By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
In a 2011 article called “Darkness Too Visible,” Wall Street Journal writer Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoaned the “lurid” sexual and violent content of young adult novels. She suggested that “hyper-violent” series like The Hunger Games, but especially books that describe self-injury, make deviant or destructive behavior more plausible for young, impressionable readers.
Gurdon faced a tsunami-like backlash. High-profile writers YA writers like Laurie Halse Anderson and Sherman Alexie passionately defended no-holds-barred work, arguing that teenagers face “everyday and epic dangers” that should be reflected in their literature. The debate spawned a new Twitter hashtag, #YASaves, and in three days, 30,000 readers shared the books that got them through adolescence. “I get letters from readers - 2 or 3 every month - telling me how my books got them through hell,” author
s Neil Gaiman tweeted, “& the Teens have the worst hells.”
Like most Young Adult authors, Robin Wasserman had a crucial literary model growing up. Stephen King’s dark, violent books not only helped her endure her personal childhood miseries, they hooked her on reading and made her want to write professionally. In her essay for this series, she explains why King’s books are loved best by teenagers—even though, while they are often about teenagers, they are not really written for them—and makes her case for why, when it comes to kids’ books, darkness should be visible.
Wasserman’s latest novel, The Waking Dark, contains a premise Gurdon might chastise: One morning, five seemingly unrelated murder-suicides take place in a tiny Kansas town. She is the author of many YA books, including The Seven Deadly Sins Series, The Book of Blood and Shadow, and the Cold Awakening trilogy.
Robin Wasserman: Stephen King saved my life.
I say this so often—especially lately, having spent the last two years working on a horror novel and fielding the inevitable questions of how and why—that it’s become somewhat of a catchphrase. I like the pith of it, not to mention the melodrama. I like the way it feels true, if only in the same way a pig’s blood-covered girl slaughtering her prom-mates with psychic rage feels true—which is to say, absolutely and not in the slightest.
The actual, non-allegorical, non-pithy truth: Stephen King saved my life strictly in the sense that after an especially humiliating junior high school afternoon (acid-washed jeans, a chair puddled with red paint, you get the rest), it was re-reading It that persuaded me not to run away and join the circus. Or at least not to quit school and get a job at the Gap. If the Losers Club could defeat knife-wielding bullies and a monstrous sewer clown, I reasoned, then surely I could take a stab at surviving the junior high cafeteria. After that day, the books I loved became the books I lived on. They were fresh air and security blanket in one; they were not only an acknowledgment that evil existed (you needed only meet my gym teacher to buy that) but an assurance that someone like me, needy and lonely and young, could defeat it.
I’m aware this doesn’t make me unique. What Stephen King reader didn’t fall in love with him a teenager? It’s a truism that young teens form an enthusiastic core of King’s fandom—what I’ve been wondering about lately is why. It makes sense teenagers would gravitate toward horror novels (especially those of us who felt trapped in one), and maybe it’s no surprise that, in pursuit of darkness, they’d latch onto its undisputed master. But I think it’s more than that. I think there’s something in King’s books that speaks directly to adolescence—a reason he’s so good at capturing those teenage hearts of darkness. Despite the likelihood (or maybe because of it) that he’s not even trying.
There are some adult books that, for whatever reason, seem specially formulated to wend their way into teenagers’ brains and take root, and I think it’s because—like one of those high-frequency tones the rest of us are too old to notice—these books are whispering secret truths certain teenagers need to hear:
Ender’s Game (along with everything Ayn Rand ever wrote) assures: You are special.
Flower in the Attic commiserates: You are trapped.
While King offers salvation: You are powerful.
We all know literature empowers youth—Stephen King, as is his way, turns the metaphor literal.
The classic King story comes in one of two forms: A young teenager discovers his or her own secret power (think Carrie) or a dissipated man rediscovers the power and promise of his younger self (cf. poor Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot). The best of King’s novels weave these tropes into a single story: The Stand offers us both Harold Lauder’s twisted coming of age and Larry Underwood’s reclamation of his nobler youth. It—King’s epic about the twilight of childhood and the power of youthful belief—offers a kinder and gentler version of this story, if a book featuring so many vivid dismemberments can be called kind or gentle. Seven sad, lonely teenagers band together and discover the strength to be found in their bond—and the evil-trouncing magic to be found in themselves—while, nearly 30 years later, their jaded older selves must find a way to cut through the fat of middle age and reclaim the full force of youth. It’s a vindication of youth over age, losers over bullies, intelligence and heart over intimidation and brute strength, and it’s no wonder that as a scrawny, spectacled tween I took it as my bible.
This was the early ’90s, and though there wasn’t much of a young-adult market to speak of, the books were there, and I read them, as I read everything. None of them felt like they were speaking so directly and truthfully to me as Stephen King.
Which is not to say he was doing so on purpose. It’s not my goal to claim King as an honorary YA author (much as he may have molded the young minds who grew up to build that community), and I imagine he’d be relieved to hear it. While King is a vocal supporter of anything that might get kids and teenagers reading, he doesn’t quite endorse the concept of teen-specific literature. His Entertainment Weekly review of the Hunger Games, which despite its passive aggressive undertones helped launch that book into the stratosphere, notes that “‘young adult novel’ is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ‘jumbo shrimp’ and ‘airline food’ in the oxymoron sweepstakes.”