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Going Over to the Dark Side

Teen lit about suicide, anorexia and techno-torture is on the rise

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“A boy … reaches the pack at the same time I do and for a brief time we grapple for it and then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.”

Such graphic passages, like this one from the bestselling novel “The Hunger Games,” shake pop teen books from the 1990s in their bindings. The cutesy and optimistic “Babysitters Club” series may have titillated teens of yesteryear, but today’s young adults are going in for much darker fare.

Dark, depressed teen fiction is on the rise. There are fictionalized narratives about eating disorders, and fantasy novels about teen prisoners. Publishers are taking more risks, literature is reflecting recent world events and such frank literature gives teens a way to openly tackle taboo subjects, industry experts say.

Still others suggest dark narrative is nothing new: Since the 1990s, books about self-mutilation, rape, and teen suicide, such as “Cut,” “You Don’t Know Me,” and “Speak” could be found on bookshelves, said Michael Bourret, a literary agent for Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.

Yet few of those titles were bestsellers. Today, as the “Harry Potter” books grow ever bleaker, and with the rise of steampunk—a genre of machine-based science fiction set in Victorian times— more dystopian narratives are selling than ever before. Sales were up 5 percent in early 2010, and are projected to climb another 30 percent over the next five years, according to PW/IPR Book Sales Index.

“I don’t think it’s that teens are now more interested in exploring these issues,” said Jay Asher, author of the acclaimed teen suicide novel “Thirteen Reasons Why.” “It’s just that publishers aren’t afraid of these themes like maybe they once were.”

Melyssa Malinowski, head of book reviews for Bookdivas.com, a Web site devoted to female teen fiction, compared her own teen years in the 1990s to the vibe for teens today. “The driving teen consumer was happy, and craved happy, lighter YA,” she said, using the industry shorthand for “young adult” literature. “It was not so socially acceptable to be carrying around a fantasy novel, or to tell someone you had some sort of psychological issue, like [obsessive-compulsive disorder] or that you were suicidal.” Back then, formulaic novels like “Sweet Valley High” and “The Babysitters Club,” thrived because they were consistent and comforting.

Asher’s 2007 novel examined the reasons why a teenage girl ended her life. The word-of-mouth hit sold more than 240,000 copies in 2009.

“A lot of people think suicide is a controversial subject to tackle in a book for teens,” said Asher, whose book was inspired by a teenaged relative’s suicide attempt. “But for me, it was a very real and personal topic, so it wasn’t something I shied away from or thought was out-of-bounds.”

Lauren Oliver wrote “Before I Fall,” a narrative about transformation and redemption in which a dead teen gets seven chances to relive her last day. The idea for her second title—love as a contagious disease—came to her after media popularization of the swine flu epidemic.

The depressed economy, a two-front war, and several devastating natural disasters help drive what teens read, she said. “Popular art, of any age, for any age, reflects those cultural movements.”

And, “for the first time in a long time teens are actually able to explore themes that they’ve always been worried about and thinking about but they never had any cultural medium that was reflecting it.”

Tech transformation is another factor. With teens tethered to their personal machines—their iPods, laptops, BlackBerrys and iPhones—machine-based fantasy fiction seems natural. Kate Colquitt, a librarian at Greenburgh Public Library in Westchester, NY, suggested that books like “Incarceron” and “The Hunger Games” derive from our increasingly technology-based society.

Malinowski thinks it’s escapism.

“You need a world that could be yours, but is not. You need a teen that takes matters into his or her own hands and is successful,” she said. “You need that thrill, that rush that comes from the story climax. You need to step outside your life, to walk next to someone else.”

Librarians also speculate that teens want safe ways to learn about others’ experiences. Reading a book about a black youth growing up on the South Side of Chicago allows a suburban teen to experience another culture from an armchair. Colquitt finds that teens are looking for something that will keep them engaged and have some sort of payoff at the end, whether it is a clearer understanding of themselves, a cathartic experience, or an ability to appreciate their lives more.

The Web popularizes these novels, as teens huddle over computer screens to offer their support. When one Kentucky teen read “Wintergirls,” about a teen’s struggle with anorexia, she posted on the book’s Facebook page: “This book helped me understand what my friend is going through.”

“This book is amazing,” a high school senior from St. George, Utah, posted on the same page. “In fact, it was this book that opened my eyes to what I was doing.”

The raves for “The Hunger Games,” also come alive on the web. “WOW WOW WOW. This book was SOOOOOOOOOOO GOOD,” wrote “Susan,” on goodreads.com. “I finished reading it two weeks ago and I still can’t get it out of my head….. I don’t want to spoil this book but whether you like this genre or not you should give it a try, it takes you on a rollercoaster ride and doesn’t let you off until the very end. Intense! I can’t wait for the second one to come out.”

Tula Batanchiev is a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

Teens are increasingly going in for dark novels - though some point out that dystopian young adult lit has a long history. Photo by Tula Batanchiev