I do agree in the fact that much of YA is filled with heavy references to sex, drugs, violence, addiction, and what-not. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing; unless, you are not ready for said content, just want a break from it, or are sick and tired of it. As a front line bookseller and an often more-conservative-than-liberal reader, I do wish there was more of an equilibrium weight between heavy-content YA and wholesome/light reads for the same age. Hopefully this will change over the years. Nevertheless the darker edge of YA holds a vital place on our shelves.
Literature is a valuable tool in exploring the world through the eyes of another. At times, a book becomes a window, where you look into an unfamiliar world. For example, Judy Blume's Forever. Blume is very detailed in her descriptions of sex to help readers really see the whole situation -- those who see it as a how to guide are completely missing the point. At the end of the novel, Katherine, a sexually active teen, is left wondering what forever means? Her boyfriend, Michael, said they would be together forever. To be blunt, by the end, it's just a line that guys use. Katherine is left with a whirlwind of emotions after the break up. Was having sex with her boyfriend really a good idea; and, is this regret going to stay with her the rest of her life? The benefit here is that you can see the consequences of an action you may one day be faced with. I know many adults who grew up reading this book and it really made them think about the value and intensity of relationships, especially on the physical side, and the vitality of establishing boundaries before you start dating.
When a book is a mirror, a reader who has experienced the protagonist's situation can know they are not alone. Reading a dark content book for a mirror-reader can be an invaluable tool in recovery and understanding. For example, if someone has a friend who constantly pressures them to do things against their will, and is reading Jo Knowles' Lessons from a Dead Girl, they may be able to see themselves in Laine's confusion, anger, and resentment. This book does not endorse abuse, rather, it gets to the foundation behind it and how it traumatically effects others. Right now we have an article posted by Shelf Life on our shelves for 13 Reasons Why, which highlights the fact that Asher's novel is saving lives and helping families cope with suicide deaths of a loved one. Why is dark automatically considered bad for some?
Even though not every teen constantly struggles with violence, sexual matters, drugs, or abuse, this dark YA realm cannot be considered forbidden (or banned as we call it). Yes, there is more to life than all of this, and it does lead me to wonder why there isn't more of a selection where conflict does not revolve around something so gut wrenching. At the same time, these are the kinds of things our teens face. Isn't it better that they read about it rather than having to experience it themselves? Books have always been great disussion starters -- especially for hard topics.
I often remind customers that YA is just another genre. It's not like YA lit is the only books for teenagers. Many fourteen-year-olds decide to read adult fiction, get caught up in a mystery, immerse themselves in history, or explore the realms of science. A genre does not define a reader's ages!
Yes, we believe in free expression here, but what you (or your child reads) is ultimately up to you. In closing, I would like to highlight the fact that without sorrow, there is no joy. Sometimes, yes, it can be hard to accept the dark and brutal side of literature. But without them, I think we would be even more lost than we already are.