Ellen Hopkins on Young Adult Lit's Dark Truths
Ellen Hopkins is no stranger to controversy: The author's young adult novel "Crank" has been banned and challenged since its publication in 2004, with opponents citing depictions of drug use and sexual content. Hopkins went on to publish two more books in the Crank trilogy, "Glass" and "Fallout" as well as other books about real teen issues including "Tricks" (prostitution), "Impulse" (suicide), and "Burned" (abuse). She reveals why writing honestly about teen dark teen issues is important in her exclusive essay for Bookish.
Over the past several months, too many articles have appeared, slamming young adult books as "too dark," "too steamy," and--my favorite--"too sick," referring to YA novels about illness. The people behind them seem to believe YA authors write about cutting, eating disorders, drugs, sex or cancer simply to sell books to impressionable young readers and make small fortunes. (As if!) What they conveniently overlook, however, is that these issues touch the lives of thousands of teens every day. That fact might make some adults uncomfortable. But, unfortunately, it’s true.
I came to writing YA because of a personal truth. My 16-year-old daughter made a very bad choice--a single choice that spun her life out of control, and almost robbed her of it completely. I watched my child--my amazing, brilliant child--fall into addiction, and all the ugly behaviors that initiated. She lied. She stole. She sold her soul. (And who knows what else?) She almost died. When she went to prison--the only thing that could have saved her--I knew I had to write about that period of our lives.
I wrote "Crank" for teens because I wanted them to understand the realities of addiction. I chose to write every disturbing episode because, yes, I wanted to stop a few, if I could, before they ended up in a similar place. I didn’t prettify the ugliness or tiptoe around sordid details because I knew my words had to ring true. Truth matters, especially to young people searching for their own way in a world that often seems not to care about its future generations.
I care, and so do most of the young adult authors I know, and I happen to know a great many. We care about our readers, because we care about the future. By telling the truth, as we know it, about the past and the present, we inspire positive forward motion. We all have a realm of experience uniquely our own, and tapping into it helps us build characters whose fictional lives can influence the future.
Some YA authors choose to weave fantasies around those characters, or send them off into some dystopian world. Others prefer to put them solidly in a contemporary setting, with friends and families like those our readers interact with every day. But, whether they’re dealing with vampires or zombies or bullies or boyfriends, our characters respond with the emotions that make us human—fear, anger, lust, hate, sadness, joy, and love. It is the last our readers respond to the most. Every teen wants to be loved, and they want to give love in return.
I don’t like every YA book I read. Some I find slow or sappy or set in a world I just don’t care about. But the ones that make me crazy are the ones that feel inauthentic. To be honest, a few of those are quite popular, which makes me crazier still because authenticity should be integral to the stories we write for teens. Without books, too many would never be exposed to the most basic truth of all--that every person, regardless of skin color or gender identity or religious belief, is a human being, and deserving of the respect all humans should hold for one another.
We write YA because our readers are hungry for truth. Sometimes it’s dark, yes, and sometimes it’s steamy. And sometimes it regards illnesses of the body and mind. But always, it involves humanness, and the worst and best of what that represents. Words have power, and when readers absorb them, they come away empowered. And in that way, we create a brighter future.
Ellen Hopkins is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of "Crank," "Burned," "Impulse," "Glass," "Identical," "Tricks," "Fallout," "Perfect" and "Tilt," as well as the adult novels "Triangles" and "Collateral" published by Atria. Ellen continues to get hundreds of e-mails and notes through social media from teenagers across the country each day, who claim that she is “the only one who understands them.” She lives with her family in Carson City, Nev. Visit her at EllenHopkins.com and on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter at @EllenHopkinsYA.