As a grade school child, I read a book called Black Beauty. It was actually written for adults. In the first chapter the son and only heir to the family dies of a broken neck in the foolish sport of fox hunting. After this tragedy, the parents decide to sell their estate, and this begins Black Beauty’s downward plunge into the increasingly abusive world of the working horse.
If this were to be depicted as “mature content” the writer would have described every gory detail of this young man’s deadly fall, shown the psychotic cries of his parents, described memories of everything they had done wrong concerning him in the past, including dealing with his or their own sexual indiscretions. All of this would obscure the foolish waste of life caused by his hobby of fox hunting.
Those kinds of explicit descriptions are not there to inform adults but rather to entertain them by immersing them into a dark world that drags emotion out of us. When this kind of story is written for YA, the author deletes some of the explicit description and adds magic, so the son can be brought back to life. No tragedy would be so dark that it could not be completely reversed. The glut of fantasy works for YA today may prevent them from seeing the actual world through books that describe real tragedies.
We often think of mature content as too disturbing to present to teenagers or someone younger. We may deal with it as a badge of honor showing our toughness that we can read these texts. But, many people are affected in a way that they do not realize as they become jaded or hardened to such content. I heard one person bemoan that even slasher horror films no longer terrified her. I do not know if this was a brag or actual plea to find novels and movies that would affect her deeply.
Mature content should preserve the impact of the event without resorting to being written in a titillating manner. One way to increase the emotional impact is to create characters that matter to the reader. Larger than life characters, such as the chosen one who will succeed no matter what or the broken alcoholic who is still very competent at his job despite his struggle with booze lose their realism. They also fail to gain the reader’s concern.
People will still read to escape sometimes, but a constant diet of violent and explicit escapism may also lead to a dose of unnecessary detachment. We leave behind a part of ourselves when being “scared to death” doesn’t seem frightening anymore. Then, I return to the book I loved as a child. I realize that Black Beauty’s downward spiral did halt with a satisfying (if not unquestionably happy) ending. I see this book as an inspiration on how to deal with mature content.