When I was in third grade, my best friend and I had the same favorite book: Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. We used to race each other to the library on library day because there was only one copy, and we both wanted to read it for the umpteenth time.
Wait Till Helen Comes was a creepy book for a third grader. It’s about twelve-year-old Molly, whose manipulative step-sister is drawn to the graveyard behind their house and then begins exacting revenge on the family with the help of her ghost friend, Helen. I was a sensitive child, and I’m not sure why this didn’t give me nightmares except for the fact that I always kind of wanted a ghost friend of my own (though not for revenge purposes, just playing ones).
In addition to Wait Till Helen Comes, I also devoured any other Mary Downing Hahn book I could find, all of which rather dark. There was The Doll in the Garden (anything with old dolls and dead girls is creepy), Dead Man in Indian Creek, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and Following the Mystery Man, which is about a girl who gets kidnapped by a handsome stranger.
The question is, why did sweet little eight-year-old Eva (and tons of other kids) like these dark books?
This was a question posed last weekend at The Loft Literary Center’s Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference during Megan Atwood’s session on “Darkness in YA.” First Megan asked us what makes a book dark, and we listed: violence, death, drugs, mental illness, horror, mystery, etc. (I might also add ghosts, kidnapping, depression, despair, and creepy dolls to that list.) Then she asked us, why do we like to read this stuff? Are we sickos? Why do teens like to read this stuff? Are they sickos?
People responded that the darkness helps young people who are going through similar issues feel less alone. People said that darkness in YA is realistic and truthful. I said that darkness can be gripping. It’s exciting and dangerous and scary and makes for a page-turning story.
But maybe there’s more to it than that.
First of all, my Mary Downing Hahn phase was in elementary school. So teens and adult are not the only ones wanting to read about the dark side of life. I was hungry for it at the tender age of eight.
The fact is, children are a lot smarter and more aware than we often realize. We try to protect them from scary things, but that means we end up lying to them, hiding the truth. Third grade happened to be the year I learned Santa wasn’t putting presents under the Christmas tree, my parents were. I felt utterly, furiously betrayed. I wrote in my diary, “I just realized Santa Claus isn’t real. I feel like a jerk and a FOOL!” There’s nothing children hate more than realizing a secret has been kept from them.
One reason kids and teens want to read about darkness is because it feels like the revelation of a secret that’s been kept from them. It confirms their mounting suspicions that the world isn’t always a safe and sunshiny place like adults have tried to lead them to believe. And you know what they say about knowledge and power — embracing the scary things in life can feel much more empowering than pretending they don’t exist.
The other night I was watching the new Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, and remembering how I fell in love with Nirvana in eighth grade. There was something about those dark lyrics and those dark music videos (emaciated Jesus in a Santa hat climbing up his own cross) that were both terrifying and powerful, and at the time I needed a way to express the overwhelming feelings I was having: anger, confusion, shame, sadness. I wouldn’t have listened to Nirvana if it didn’t speak to me in some way. When given a choice, children and teens are often their own filters; when they’re not ready for something, they don’t read it, or if they do, it flies right over their heads.
When it comes down to it, in the heart of every one of us — adult or child — there are dark places and light. Human curiosity often tends towards the morbid, doesn’t it? Instead of ignoring my own dark places, books like Wait Till Helen Comes and music like Nirvana let me explore that darkness, try to understand it. Some people worry that “darkness” in YA and children’s literature will harm children, will give them “dark” ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise had. But the truth is, the darkness is already there inside each of us, and pretending otherwise is denying the complexity of the human experience.