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September 26, 2018

Spotlight on Humanity --- Guest Post by Ellen Hopkins, Author of PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE

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At the end of August 2018, Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled "The Unbearable Darkness of Young Adult Literature." While the author acknowledged that inspiration has always been the "hallmark of young adult literature," he also claimed that YA literature has become too absorbed in darkness and depravity. New York Times bestselling author Ellen Hopkins --- known for her gritty, realistic novels in verse --- stopped by our blog to share her response to critiques of the darkness in young adult literature from her point of view as an author and founder of a nonprofit youth housing and resource initiative. Read this post to see what Ellen has to say about realistic, hard-hitting YA, and why she thinks it is an invaluable resource for teens.


Over Labor Day weekend, I was honored to participate in the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. I spoke to a room filled with teen readers, parents, teachers and librarians passionate about YA literature. Afterward, I signed books, and the young people who came through my line were as diverse as the teen landscape: Asian; Latinx; African American; white. Urban. Suburban. Country kids. Privileged. Underprivileged. Gay. Straight. Questioning. Starry-eyed. Tattooed. Giddy. In obvious pain.

"I always take the time to acknowledge each person individually, ask their name, where they’re from."

I always take the time to acknowledge each person individually, ask their name, where they’re from. And I can tell by the books they bring, the ones they hold closest, a little about them. Often, they pass me notes or lower their voices to offer up secrets, certain I care because not only do I write for them, but I also write characters who are them, to varying degrees.

The funny thing is, their outward appearances do not always match their circumstances. The fresh-faced girl with the blond ponytail confesses she has an eating disorder, the result of childhood abuse. The buff Hispanic guy with steel eyes doesn’t dare tell his parents he’s living with HIV. But he’s willing to tell me. He knows I won’t judge, and that maybe I can suggest resources otherwise unavailable to him.

That afternoon, a couple in their early twenties waited at the back of the line. My author escort talked to them as they stood there, and they confessed how nervous they were, as they’d been fans for a long time and had never had the chance to meet me. They brought up their books separately. “Ethan” (not his real name) was transitioning, and appreciated my open support of LGBTQ causes, in my books and in real life. “Kyla” didn’t want a picture but asked if she could hug me. She shook in my arms.

"I’m just an author. But my readers trust me, and the honesty of my storytelling. They have faith in my perspective, and believe it has helped them maneuver the rocky terrain of adolescence."

I’m just an author. But my readers trust me, and the honesty of my storytelling. They have faith in my perspective, and believe it has helped them maneuver the rocky terrain of adolescence. They understand the vast respect I feel for them as a generation facing huge challenges and conquering hurdles unimagined only yesterday.

I came to writing for young adults 14 years ago, and chose contemporary fiction because of a very real problem that affected a teenager quite close to me --- my daughter, who lost her dreams to meth addiction. No one would’ve guessed that’s the direction that she’d head. We were a solid upper middle class, church-going family, and she not only had the talent, grades and devotion, but also the parental support to realize her goals. All it took was one bad choice, which led to two decades of bad choices.

At the time I was a freelance journalist and nonfiction children’s book author, writing poetry and picture books on the side. I’d never considered writing YA, and most definitely didn’t jump in with the goal of penning “dark” literature for teens. It was my fervent hope that by writing a novel inspired by my daughter’s story I might open the eyes of other young people considering that path, and offer important insight for those who might have lost children or siblings or parents to addiction.

"The best way to sway tentative minds is to present them with facts, even within a fictional setting."

I realized the value of such a book would be lost if I chose to gloss over the ugly truths I’d witnessed. The best way to sway tentative minds is to present them with facts, even within a fictional setting. Fact: the first time you do meth it’s fun. Fact: ditto the second, third, and maybe even fourth time, but before long you have to do more and more to have fun. After that, you have to do more and more to function on even a minimal level. And by then, your life is no longer your own. It belongs to the drug. Played out in scenes, the human toll becomes obvious.

Addiction is an old problem, of course. Today’s teens must deal with a whole new spectrum of worries, and I should know. Not only do I relate to kids through book events, school visits and social media, but I’m also raising a third generation of children. My own are in their thirties. My husband and I adopted a baby, who’s now 21. And five years ago, we became the legal guardians of our three grandchildren, now 8, 9 and 14. I’m intimately acquainted with the evolution of adolescent concerns. And here, I believe, is where many adults who comment on the state of YA literature go wrong by refusing to acknowledge the veracities of teens today.

I can say with certainty that with my first three children there was never a single thought about someone barging into their schools and mowing them down with guns. They practiced earthquake drills, not lockdown drills. Yesterday, our littlest explained how to run a zigzag pattern up the corridor, and where she would hide very, very quietly, if a bad person started to shoot.

My oldest son came out when he was 12, and spent years dealing with the stigma forced upon him by a society unable to accept the LGBTQ community. With time, the hatred seemed to fade into tolerance, and with the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges, today’s queer youth deemed the battle won. Now, they see, their belief in widespread acceptance was premature. The fight continues, and not just within their families or communities, but on the federal level. According to a 2017 Harris Poll, 20% of people 18-34 identify as LGBTQ, and for kids even younger, that number seems to skew higher, so this worry is not insignificant.

Yesterday’s bullying now manifests as overt hate crimes. Instances of racial and socioeconomic inequality present themselves publicly every day. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, consent has become a critical topic of conversation. This is especially important because, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in nine boys will become the victims of sexual abuse before they turn 18, and 325,000 children per year are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial child sexual exploitation. The average age of a child, male or female, introduced to domestic minor sex trafficking is 12 years old, and these kids come from all walks of life, including affluent families.

"Our youth are the future. It’s up to every one of us to help them build a stronger tomorrow, and YA authors have chosen to lead the way."

To deny these problems is to close one’s eyes and pretend they don’t exist, or aren’t widespread. Even those not directly affected by them witness them, and deserve insight. Parents who swear these things will never touch their children may be unaware of their scope, but I submit that every thinking grownup should care that they affect other people’s kids. Our youth are the future. It’s up to every one of us to help them build a stronger tomorrow, and YA authors have chosen to lead the way.

Adults don’t seem to have a problem allowing even their preteen children to play content-heavy video games or watch violence-laden movies and TV shows, including cartoons. They also allow access to online resources, often without oversight. With or without parental consent, according to Psychology Today, nine out of ten boys and six of ten girls are exposed to pornography before age 18. The most popular forum for viewing is the internet.

"Books are among the safest spaces to explore uncomfortable subject matter, and if adult mentors would use them to open dialogues with their young charges, they would arm them with knowledge."

So why take umbrage with YA lit? Books are among the safest spaces to explore uncomfortable subject matter, and if adult mentors would use them to open dialogues with their young charges, they would arm them with knowledge. Ignorance is no weapon in the quest for conquering the societal ills that challenge our children daily. Sure, there’s a need for nonfiction that provides facts in a clinical way, but young people are drawn to stories that spotlight the decency and incivility, the beauty and hideousness, the aspirations and trepidations, of humanity.

Because they’re humans, after all.


Ellen Hopkins is the author of 14 bestselling young adult novels. Her latest, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE, addresses gun violence.