Darkness...In Middle Grade?

I was watching Jackson Pearce's recent video in which she discussed the Wall Street Journal article that stated darkness was too visible in young adult literature. The darkness referenced was mainly topics in realistic fiction--eating disorders, rape, incest, drug abuse. Jackson defended YA by saying: 

"teenagers are not 7 year olds. Their needs are more complex than Teddy Grahams and bedtime stories."

As soon as I heard that, something reared back in my head. Before I started teaching, I made assumptions about young children, too, similar to what Jackson said above. But, since then, I've gotten to know many, many 5-10 year olds whose needs were also more complicated than Teddy Grahams and bedtime stories. Specific faces stand out in my mind, the dead-eyed look of a child who's been abused, of a child who's been torn apart by fighting parents, of a child who comes home to drunk parents. I've met children with anxiety problems more severe than I've ever seen in an adult. I've met eight year olds who have to parent their younger siblings because their parents are absent. All of these children were younger than ten years old. 

Since I watched Jackson's video, I've really started wondering. Why is it that there's been all this discussion about darkness in YA, but no mention of darkness in Middle Grade? Well, there's really not much to discuss--there simply isn't very much "realistic darkness" in Middle Grade*. When's the last time you read a MG novel about a ten year old grappling with the affects of rape? Or having a drug addicted parent? Or having an eating disorder?

Never, in my case. There never even seems to be a discussion among authors, parents, and readers about appropriate topics in Middle Grade because there seems to be this idea that certain topics are firmly off-limits (those same topics that are getting YA authors into hot water recently).

But, should there be more darkness in Middle Grade? The major defense for the necessity for darkness in YA is that somewhere there exist teenagers who are grappling with these problems in their own lives. The literature should be realistic about the horrors of rape and depression, so the character (and the reader) can acknowledge it and learn to heal. So why aren't there more authors writing this way for readers younger than 12?

The obvious answer is that these topics simply aren't relevant to Middle Grade readers. I mean, what nine year old seeks out books about rape? All nine year olds are happy, healthy kids whose only interests are kittens and monster trucks and bugs and magic treehouses, right? Right? WRONG.

  • 75% of child abuse reported was of children younger than 12.1
  • 30% of sexual assaults among children occur between the ages of 4 and 7. 2
  • One of every seven victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies were under age 6. 3
  • The year in a male's life when he is most likely to be the victim of a sexual assault is age 43
  • Nearly half of all 3 to 6 year old girls worry about being fat4
  • Pre-schoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants. At least four percent of preschoolers--over a million--are clinically depressed. 5
From a purely statistical standpoint, it seems that the "dark" topics that so many YA writers defend as relevant for teenagers are sometimes more relevant to children under the age of 12. If we use the argument that teenagers should have literature that is reflective of their experiences, shouldn't that same logic be applied to younger readers? 

If a child is sexually abused at age 3, they will have to wait at least ten years before relevant literature is available to them. Very young children are not immune to psychological distress. They do not forget abuse and tragedy until the adults in their life have decided they are "mature" enough to discuss or read about these topics. 

In the past, I definitely would've wrinkled my nose at the idea of a Middle Grade novel in which rape, bulimia, or drug use was even mentioned. But, since the Wall Street Journal article stirred up so much discussion about what exactly we're doing when we write for young people, I've revised some of my past feelings. We all understand what reading a book like Speak or Wintergirls or even Harry Potter can do for teenagers who've had similar experiences to the main character. Obviously a "dark" Middle Grade novel shouldn't be as explicit or graphic as YA authors can get away with, but I still contend that a subtle, skillful MG author could write a successful novel about a "dark" topic in a way that is relevant to young children. 

In recent weeks, we've all learned that YA saves. Why can't MG save, too? 

*I know some people will object to this statement. But, for the sake of this discussion, I'm only referring to the "realistic darkness" that is being discussed currently in the YA community--drug abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, etc. Some may contend that darkness is discussed in Middle Grade but it's a different kind of darkness than in YA because the audience is different. This is true to a point, but based on my personal experiences with children and studying child psychology, abuse, and neglect, I still contend that the dark topics present in YA are extremely relevant to younger readers and could be adapted to a Middle Grade audience.  And I also feel the need to clarify that I freaking love Middle Grade. I simply think there's room for novels that really address what some young children are going through.