick, 2001), Nancy Garden’s Endgame (Harcourt, 2006), Diane Tullson’s Lockdown (Orca, 2008), C. G. Watson’s Quad (Razorbill, 2007), and Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (Little, Brown, 2009).

Not all violent responses to bullying are directed at the bullies; sometimes the target is the victim him- or, more often, herself. One of the most common ways that teen girls punish themselves for being different is by cutting. Shelley Stoehr’s 1991 novel Crosses (Delacorte) is the first YA novel to examine this growing phenomenon, which has since become a fixture in teen fiction. Another gravely misguided strategy for coping with bullying is suicide, a topic that was taboo in YA literature for many years (for fear of creating a copycat effect among young readers). This has recently begun to change, since the enormous success of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill), in which a teenage girl named Hannah kills herself, leaving a package of audiocassettes articulating her reasons. Laurie Halse Anderson also addresses this issue in Twisted (Viking, 2007), in which a teen boy contemplates killing himself in response to intolerable bullying.

Fortunately, not all bullying results in apocalyptic violence. Arguably the best-known book on how the targets of bullying can find a creative way to respond is James Howe’s The Misfits (Atheneum, 2001), the story of four middle school students who are, yes, misfits and are accordingly the targets of painful bullying. Instead of getting even, the four resolve to change their school’s climate of abuse by running for class office on a no-name-calling platform. Clearly Howe’s novel touched a nerve; its huge popularity has inspired a national No Name Calling Week that is observed by middle and elementary schools all across the country.

Bullying is not a uniquely American problem, of course. Indeed, the newest kind of bullying has international ramifications thanks to the ubiquity of the internet. I’m referring here, of course, to cyberbullying: the posting of innuendo, put-downs, gossip, lies, and—perhaps worst of all—compromising photos online.

“Cyberbullying is the fastest-growing form of bullying happening around the world,” observed C. J. Bott, author of two books about the subject, in the June 2008 VOYA. One of the attractions of this technique is that it allows the bully both anonymity and the ability to inflict pain without being forced to see its effect, which an August 26, 2004, New York Times article noted “also seems to incite a deeper level of meanness.” Perhaps worst of all, there is no escaping this type of bullying; it spreads virally and follows the victim everywhere. Cyberbullies can be both boys and girls, but the latter tend to predominate. A few recent books about this invidious phenomenon are Laura Ruby’s Good Girls (HarperTempest, 2006) and Shana Norris’s Something to Blog About (Amulet, 2008).
Perhaps because of these books, a new anti-bullying technique has begun gaining favor. In an April 5, 2009, front-page article in the New York Times, reporter Winnie Hu wrote, “The emphasis on empathy here and in schools nationwide is the latest front in a decade-long campaign against bullying and violence.” According to Hu, “the Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit group in Washington, said 18 states—including New York, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, and California—require programs to foster core values such as empathy, respect, responsibility, and integrity.”

Not all violence is related to bullying, of course. On September 11, 2001—scarcely two years after Columbine—the attack on Manhattan’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought the specter of international terrorism—and the threat of violent death—into the forefront of American teens’ consciousness. Within a year a dozen or more books, virtually all of them nonfiction, had appeared with the goal of helping young readers of all ages to cope with this new fear factor in their lives. Although short fiction was included in 911: The Book of Help, the anthology that Marc Aronson, Marianne Carus, and I coedited (Marcato/Cricket, 2002), full-length fiction about this terrible event has been slower to surface. Joyce Maynard’s crossover novel The Usual Rules (St. Martin’s) appeared in 2003, and Francine Prose’s YA title Bullyville (HarperTeen) followed in 2007. Finally, in 2009, David Levithan’s Love Is the Higher Law (Knopf) appeared.

In an eloquent letter to the reader, Levithan explained his reasons for taking us back to that terrible event: “As time goes by, it’s really easy to remember 9/11 and the days afterward as a time of tragedy, fear, grief, and loss. Less easy to remember—and even harder to convey—is that it was amazing not just for the depth of that loss, but also for the heights of humanity that occurred. The kindness. The feeling of community. The deepening of love and friendship.”

This, it seems to me, is the most compelling argument one can offer for writing fiction about even the most unpleasant realities of teens’ lives. For life, even at its darkest, can hold the promise of hope and positive change—especially when we read about it with open minds and hearts, with intellectual attention and emotional empathy.

MICHAEL CART is a nationally known expert in young adult literature, which he taught at UCLA before his recent relocation to the Midwest. A columnist and reviewer for ALA’s Booklist magazine, he is also the author or editor of 20 books and countless articles. This article is excerpted from the new edition of Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, to be published this summer by ALA Editions.