Sick-Lit: For or Against?

John Green's award winning best seller is one of the top stories those against "sick-lit" complain about.

John Green’s award winning best seller is one of the top stories those against “sick-lit” complain about.

Sick-lit it is a genre (if it can even really be called that…) of books aimed at teens whose  characters are ill, try to commit suicide or do acts like cutting. Some are complaining about this “new” genre and how it’s aimed at kids/teens and that they shouldn’t be reading such morbid stories.

First, it’s nothing new to have tragic characters in children’s literature. Tiny Tim in Dicken’s Christmas Carol is a prime example as is Beth from Little Women.  What about Mary from Little House on the Prairie or Heidi ‘s  Clara? All characters with illnesses or disabilities.

Secondly, while death and dying are morbid, it’s also a fact of life and one teens will be exposed to at some point.  Even with all the vaccines of today, childhood illness still runs rampant whether it’s juvenile diabetes, luekemia, lymes disease, etc. and unfortunately it’s likely that kids are going to be exposed to someone who suffers from one of these illnesses.  I think these kinds of books might give “healthy” teens a better understanding of what their sick friends are going through. It could help them have more compassion and know better how to deal with the whole situation. For children who are unfortunate enough to be going through something, it could help them know someone else out there understands what they’re going through.  As someone who was a sick kid, I think I would have liked to have a book where the main character was going through the same thing I was.   I can understand that my folks probably wouldn’t have wanted me to read it if that character didn’t have a happy ending but not everyone’s situation is the same and no one knows what’s going to happen.  If someone writes about a teen getting hit by a bus and dying, will the reader want to avoid all buses all the time? If so, it’s time to have the chat with them about fact and fiction and how authors control the outcome.

Not all stories can be happy sunshine, rainbow and butterfly stories. Life’s not like that and I think what we read and watch on TV should reflect that. People will probably argue with me, but I feel like Disney Princesses give girls an unrealistic idea of happily ever after, everything works out relationships which the divorce rate will show us is often not the case. Not that girls shouldn’t wish for a happily ever after, but I think it can give a bit of a warped sense of love and that they can “fix” their man and that they should stay in bad relationships because they love the guy, even if the guy doesn’t love them back they way they should.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat myself:  I think parents need to have discussions with with kids about fiction whether it’s in books or on the television and how it’s great to enjoy it, to use their imagination, etc. but to know it’s not necessarily how things work in life. We don’t all get happy endings and things aren’t always easy. Don’t leave your kids naive for too long otherwise it come back and hurt them later in life.

If books like these were banned, what’s next, banning books where the parents go through divorce? Books where the character cries because their dog dies? Books where a teen gets sad because they don’t make the team, don’t get an A, don’t get the guy?  Tragedy and adversity makes for interesting stories. It allows characters to learn about themselves, learn life lessons and how to cope. It would be quite a dull read if everything always went right and the characters always got what they wanted, no?

What’s your take on “sick-lit”? Are you for or against it?

Here are some articles on the topic (both for and against) and a list of some books in the genre:


11 responses »

  1. To be honest I didn’t know this “genre” existed until this post. I think it’s probably a thin line to walk but I agree that sheltering kids from the sadder side of life is not right. And yes, Disney Princess definitely gives our girls a skewed idea of what happily ever after is… but so does a large number of romance books, shows and movies. We wonder why the divorce rate is so high when our entertainment is telling us from a young age, all the way up to middle-age that we should never lose those butterflies in our stomach or the constant happiness and need for our better half. Real life just isn’t like that. Anyway, I digress.

    I think that as a mother, I would want to pre-read books of this genre before handing them off to my children. Although it’s important that our children are exposed to something more real in their entertainment, I also believe that too real can be harmful.

    • I’m 100% for parents reading books before passing them along to their kids. You know your children and what they can handle and certainly some things aren’t appropriate for some ages/mentalities. I think it’s up to the parent to decide what their own children can handle but to just blanket all teens and say these kinds of books are wrong for their consumption isn’t right. None of these authors are out there to hurt children and I wish these people who are mouthing off on every possible book topic would realize that.

      • I completely agree. We can’t blanket an entire genre or age group and say it is inappropriate. In the end it comes down to the individual. I definitely lean more to the pro sick-lit side. Reality is a good thing. In the end we have to decide what is best for an individual, not an entire age group.

  2. Mixed feelings. My biggest concern would be whether books that deal with suicide and cutting are including ways that kids could get help for their problems without making those techniques seeming appealing or shameful. When I was a suicidal kid 30+ years ago what I could find on the topic was not useful or sensitive. So if well done I’m all for books that deal with the topic. I don’t think “protecting” kids from books on sensitive topics makes sense generally. Given what so many kids watch/video games/etc. it seems a bit…

    I do think its important for parents to read what their kids are reading and to respectfully discuss things of concern.

    • I feel like books like these are good opportunities for parents to bring up these kinds of difficult topics with their kids. Kids can be cruel and we all know bullying is such a big issue so depression is pretty prominent in teens as well as cutting, unfortunately. At least if parents are previewing books for their teens they will know the topic and hopefully be able to reach out to their teens to say if they ever have problems that it’s okay to come to the parents or the school counselor, etc.

  3. One of my favorite books would be considered Sick-lit, Willow by Julian Hoban. The ending really stuck with me and I loved it. It wasn’t happily ever after, but hopeful and I loved that. It influenced how I ended Being Human.

    Would I want my kid (if I ever had one) to read it? Yeah, but I’d read it first to make sure it I thought it was age appropriate. I think it’s up to the parents to talk to their kids about the books they read and if they think a book isn’t appropriate explain why or offer a time when their kid can read it because the parents know their kid will understand it when older. Books can be a great way for kids to experience dark and dangerous things safely and discuss it with their parents.

  4. I’m absolutely, one hundred percent for sick-lit. Both as a reader and a writer I veer towards works that resonate with reality. The world is often a broken, horrible place, and I don’t feel that there’s any use in trying to cover it up. Besides, I believe that conflict is an essential part of good literature, and whether we like it or not, suicide, cutting, drug addictions are some of the conflicts that many of today’s teenagers are facing. If we refuse to address that in literature, I think we’re doing literature, and readers, a great disservice.

    • Very true. I feel like all these people crying about sick-lit or “dark stories” etc. have their heads in the sand if they think teen readers don’t already know about a lot of this stuff or that they haven’t already read stories with unhappy endings or ill characters. Romeo and Juliet is a classic that’s taught in schools and it’s about kids marrying and then committing suicide. I don’t see that tale mentioned in any of the articles. It’s like people just need to find something to complain about, ya know?

      • I’d never thought of Romeo & Juliet in quite those terms before. I may find myself quoting you the next time I discuss why I don’t think it is a “great romance” or a good book for teens…

      • It’s a very typical kind of teen romance to me, short of the death aspect, but the whole “OMG I can’t live without them, we’re in love (after 2 days) and we’ll be together forever!” is exactly what I see from 13/14 yrs olds with a first boyfriend/girlfriend. Love is a heady thing to a teen who’s probably only had the love of family up until then. I think it’s a good example of what *NOT* to do in young romances 😛

  5. I’m not for book censorship at all. If music artists can sing whatever they feel like, why can’t authors write books about whatever they want? It’s all the same, really. I think it’s a bit ridiculous for people to bash writers over subject matter choices, or expect them to self-censor rather than assuming the responsibility of raising their own children and having these conversations. A lot of parents seem to think they can avoid a lot of topics, and anyone or anything that raises those topics is the enemy. It’s not the world’s fault when parents choose to ignore/avoid/shelter. Yep… The same way that it’s not Britney Spears’ fault she grew up and stopped singing cheesy lovey pop songs (while your children kept paying attention, with or without your knowledge). Right?
    I came at that from a funny angle, I know. I’m weird.

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