One of the big “issues” in young adult fiction is the level of violence in the books. And that’s “violence” in multiple forms: beatings, abuse, sexual abuse, death by murder or manslaughter, death by suicide. There are long and complex articles and online wrangles about what’s right — whether young adults need or want the darkness of the “real world” and how it should be shown to them, and at what ages. Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak continues to draw attacks from some adult readers who see it as too involved with the specifics of rape and its aftermath; Lauren Myracle’s Shine gets dissected for the count of “bad words” in it; there is even a sense of competition for the books that “get banned” most often.
This is particularly a problem for the mystery writer to think about, since it’s rare to have a mystery that doesn’t include at least one death — on stage if the book is “hard-boiled” or “noir,” and off-stage for softer approaches. The “young adult” (YA) mystery writer faces an even tougher situation: The death in the story may be the first one that the reader faces alone, absorbing the narrative and the emotions without a parent or grandparent saying “We can skip this part of the story if you want.”
In the two years since it went to press, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article on the darkness in YA books has garnered 238 comments. People care about this issue.
But there’s plenty of death in the Harry Potter series; there’s a shocking amount of violence and corruption (and attacks) in the trilogy of The Hunger Games; and a 2013 YA mystery by Jacquelyn Mitchard (her sixth book for YA readers), What We Saw At Night, not only involves murder and inappropriate adult-with-teen sex, but the three teen protagonists of the novel are all facing possible early death themselves from the genetic disorder they share.
Rather than sort out the kinds of crimes or details or sensory images that are or aren’t fit for YA reading, I believe there’s a more powerful way to cope with the scariness of the mystery plot. And it’s a way that immediately leads to a deeper, better story.
Think for a moment about the Alfred Hitchcock films that have scared you (take your pick). Mine would include The Birds and Psycho. I know what creeps me out the most in each of them: the sense that pain and disaster are coming, are obvious to me as viewer, but the protagonist or victim-to-be is clueless (or has the wrong clue). The person that the film sets up for me to identify with is under threat, and mostly powerless to avert the evil that’s coming. Shudder …
But Harry Potter, with his friends, takes aim against the evil forces. Katniss Everdeen, though the odds in the Hunger Games are against her, decides to try to survive, and angles her strengths toward what she’s facing. And in Mitchard’s new book Allie — nobody calls her Alexis unless she’s in trouble with her mom — can’t convince her friends of the danger she’s seen. But she digs in and begins to research serial killers.
“Oddly, the more I read, the less I feared,” Allie comments. Later, realizing that criminals have gotten away with murder but DNA is closing the gap, she has an intense moment of clarity: “I know what I’m going to do with my life. … At work in the dark of a lab, I could wield a sword like Joan of Arc in the sunlight.”
At this moment, Allie seizes control of her life, complete with the risks it contains. And from here on, although the pace of the book accelerates and dangers press close, neither Allie nor the reader is afraid in the way that cripples — whatever’s ahead, Allie can face it.
So — how are your favorite protagonists in YA mysteries empowered to confront evil and solve crime? Or, if you are writing a YA mystery: What part of your character can grown into this kind of self-discovery, this kind of power over what’s ahead? I am convinced this is the prime detail that makes a book into a “good read.” What do you think?