What are “Inappropriate” Topics for Teens to Read?

This post is a response to a really interesting article I read on Book Riot by Kelly Jensen. The article is called “What Are Grown-Ups Afraid of in YA Books?” and discusses the reactions adults have to YA books that deal with “adult” topics like rape, abortion, gangs, sex, etc. Some adults feel that these aren’t appropriate topics for YA books, going so far as to lobby for them to be removed from school curricula and libraries. Jensen debunks these claims, citing a range of very good points from the fact that difficult and “grown up” topics have always been present in books read by teens, that teens are living some of these so-called “inappropriate” situations in their day-to-day lives and that reading books on these topics will not, in fact, cause kids to engage in the behaviours they discuss. To really get the full experience, you should go over and read her article now, before continuing with my response to it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

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Done? Okay, good.

The article really got me thinking. I’ve only recently started reading newly-released young adult books, and I was a bit surprised by the violence in some of them (Boy Nobody and Agent 21, to be specific). But I don’t think it’s something to be up in arms about, nor do I think teens shouldn’t be reading them. For a few reasons.

First, Jensen’s right, books we adults read as teenagers also included the same elements as the books that are being complained about. So did films and, as she pointed out, real life.

Second, while I don’t remember there being as many YA books to choose from, or such a variety in my teen years, that could be because I wasn’t reading them – by the time I was in high school I was reading adult books. Even in elementary school I read Underground to Canada, Forbidden City and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. These, while written for young audiences, deal with pretty hefty topics – including slavery and genocide. I read Go Ask Alice (a journal of drug addiction) and Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (the true account of a teen runaway turned prostitute) by the time I finished my first year of high school, along with various books by Jean M. Auel and VC Andrews. By the time I was in grade 10 I was reading Margaret Atwood, Stephen King and Tom Robbins, and by grade 12 I was reading The World According to Garp, She’s Come Undone, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Dispossessed, which definitely have some adult themes in them. Incidentally my favourite movies were Pulp Fiction, The Basketball Diaries, Kids and Trainspotting. And I wasn’t even a particularly precocious child when it came to entertainment.

The reality I lived in was anything but “teen-themed,” even when I was a teen. I had friends who were sexually assaulted, who dropped out of school, who lived on the streets, who dealt drugs, who got pregnant at 13, whose parents abused them, who attempted suicide…. these were not topics that were foreign to me. Nor to anyone else I knew. And I didn’t exactly grow up in a rough urban environment – I grew up in an idyllic small town full of hippies. You can’t stop kids and teens from learning the ways of the world. And you’re not doing them any favours by trying.

Another important point Kelly  makes is that books are interpreted by the minds of readers. The same book can produce very different images for different readers – and they are sometimes intentionally written to do so. I point to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book or Coraline. One of Gaiman’s many talents is the ability to write stories in such a way that the disturbing elements are implied. Adults, who understand these things, will know what he means. But kids won’t. This is an impressive skill, and is what makes kid’s and teen’s books enjoyable to adult readers. Give the authors credit where it’s due, because this is not easy, folks.

It’s also important to note that while teens are impressionable when it comes to peer pressure, they are not idiots. And they do understand fiction. Just because a book or movie discusses topics such as gangs or abortion doesn’t mean every teenager who reads that book or watches that movie is going to go, “Oh, okay, I guess that’s what I should be doing then.” Come on guys. Think back to yourself at that age. Do you seriously think that’s how you would have been affected? No. More than likely you would have assessed what you were reading with your own sense of morality and right and wrong and decided whether you thought it was something that you should or shouldn’t be engaging in. And isn’t that the point? Doesn’t literature provide a great way for teens to experience scary or horrible things, draw their own conclusions, and do so in a safe manner because rather than going out and doing it, they’re reading about it? Isn’t that why we ask them to read books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Animal Farm and the works of Shakespeare as part of their high school curriculum? These are not lily-white, censored, violence-free tomes either. The reading I did as a child and teen taught me a lot about the world. It also taught me a lot about myself. And that is an experience that has proved invaluable to me because it has taught me to put myself in other people’s shoes, to understand the differences between people (and respect and value them) and, above all, to have empathy. Which has made me a better person.

I think it’s important to give teens some credit. They’ll generally read what they’re ready to deal with. There were books I started reading, realized I wasn’t comfortable with, and put back on the shelf. Hell, I still do that. It doesn’t matter if you take books out of school libraries. There are bookshelves at home, public libraries and book stores. Kids and teens will read what they want to read.

And I, for one, say let them.

 UPDATED 20/07/13: 

I just came across this post on Stacked (an excellent book blog that you should check out if you haven’t already) that includes a letter written by a 13-year-old girl who is responding to one of the people who is advocating banning the book Speak (by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the rape of a teenaged girl and its aftermath) from a middle school. It is amazingly insightful, articulate and rational. Here’s a snippet that I found particularly affected me:

Dear Dr. Swier, I read the book ‘Speak’ at age 10…possibly 11, I can’t really remember now. I’m thirteen now and have read countless books with much longer and detailed sex scenes than the 7 or 8 lines of “he hurts me he hurts me he zips up his jeans” in Speak. I like to think I make responsible decisions in my reading material as well as my (let’s be honest here, nonexistent) sex life. My reading material isn’t monitored by my parents or librarians; to be honest, most adults I know are pretty stoked that I read whatever I can get my hands on and think critically about each book.

Reading books with sex scenes has never felt “scandalous” to me, or “turned me on” at all. (“By golly, that was some good porn. Man, that girl got raped by someone she didn’t know and lived her life in a depressed haze for the next year, too paralyzed to tell anyone what had happened! I think I’ll go round up some of my teenage buddies now and see who’ll have sex with me!”) Some teenagers have sex sometimes. It’s a fact. We know it, I know it, and you know it. Sometimes it’s an issue, yes; I would like to argue that sometime’s it’s a non-issue as well, but that’s beside the point. Ignoring the fact of teenage sexuality doesn’t cause it to cease to exist. Instead, “squeaky-clean” YA lit and abstinence-only sex ed programs just create a bubble of ignorance around young adults. Trying to blind them to a true fact is ineffective; in fact, once they’re eventually (and inevitably) introduced to sex, undereducation may be their downfall as they are more prone to partake in risky behaviors without knowing the consequences. LIKE RAPE. 
 
The letter continues on in that vein and is well worth reading in its entirety. //<![CDATA[ var sc_project=10144299; var sc_invisible=1; var sc_security="82f610c9"; var scJsHost = (("https:" == document.location.protocol) ? "https://secure." : "http://www."); document.write("”); //]]>

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