Now and then, the question of darkness in young adult fiction is raised: is YA obsessed with dystopia, sickness and death? Arguments ensue.
That’s not the question I want to raise here or the argument I want to have, but it is my jumping-off point. This is because often these arguments conclude with appeals to hope: darkness in stories is bearable, and can even be a good thing, if it is in conversation with hope. What’s striking about many of these discussions, however, is that often the appeal to hope is a coda and no more, as though what we mean by hope is obvious. I don’t think it is obvious.
To explore this let’s go, first, to Vàclav Havel (the writer, dissident and first President of the Czech Republic) and then, to some books.
Why Havel? Because we need something robust and sinewy, an idea of hope that’s more than a facile happy ending, that has the heft to cope with darkness in stories and in many young people’s lives.
Havel’s most famous writings on hope are found in Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Huizdala. There he argues that hope is not a forecast of good times to come, and not even an expectation that everything will turn out all right. It’s ‘not the same as joy that things are going well’, nor is it optimism, ‘the conviction that something will turn out well.’
‘The kind of hope I often think about,’ writes Havel, ‘especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison, I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world.’ Hope is, he says, ‘an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.’ It is ‘an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’
That’s a complex idea. If we run with it, then it seems to me that hope is probably not something we intuit when we're young, but something we discover and learn, especially from the people around us.
So, to the bookshelves, to find out whether the protagonists in fiction for young people are discovering hope, which is to say: are they discovering that orientation of the spirit, that capacity to work towards something for its own goodness, to which Havel refers? I had just two criteria for the books I picked out: they had to be stories of children or young people in dire circumstances. And they had to be superbly good.
Here’s what I learned. (Spoilers, inevitably).
1. Hope is about discovering your people (1)
There’s Thomas (The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer), who lives in fear of his violent father, but then discovers that his ‘dumb’ sister and the witchy Mrs Van Amersfoort next door and his aunts Bea and Magda and Pie, will all stand with him and challenge his father. And there’s Min (All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield), whose desperation to escape her family of small time crooks prompts her to formulate Rule Number One – ‘I will not turn out like my mother’ – until she discovers that the witchy Mrs Tkautz next door, and her own mother, have always looked out for her in ways she had never noticed.
2. Hope is about discovering your people (2)
There’s Joe Maloney (David Almond’s Secret Heart) bullied and truanting, to the despair of his mother who’s scraping a living for the two of them, discovering that the strange circus people, odd and marginalized, can make a joyful world that the bullies cannot understand.
3. Hope is about discovering your gift.
There’s Mack (Stay with Me by Paul Griffin), in prison for a murder he really did commit, discovering that through his ability to work with dogs – and, crucially, with the recognition of that gift by prison staff – he can create a pathway towards a meaningful future.
4. Hope is about seeing clearly at last
There’s Titus (Feed by M.T. Andersen), discovering, through the life and death of the girl he loves, that he doesn’t have to march to the beat of the loudest drum.
5. Hope is sometimes about a happy ending, but not always
The last word goes to Vàclav Havel, who, on receiving a prize from the German Booksellers Association in 1989, said: ‘I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.’
Literature can be mighty.
Jane Higgins is a social researcher at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and an author of young adult fiction. Her first novel, The Bridge, won the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing. The sequel, Havoc, is now available. Both novels are published by Text Publishing. Visit Jane's website for more information about her books and writing.