Off The Shelf October 2013 – Sick-Lit by Bec Kavanagh

Our latest edition of Off The Shelf is out now and available through Penguin Teachers’ Academy Newsstand in the iTunes store. For those of you without access to Apple devices, we will be sharing the articles in this edition of Off The Shelf right here on the blog, all of this week. In this article, Bec Kavanagh ruminates on Sick-Lit in Young Adult.

BKThere’s always one debate or another raging on about the latest trend in YA fiction that’s corrupting the ‘impressionable young minds of our youth’. It’s too dark, it’s too sexy and now, too sick?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pushing for children, tweens or even young adults to read anything that they’re not ready for. Every stage of reading is something that should be savoured and enjoyed. But to suggest that a publishing trend is responsible for tarnishing young minds, well, that doesn’t give those minds much credit does it? And on top of that, to suggest that books deal with themes that are ‘too dark’ or inappropriate for these young adult readers suggests that their lives are nothing but sunshine and roses, that any darkness in them comes as a result of these shadowy literary themes rather than recognising the breadth of their own experiences.

Young adults themselves argue the opposite to be true. 18-year-old Jess Whitby, writing for Express Media’s The Under Age argues that sick-lit (and indeed many of these genres deemed so controversial by well meaning adults) is important because [it] gives ‘suffering teens a compassionate shoulder – perhaps even more so if the story resolves positively and give readers whom have fortunately never experienced such turmoil in their own lives empathy, understanding and compassion for those who are experiencing such things.’
To take a step back, sick-lit is a term loosely gathering those books with terminally ill central characters. In a recent rant in the Daily Mail, books about self harm are also included, however the term seems to more generally refer to books with characters who are physically sick (cancer, terminal illness and so on). The main arguments by those who don’t like it seem to revolve around a) that the themes are too ‘old’ for the target audience and b) that these books might somehow glamorise or romanticise being sick.


There’s nothing glamorous about being sick. About being so sick that you can’t stand up, that your own body is constantly betraying you. Nothing romantic about being puffy/swollen/angry/vomiting in front of your crush/would be boyfriend/girlfriend. Or so I imagine. Luckily I’ve never been that sick. As with all books, particularly those that are confronting or challenging, these stories give me the opportunity to live something that I (thankfully) haven’t had to. And in doing so, perhaps I can offer more empathy, more support, more understanding to someone who has. To suggest that readers aren’t ready for that, or that they’re all suddenly going to want to be part of this glamorous ‘sick’ parade doesn’t show very much faith in the intelligence of young readers, or offer very much insight into the books that they’re reading.

9780143567592‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (2012, John Green) is perhaps at the front of this genre, although it’s certainly not the first book to appear in it. John Green has acquired an almost celebrity status as an author, and I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me when I ask a room full of teenagers who has read one of his books and almost every hand goes up. ‘TFIOS’ as it’s been affectionately dubbed, is about Hazel, an incredibly intelligent, terminally ill, clinically depressed cancer patient who never expects to fall in love with someone like Augustus Waters. Hazel is not the only one who will be surprised, fall in love or be heartbroken at the end of this book. And while the characters have that typical John Green cleverness (his characters always seem to be much smarter and wittier than I remember being during high school), they’re totally believable, and the book feels authentic throughout.

Showing a different type of authenticity is recent Text Prize winner ‘Zac and Mia’ (2013, AJ Betts). It’s authentic in a subtle way, and with a down to earth reality that is impossible to turn away from. Zac and Mia are shown in all of their cancerous glory, we follow them through runny noses, puffed up faces, severed limbs and bad tempers. We love these characters like family and it’s their flaws that make them so accessible, that make their illness so brutally unfair.

9780141340722‘The Probability of Miracles’ (2012, Wendy Wunder) is a book that takes more liberties with reality. It’s a book about love, cancer (both of the body and of the soul) and about miracles. Those miracles start out as the everyday sort, but at times, are nothing sort of far fetched. And yet it’s a gripping read, and again, it’s the characters that get you, the characters that bring home the harsh realities.

In truth that’s what sick-lit is, and should be about. These characters, who by no fault of their own have been born into a body that just doesn’t work the way it should. And just like in reality, these characters deal with their situations in a range of different ways. Some rage, raw and confronting against the hand they’ve been dealt; some try to cram as much living as they can into their remaining days; and some pin all their hopes on the most unlikely of miracles. So who am I to judge? It’s this range of experience, this very range of reactions, of varied connections to reality that make the act of reading so wonderful and so eye opening.

Books are, have always been, and should always be a way to experience someone else’s reality and a way to start hypothetical conversations about very real topics. Rather than being concerned that precious young minds are being corrupted, perhaps we should be glad that they’re so capable of and willing to experience empathy and to put themselves in shoes that must be so hard to wear. Sick-lit is more than a trend, it’s a collection of themes and ideas that encourage empathy, openness and understanding and as such one that should be encouraged.

Further Reading
‘The Fault In Our Stars’ John Green, Penguin Books 2012
‘The Probability of Miracles’ Wendy Wunder, Penguin Books 2012
‘Zac and Mia’ AJ Betts, Text Publishing 2013
‘Before I Die’ Jenny Downham, Random House 2013
‘Me, Earl and the Dying Girl’ Jesse Andrews, Allen & Unwin 2012
‘Everything Left Unsaid’ Jessica Davidson, Pan Macmillan 2012

Interesting articles
And John Green’s hilarious ‘response’ to the Daily Mail article.

This entry was posted in Death and Bereavement, Family, Relationships, Resources, Reviews, Special Guest, Themes. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Off The Shelf October 2013 – Sick-Lit by Bec Kavanagh

  1. I found you through Google on “Books About Self Harm” Thanks for sharing this! I just posted the top 10 books for 2013.

    Michael Silver
    Books About Self Harm

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