The Harry Potter rage may have lulled some parents into thinking that the children's books market is dominated by similar confections of fantasy, magic, and other PG-rated high jinks emanating from the likes of the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But they would be wrong.
Horribly wrong. Many popular juvenile (8-12) and young adult (13 and older) books are so grim that Ann Tobias, a literary agent specializing in children's books, has given the genre a name: "Four D Books," because death, divorce, drugs, and dismemberment are among the most popular themes. Tobias claims that kids love to read this stuff "because they are so miserable."
If they aren't miserable before reading these gems, they will be afterward. Here are some popular titles for teens:
"I Was a Teenage Fairy," by Francesca Lia Block, isn't about Tinker Bell. Instead, the title character is a teen model, who is lured into drugs, sex, and alcohol by a rapacious pedophile. Heart-warming.
"Dancing on the Edge," by Han Nolan, winner of both a National Book Award and a Parent's Choice Storybook Award, is about Miracle McCloy, a teen with occult powers. When a spell backfires, Miracle ends up in a mental ward.
"Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson, is the sordid saga of a girl who becomes mute after being raped by a drunken high-school hunk. "You're one strange b--," he tells her as he tries a second assault. This time, her voice returns, and she has time to get help.
"Deal With It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a Gurl," a Christmas selection last year, helps teens overcome prejudices by enlightening them on such matters as how lesbians engage in sexual activity. For lads and lasses with more traditional temptations, there are some helpful hints on diagnosing sexually transmitted diseases.
Unfortunately, the literary offerings in the juvenile category are just as awful:
"Wringer," by Jerry Spinelli, a Newberry Medal winner, is set in a town where the boys are expected to take part in the annual Pigeon Day, when adults kill innocent little birds. After befriending a pigeon, one boy wants to stop the killing. This is no "Charlotte's Web"--there are gruesome descriptions of wringing pigeons' necks.
"Making Up Megaboy," by Virginia Walter, features a 13-year-old anti-hero who calmly shoots a Korean grocer. Why, oh why, did he do it? The rest of the book is devoted to musings on this question by a reporter, teachers, a social worker, and the grocer's widow.
"The Giver," by Lois Lowry, is set in a futuristic society with strict population control. Jonah learns that his little brother was a twin, but his father had to kill one by lethal injection: "As he continued to watch, the child, no longer crying, moved his arms and legs in a jerking motion." This book is assigned in upper elementary and middle schools.
Small wonder that children are flocking to Harry Potter! Whatever the motives of the misguided adults who are inflicting these atrocities on kids, the children are showing--with a little help from J.K. Rowling--that their tastes haven't changed much from the days of Dr. Doolittle and his talking animals.