Young readers are drawn to dark topics which should come as no surprise

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Like many YA novels, The Scent of Rain addresses difficult issues. Studies suggest teens are drawn to emotionally charged subjects because their brains are wired that way.

When my agent was shopping The Scent of Rain to publishers, there was concern that the story was being rejected because the book contained difficult subject matter. One editor rather indignantly retorted, “We don’t do books about child abuse.” That the novel is now being marketed to young adult readers has also raised some eyebrows.

Kristina Blank Makansi, an editor and founding partner of the Amphorae Publishing Group, believes that the decision to publish a book that includes controversial subject matter can be difficult.

“For me, it comes down to two things: Is the book well written, and is the book about a topic that is relevant and important in today’s culture,” she said.

Makansi notes that there is another factor to consider when determining if a book is suitable for young readers.

“When you’re dealing with a book for teenagers or children, there is a third consideration,” she said. “And that is whether or not the book is written in an impactful and realistic but not gratuitous way.”

The Scent of Rain tells the story of 16-year-old Rose, stuck in a polygamous society where a woman’s only purpose is to marry and produce children. Rose is walled off from the outside world: no phones, TV, Internet, radio, where she is allowed to learn no more than the cult leader permits. Still, she marvels at the natural world, and senses there is more to life than her elders are sharing. The book deals with numerous difficult issues: foster care, deportation, child abuse, forced marriage, cults.

“As a woman and the mother of two daughters, I personally feel very strongly that sexual abuse, denial of educational opportunities to girls and young women, and the use of religion to oppress children and control communities are critical topics that need to be addressed,” Makansi said.

Best-selling novelist Gayle Forman, in her Time article “Teens Crave Young Adult Books on Really Dark Topics (And That’s OK)” explained that young people are wired for tough topics.

“New brain mapping research suggests that adolescence is a time when teens are capable of engaging deeply with material, on both an intellectual level as well as an emotional one,” she said. “Some research suggests that during adolescence, the parts of the brain that processes emotion are even more online with teens than with adults, (something that will come as absolutely no surprise to any parent of a teenager). So, developmentally, teens are hungry for more provocative grist while emotionally they’re thirsty for the catharsis these books offer.”

As a teacher in a Title I high school, where the vast majority of kids live below the poverty line, I can tell you that many of my students regularly face a multitude of trying issues. Certainly, children in more affluent neighborhoods also face what can be crushing problems. When teens read books where young characters confront challenging issues – drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse, divorce, death of a loved one, violence, illness –  they are presented with characters who must figure out a way to survive and thrive despite the traumas they face, providing a lesson, perhaps, in coping with their own concerns.

Makansi agrees.

“When a talented writer is able to take readers into a character’s world and make them care about the challenges the character faces, minds can be opened, empathy can be cultivated, and, ultimately, society can change for the better.”

The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Go Ask Alice, The Lovely Bones, The Book Thief, are just a few of the myriad YA novels that address difficult issues. Forman points out that the fact young people universally love these books should not be the least bit shocking.

“Of course teens are drawn to darker, meatier fare,” she said. “The only surprise about this is that it’s a surprise.”

 Anne Montgomery is an author. Her new novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017. 

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