This book may contain content that is triggering or disturbing.
ChooseYATrope is an original feature at ChooseYA discussing, examining and analysing popular tropes and trends within YA literature.
ChooseYAtrope is back. While my survey is still open on the blog, currently 100% of participants have suggested they would like to see more posts about YA trends and tropes so I’m brushing the dust off this feature and hope to make it a regular occurrence.
Today I’m talking about something I’ve noticed in a lot of early 2015 titles I’ve been reviewing: suicide. Obviously, this is a potentially very triggering topic and therefore I have put my standard content warning and would advise readers who may be affected to use their discretion and be careful. I would also like to add this post may contain spoilers for several recent or upcoming releases and while I’ll try to tag those who don’t reveal this in the summary, I cannot promise you won’t be spoiled.
Grief and loss have been a staple topic discussed in YA for years; the loss of a parent, sibling, friend or brother. As teenagers we may unfortunately start to see death more than as a child and it’s an important issue to discuss. Mental health is too and lately I’ve noticed several YA books dealing with a friend or sibling’s suicide, most notably Gaye Forman’s I Was Here, Cynthia Hand’s The Last Time We Said Goodbye, Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff and View Spoiler » All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven « Hide Spoiler I read two of these in the same week, not realising where the latter title was heading, and it was a quite difficult and emotional experience. The Last Time We Said Goodbye in particular was an incredibly poignant and moving book about dealing with a sibling’s death/suicide and the guilt that can come with this.
At the moment in the UK, children and youth’s mental health funding is being cut and more and more teenagers are seeking help for mental health issues. Literature informs, some would say it’s the duty and others would say literature shouldn’t be so didactic. It’s tough, isn’t it? Where do we draw the line from informative to preachy? And does literature have to save, does YA? About a year or so ago there was a trending topic on Twitter, YA Saves. And I think it does. It can make someone feel less alone and like they have a voice and this is so important. It’s why I’m against books like Speak being banned in schools. Literature is a lifeline.
I think on the other hand there is a line, is the use of this serious topic just for drama, to give backstory or create sympathy? In the examples I’ve used, I would like to make it clear I don’t think this is the case at all, I think they are pretty sensitively handled and have more to say than ‘my main character is tortured, yo!’ If I’m honest, I don’t like Finch fixated on Violet at the start of All the Bright Places but as the book progressed, I found this lessened. However, this probably isn’t the case for every book and using a topic like this just for backstory or drama really upsets me. There’s a difference between sensitively exploring difficult topics to look at wider questions around them to just throwing in angst for drama. Also romanticising mental illness is dangerous, it isn’t glamorous and in particular romanticising suicide in YA is really worrying.
What I find particularly interesting about the aforementioned group of recent YA books that look at suicide are they are often from the perspective of a friend or sibling and I’ve been trying to think about why? Why are authors choosing to approach this subject from a friend and not the actual person? I think by doing this they get to show the repercussions of suicide, there’s an element of cautionary tale without being overtly obvious and perhaps feel like they are avoiding romanticising suicide. If you see the pain caused by an action, are you more likely to get help and not attempt this yourself? However there a danger in writing through the perspective of the depressed to further trigger others? Mental health is an important topic to be explored though. And like I said, death narratives and exploration are common in YA and can be an unfortunate part of growing up.
There is certainly more YA being published dealing with mental health and suicide than I can remember from earlier years. There’s more discussion and openness. We live in a post ‘It Gets Better’ world, I think people are beginning to see that teenagers can suffer from depression and mental health issues in the same way as adults and are more forward about this now. Just this week Hot Key Books announced a new non-fiction James Dawson book for 2016 about mental health: Mind Your Head.
What do you think? Have you noticed an increase in books that deal with difficult topics about grief and suicide? Do you think these books work or do they feel preachy?