Balancing Darkness with Light in Literature by the Class of 2k21 Books
Literature has always served as a safe space for readers to explore darker themes, ones that can provide a window into other worlds, or act as mirrors of their own. Young adult and middle grade books today--perhaps now more than ever-- delve deep into challenging issues that kids and adults alike already manage daily in some form. And while we as authors strive for truth and raw honesty in our stories, we also aim to imbue them with hope and joy, striking that perfect balance between the darkness and the light.
In my own debut titled AMERICAN BETIYA, South Asian American teen, Rani Kelkar, finds herself falling into an intoxicating, forbidden relationship with the charismatic but damaged Oliver. The highs of new love along with a hilariously jaded but approving best friend are the elements I hoped will balance the racism, stereotyping, and patriarchy that Rani begins to encounter in places she least expects it.
Curious to learn how others used elements of lightness to balance darker themes within their stories, I interviewed fellow class of 2k21 authors Louisa Onome, J. Elle, Joan F. Smith, and Jessica Vitalis. Here are their insightful thoughts.
Jessica Vitalis: I love this question because THE WOLF’S CURSE is a middle grade novel in which a twelve-year-old boy loses everything—his beloved grandpapá, his home, and his livelihood. I tried to balance a realistic portrayal of his grief with an action-packed plot so that readers don’t feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of his loss. In addition, my snarky, omniscient narrator brings levity to a topic that otherwise might feel too heavy. I think we sometimes don’t give young readers enough credit for the topics they can (and often want to) read about; we can’t protect them from the real world, but we can give them a safe space to explore difficult subject matters.
Louisa Onome: It’s difficult to ensure I’m being truthful while offering space for hope when tackling tough issues. I faced this issue a lot while writing LIKE HOME. I think the most important thing to remember is that young people understand a lot more of their circumstances than we, as adults, might give them credit for. In my story, my main character Chinelo often comes face-to-face with those older than her who think she doesn’t have the full story or that she’s being naive, which bothers her. Remembering that young people who deal with tough issues on a daily basis aren’t naive about their situations is important. They’re living a different reality, one that’s completely valid.
Joan F. Smith: I think about the juxtaposition of lightness and darkness for “issues” a lot. The death of a parent, for example, is a traumatic event for anyone, and the younger you are, the more that can be true. That said: Grief is not a linear process. We need moments of levity to remind us what joy feels like. We need moments of sadness and sorrow to remind us of the importance of life and human relationships. When I was a kid suffering from the near-loss of my father to a suicide attempt (that became a real loss six years later), I was so startled by the depths of grief, and I was desperate for a way to climb out of it. It felt like I needed permission to laugh or be happy. In my book THE HALF-ORPHAN’S HANDBOOK, I gave my protagonist this permission. She uses humor as a way to wade through her grief the same way I wound up doing. I hope readers take away the reassurance that it’s okay to feel feelings on a huge spectrum. Right now, the entire world is suffering through a pandemic--a universal trauma. We need to fight its impact so that we can cling to the hope for brighter times ahead.
J.Elle: I don’t think young people get nearly enough credit for what they can handle. When I consider the things I and my teenage sisters saw/lived through, and compare that to all that’s on the shoulders of high school students growing up in this moment in American history, I’m inspired by them.
When writing WINGS OF EBONY or any YA pieces in particular, I also consider the state of the world when deciding how dark is too dark for a story to go. Today’s high schoolers are rehearsing active shooter drills, living amid a pandemic, witnessing (some even participating in) a worldwide uprising of protests after the murder of George Floyd. They are living these thematic realties and many are parched for a way to connect and process those events.
Literature can be a fantastic tool for that. I don’t want the message of my stories to be so buried in allegory that kids can’t relate to it. That said, I aim for balance. And hope is my method of choice. Part of the reason I enjoy writing in the fantasy space in particular is because as I explore these tougher themes in my stories, I want to equip characters in the most dire of circumstances with magic, as a metaphor for the reader’s own power. I love the balance of powerful magic in the face of a raw, gritty, reality. That juxtaposition can be so inspiring for students, particularly those who aren’t accustomed to seeing themselves on the page as a hero /heroine. I aim to write stories that validate my community’s challenges while showing them their resilient power in the face of it.
We at the Class of 2k21 books love honest stories that treat with care the tough topics we are all managing in some form as a society. At the same time, we also crave that sense of escapism and joy, and access them in our writing by utilizing the tools of action, humor, and above all, hope. Take a look at our debuts below if you, like us, revel in stories that explore darkness while also revealing the light that shines within us all. Thanks for reading! <3
With love and light,
Anuradha Rajurkar & The Class of 2k21
Pre-order Joan F. Smith’s THE HALF-ORPHAN’S HANDBOOK here
Add THE HALF-ORPHAN’S HANDBOOK here
Pre-order Louisa Onome’s LIKE HOME (February 23, 2021 | Delacorte Press) here
Add LIKE HOME on Goodreads here
Pre-order J. Elle’s WINGS OF EBONY (January 26, 2021 | Simon and Schuster) here
Add WINGS OF EBONY on Goodreads here
Pre-order Anuradha Rajurkar’s AMERICAN BETIYA (March 9, 2021 | Knopf ) here
Add AMERICAN BETIYA on Goodreads here
Add Jessica Vitalis’s THE WOLF’S CURSE on Goodreads here