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MG To YA: Why Turn To The Dark Side?

Guest Blogger: Emily H. Jeffries

There may be no divide in the Speculative Fiction world so stark as that between Middle Grade and Young Adult. A passing glimpse of any sampling of cover art will reveal as much. We are programmed to believe that the twelve-year-old will pick up a book featuring adventuring siblings on the back of Pegasus, whereas the thirteen-year-old will seek a jacket depicting shadowy and/or bloody figures and the word ash or bones in the title.

This jarring shift from irresistible Ewok romps to Darth Vader’s skeleton flashing as he’s lighting-ed to death should give us pause as Christian SpecFic writers. Why the convulsive change? And what about the teenage audience makes us think only dark and gritty will sell?

Spooky Forest

Photo by Zeferli • Fotolia.com

As a child grows taller, more intelligent, more emotionally complex … the more capacity she has for good and for evil. Most publishing houses are printing YA stories that acknowledge only the latter at the expense of the former.

Adolescents discover a fresh attraction toward pleasure and power. If they haven’t the tools for tempering these attractions, they may never mature to the point of pursuing higher things. The problem with some YA is that pleasure and power are glorified as liberating gods.

The assassin-heroine is more real than the kind princess, because she is free from the childish dream that anyone can truly be good. Pain is real, courage is a lie. Sex is real, virginity is a lie. Of course, all these things are real, but that which requires self-control is rejected as too demanding.

So much of YA SpecFic indulges in the appeal of the twisted. Though the world is a gritty place where horrors can happen, let’s refrain from granting evil more power than it actually has. Imagine a teenager drawn to a story where evil reigns supreme. In such stories, evil is portrayed as a kind of good, and good is portrayed as a farce, as the real evil. Because this lie relieves the young reader of guilt over her wrong choices, she begins to believe it. Yet the fact is, in a realm infinitely more mysterious than any novel setting, a Good King yearns for her friendship, offering true liberation from her guilt.

Middle Grade fiction seems innocent because it is written for young minds standing on the shore, gazing at the sea. These stories allow the young reader to appreciate the possibilities over the horizon. YA SpecFic is meant for teens who have boarded the vessel and now face the storms and the monsters. If we tell them to love the storm and hate the calm, or to throw themselves into the mouth of the sea serpent because the horizon holds no promise, we fail them.

As writers, let’s equip teens with the tools to face moral struggle. Great battles are fought every day in classrooms, bedrooms, malls, and especially on smartphones. The task of a YA writer is to tell a story which does not indulge the shadows, but cuts the darkness with rays of faith, hope, and love.

I’d love to hear from the Gothic writers out there. How do you think dark fiction can be done well? What is the appropriate age to introduce young readers to the world’s underbelly?


Emily H. Jeffries is a middle school teacher by trade, but a handsome prince rescued her from boy farts and parent-teacher conferences so she could tend to their castle and weave tales. She is currently querying her YA fantasy adventure, The Forgotten Seer, a story about a dancing noblewoman whose need for adoration drives her to betray her own dominion. Emily’s secret magical abilities are improv comedy, evading cardiovascular activity, and singing all of Les Miserables from memory. Find out more at www.emilyhjeffries.com or connect with her on Twitter/Insta @emilyhjeffries.


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