Vampires make way for sick-lit in young adult books

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First aired on The Current (09/01/13)


Young adult books focused on cancer, self-harm, eating disorders and other narratives of death and dying are becoming almost as popular as those about glittering vampires and death matches staged by the Capitol.

During Wednesday's show, The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti explored the controversy behind the so-called sick-lit: does it drive vulnerable teens to depressive tendencies or reflect the tumultuous teenage world?

Amanda Craig, an author and children's book reviewer for the Times of London, refuses to review sick-lit. The books target impressionable, vulnerable people barely out of childhood, she said, and the text "wallows in depression, suicidal thoughts" without offering teens a sensible solution: seeking help.

"If you're feeling these things, you're not going to find answers in this kind of book," she said. "Obviously a book that helps you get through grief is different from a book about, you know, how you're dying of cancer, but at least you're going to lose your virginity first to this really hot boy. I mean, that kind of book just makes me want to vomit. I think it's very, very dangerous."

17-year-old literary blogger, Robby Auld disagrees, finding the term sick-lit disrespectful to the authors. Auld says the books aren't about sickness. "They're about teenagers struggling with different things and being able to try and overcome their struggles."

Still, he acknowledges not all kids can distance themselves from the trigger these novels may provide. When Auld was in grade six, he said, a popular book about self-harm motivated a lot of his classmates to try cutting. "That really disturbed me," he said. "I read the book and I didn't interpret it that way."

To help prevent young kids from internalizing sick-lit this way, Craig wants for three things to happen:

  • Sick-lit authors to examine their conscious and think about the consequences of writing this dark tide.
  • Publishers to be more explicit about how toxic sick-lit books can be.
  • Authors who are more talented writers to tackle the subject in a deeper, more responsible way.

Melissa Bourdon-King, the general manager of Mabel's Fables, a children's bookstore in Toronto, Ontario, says her shop sells the genre responsibly -- and can't manage to keep the popular books in stock. The store sees teachers and guidance counsellors visiting the shop to purchase these types of books in case their students come seeking help about tough issues.

Sometimes, concerned parents come in, explaining that their child is going through a phase of reading books about difficult issues, such as the Holocaust. Bourdon-King said she reassures them that literature is one of the safest places to explore troubling issues.

Auld agrees, saying parents should have little to no say in the types of books their kids are reading, but should openly discuss those choices with their teen.

An example of a popular sick-lit book? Auld and Bourdon-King both agree on John Green's The Fault in our Stars. In the book, a girl dying of cancer meets a boy in remission at a cancer support group, and the two fall in love.

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