Seated behind all of these opinion pieces about how books are ruining kids today and how will we ever preserve our society in the face of such things seems to be a deep fear of growing up. Of adulthood. And of the fact that these kids today live in a very different world than kids 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. Young adults in the US at the moment are living in the midst of multiple brutal wars and military interventions around the world. They’re watching the economy crash down around them. They’re seeing a tide of racist and sexist legislation and sentiment in the United States rising up around them.

And throughout history, some kids have experienced dark, harsh lives, and sometimes books made a big difference. There’s no such thing as inappropriate literature, because readers find and read what they need to be reading. It might not be to the taste of the adults around them, but that’s beside the point. You can’t put training wheels on books; you need to set readers free and let them find the resources they need, or be led to them by helpful friends, librarians, teachers, and other mentors. The shy gay teen who gets slipped a copy of Ash needs to read it, even if a moralising op-ed says it’s morally bankrupt for twisting the Cinderella story. The kid struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts needs a copy of 13 Reasons Why even if it is dark and it doesn’t end happily.

If we genuinely care about children and we want them to grow up in a better world, one that is not so dark, we shouldn’t be focusing on what they’re reading, but what’s around them. Young adult literature isn’t responsible for the social and political upheaval we’re experiencing right now. Books aren’t setting IEDs, making bombs in basements, beating up kids for being gay, exploiting the lower classes, or trying to pass legislation to limit access to reproductive health services.

Reading books can change people and thereby change the world. And yes, those changes are not always good, but they’re not always bad, either. Reading dark books doesn’t turn you dark. To the contrary, a dark book can be the light at the end of the tunnel that someone needs to survive, a message in a bottle letting you know you are not alone, a signal that there is something more out there. Something worth it. If only you can hold on just a little bit longer.

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