Katie Roiphe's Wall Street Journal article about dark days in YA literature is deja vu all over again and again. We last had major hand-wringing over the alleged bleakness of YA about a decade ago with the publication of books such as Norma Fox Mazer's When She Was Good and Brock Cole's The Facts Speak for Themselves. Roiphe seems to have missed this moment; more eccentrically, when she does acknowledge that YA has always had its dark side, she reaches back to Catcher in the Rye and over to Little House on the Prairie for her examples. As Elise Howard points out in a comment on the WSJ site, what about such YA evergreens as Lisa, Bright and Dark and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden? It seems that Roiphe has missed the fairly essential point that YA was at first defined by its darkness; without any apparent irony she writes that "it may be no coincidence that the dominant ambiance of young-adult literature should be that of the car crash about to happen." The road of YA lit is littered with car crashes, a signal event of just about every problem novel published in the 1970s.
We should be used to journalists painting in broad strokes; the real gap in Roiphe's essay is its lack of any acknowledgment of the enduring popularity of books about problems, death, evil, etc. among everybody--look at any bestseller list. When Frances FitzGerald was writing a similarly themed piece for Harper's a few years ago, I kept hammering her to understand that teens--and kids--read for the same reasons adults do. As Thumb points out to his friend Susan, in Ken Roberts' excellent new Thumb and the Bad Guys, "without bad guys, Harry Potter books would just be stories about school."