There has been much discussion in the press recently of ‘sick-lit’, sparked by the popularity of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. The Daily Mail (obviously known for its balanced and considered opinions) dubbed the genre ‘a disturbing phenomenon‘, suggesting that these stories, which follow characters through terminal illnesses, are gratuitously shocking and that publishers are exploiting children’s emotions, rather than having their best interests at heart.
Having worked with teenagers as a Youth Theatre tutor, I am very aware that young adults need to be given the opportunity to express and experience emotions in a safe space; for me, this was through drama and books. My friends and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful drama tutor who let us explore all sorts of extreme scenarios. For a couple of hours a week as teenagers, we were all dying of some horrible disease, being bullied, self-harming, having sex and planning suicides – this may sound morbid, but exploring these ideas together certainly helped us deal with them in real life. I also had several fabulous teachers who pointed me in the direction of great books that deal with the same awful issues.
So I believe that publishers and authors of young adult (or YA) fiction are absolutely considering the consumer. Our teenage years are our most formative and emotional, where we thrive on dramatic situations. Young adults should be exploring the issues raised by these books – sexuality, illness, death, self-harm, suicide – because this is a vital part of their education and books such as these encourage communication.
Perhaps these critics are too old to remember that as young adults every emotion is an extreme one: the rush and exhilaration of first love, inevitably followed by the devastation of first loss. These books help young adults realise that they are not alone. As scary as these emotions may be, they are not unique in experiencing them, and they are only temporary. This is the driving force for most authors of YA, to reach out to their readers in support. Books that deal with life and death help teenagers to contextualize their own feelings; getting dumped by a boyfriend may seem like the end of the world, but these books offer hope and a reminder that things could certainly be worse!
John Green’s book is now on the Richard and Judy book club. The King and Queen of bookselling clearly see its value, praising it as ‘honest, charming, raw and deeply moving’. As long as authors and publishers ensure sensitivity and realism, these novels will continue to fascinate, enlighten and help young adults navigate through the complicated world in which we live.