Friday, October 8, 2010

Taking the Y out of YA lit.

As a kid, I was always a fairly advanced reader. Not just in terms of reading ability, mind you, but in terms of content as well. I was reading Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park before I was out of elementary school, and was into John Grisham and Stephen King by middle school. My parents had strange policies when it came to monitoring what I read. They didn't care much about profanity or violence, but they drew a hard line on sexual content. So Congo, The Client, and The Shining were all okay, but Disclosure was not. Yeah, I don't know. It didn't make any sense to me, either.

So, like all good teenagers, I rebelled. I borrowed a copy of American Psycho from my friend and read it. Cover to cover. In a day. It changed everything. My perceptions about what was acceptable for violence, sexuality, and coarse language charged off into the distance, and I haven't really seen them since.

Adult literature isn't always intended for such a young reading audience. That's what young adult (YA) and teen literature is for, right? That's what I thought, until I started reading some YA/teen literature for myself. I have to be honest: even as an adult (in physical age only, certainly not in maturity), I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer brutality of some of the content.

For example, the Hunger Games trilogy recently concluded with the much-anticipated Mockingjay. While the first book in the series, The Hunger Games, was controlled in terms of violence... Mockingjay was not. Violence, torture, and brainwashing abound. Civilians being bombed to smithereens. And bear in mind the protagonists in this series are teenagers or younger. Suzanne Collins, to her credit, does show the psychological and emotional impact of the atrocities of war on children. Not that it softens the blow any, but it certainly makes it more realistic.

These books are in the teen section. That's a pretty wide age range in terms of potential readers. Would a high school student be forever scarred by reading these books? Probably not. Would a middle school student? Unlikely. But how many kids in elementary are reading teen books? Would you want your elementary school child to read about limbs being blown off? I wouldn't. If I had kids, that is.

This isn't a solitary occurrence, either. Michael Grant's Gone series and James Dashner's The Maze Runner series are also rather violent. And those are only the ones I've read, I suspect there are plenty more with similar content. It concerns me to know that my 12-year-old cousin could very well be reading the same books I found to be rather adult in nature.

So what does this mean? Should we pitch a fit and ban the books? Should we offer a caveat to potential buyers? Should the publishers put out less violent books aimed at kids? The answer to all these questions, of course, is no. For starters, we've been in a war for as long as many of these readers can remember. Turning on the news is just as bad as reading one of these books. Offering warnings to customers is great, but every child and teenager is different... and every parenting style, for that matter. And I'm not even going to discuss banning books.

The responsibility, ultimately, falls to the parents. Know what your child is reading, and realize the level at which they can read - both in terms of reading ability as well as content. Familiarize yourself with the hot books aimed at kids and teens. If you don't want to read them, or don't have time, ask one of your friendly Boswell booksellers. Heck, ask me. Come on up to the receiving door and knock and grill me about Mockingjay. We're booksellers. We don't mind. We'd love to help.
One last thing. If a kid really wants to read something, the kid will find a way to read it. Whether or not you allow it. Do you really think I didn't find a way to read Disclosure anyway?


  1. (Spoiler warning...) Concur. I recently read Anthony Horowitz's "Stormbreaker", a YA BritSpy novel patterned after Ian Fleming's James Bond. It looked like great fun when I picked it up, but is actually rather grim, with all the emotional nuance of a second generation videogame -- and without as much color. The climax is that one of the young protagonist's enemies abruptly shoots the other one. The End.

    It's not the violence per se that bothers me, within limits and in proper context; it's the utterly flat, humorless, desensitized and desensitizing tone. Further thoughts about "Stormbreaker" here:

  2. I was, oh, I don't know, 12-ish when I picked The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, off my mom's bookshelf. It sounded interesting. So I started to read it. She discovered my discovery the next day, a Sunday, when she caught me reading it in the back of the church during service. She exclaimed, "Where did you get that?" I replied "It was on your shelf..." She took it away and said "You can read it when you're old enough."

    Today Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favorite writers. I did a 5-essay mini-thesis on Handmaid's Tale as a junior in high school.

    My mom didn't take that book away from me that day because she thought I wasn't a smart enough 12yr-old, it was that I *was* smart enough - that was the problem!

    I respect that my mom, a writer herself and the encourager of reading above all else (I mean, hell, she was reading Dickens to us when I was only 10), always pushed us to further ourselves through reading; but also understood that even (especially?) when your child is bright enough, it doesn't mean they should necessarily be reading everything they can understand.

    Great post Greg.

  3. Personally, I think classifications of books need to either, a) be considered more carefully or b) be explained better. The Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman is a "children's" series, I'm assuming because the protagonists are 12 years old... but, that's absolutely ridiculous. The Dark Materials trilogy are absolutely my favorite books of all time because of how beautifully written they are and, of course, they boundaries they push with religion - but as much as I beg every person I know to read these books, they certainly are not for children. I say that simply because there are HUGE concepts, much bigger ideas going on, than that simple, romanticist story of a gifted little girl going on a journey.

    Even I didn't understand that the first time I picked up the books (I was probably... god, idk, nine or ten?), and I'd always been about four or five grades above my peers in my reading level.

    But anyway, in my own school experience, I haven't really found that elementary schoolers have as many book-resources at their disposal as high schoolers do. I mean, teens are going to learn about all kinds of 'naughty' things whether their parents want them to or not (particularly if they go to public school), but do elementary schools even have teen books in their libraries? And if so, why?

    Really, though, I think that if a sixth grader is intrepid enough to go to the public library and dig around for something more mature, and they can keep the plot straight in their heads, good for them. I'm obviously not a parent, but I say that because I was the only book nerd I knew (excluding my high school English teacher and my mom)... well, ever. I think the world needs more kids to push boundaries of reading. Honestly, if I met a kid who wanted THAT badly to read "inappropriate" books, that they would like, sneak around their parents to find it, I'd give that kid a high five. I do, however, have respect for parents who will take a book away as long as they give it back a few years down the road.

    (Of course, it's okay with modern parents for nine-year-olds to play who knows what kind of violent/scary videogames, but god forbid their thirteen-year-old get their hands on "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.")