Saturday, June 18, 2011

Young Adult Fiction; Is it Too Much for Teens?

I love children's literature.  It's one thing that I look back on with fondest during the time my children were growing up.  I loved revisiting old childhood favorites of mine and was so thrilled with all the new literature out there.  (I remember when I worked at All for Kids Books and Music and the buyer handed me a book without a cover - a publishers' copy - and said "This is the next big thing."  I read it and was enthralled.  It was Harry Potter.)

But since my boys are young adults, I haven't kept up as much.  But there's a new debate over how much realism should be in young adult books.  The Times had a story from the Scripps Howard news service about this issue. 

This debate was first sparked by the 1967 publication of "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton, which is considered the first book truly aimed at teens. Many parents were horrified by Hinton's picture of violent, disillusioned young adults, but teen readers loved the book — and still do.

Now, the debate has flared up again with the June 4 publication of an essay, "Darkness Too Visible," in The Wall Street Journal. In the essay, Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Journal's reviewer of children's and teen books, contends that contemporary fiction for teens is "rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity.

Cox Gurdon's examples include the "hyper-violent" "Hunger Games" dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and author Lauren Myracle's newest book, "Shine," which tells the story of a teen girl living in a small town who overcomes her shyness to investigate the brutal beating of her best friend, who is gay.

I confess that sometimes I got squirmy or squeamish about what my sons were reading.  Was it too much?  Did it talk about things they were unlikely to experience (like child abuse) or should young teens understand about what other teens are experiencing in their lives?

Local author, Sherman Alexie weighed in.

Sherman Alexie, author of the National Book Award-winning novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," formally responded to Cox Gurdon in the June 9 edition of The Wall Street Journal in an essay titled "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood."

Noting his own background as a sexually abused child, Alexie wrote: " ... there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books — especially the dark and dangerous ones — will save them."

Another opinion:

Writing for Salon.com, Mary Elizabeth Williams agreed that part of a parent's job is to protect kids. But she added: "There's something almost comical about raising them with tales of big bad wolves and poisoned apples, and then deciding at a certain point that literature is too 'dark' for them to handle. Kids are smarter than that. ..."

I recall allowing my younger son to watch Billy Elliott around age 10 because I had read reviews saying it was a good film.  It was but I also didn't know there was a lot of foul language in it.  My son told me recently that he was really surprised (in a good way) that I allowed him to see it and was proud to go to school and say he saw an "R" rated film. 

I also sat down with my niece, when she was about 7, to show her Shirley Temple movies which I loved as a child.  However, I forgot that Shirley was an orphan in a lot of these films (or worse, her parents die during the film).  In one of them, she's in an orphanage and my niece asked why all those little girls were sleeping in a big room.  I told her it was a big slumber party and she was satisfied.  For her age, I thought that was all I needed to say.

But how much do you think teens can handle and do you preview books they read at your house?


Anonymous said...

When my kids were small I let them read anything they found in the school library. If they wanted a book from the public library it would be on my card with my supervision. When they get to middle school they get their own library card and can read anything they find there. Our family feels comfortable with that amount of protection for our kids, and keeping them responsible for keeping track of what they checked out and getting the books returned on time.

-library mom

Anonymous said...

I remember reading VC Andrews novels in 5th or 6th grade. They were THE big scandalous thing, and we ate them up. Aside from being exposed to terrible writing, there was no harm done. They were books, plain and simple, and fictitious ones at that. I knew that kind of thing happened somewhere, elsewhere, to other people, but that was way in the back of my mind.

I remember very clearly the moment I couldn't watch horror films, or read books like that any more. It didn't happen until I was 26. Suddenly the potential for horrible things to happen to me (and the reality that they were happening, now to others) hit, whereas before I thought I was never to be affected by them. The invincibility of young adulthood had dropped away in an instant.

Because I remember that moment, I'm not overly concerned with what kids are reading. Yes, I'm making an assumption that they have been taught the difference between right and wrong, fiction and reality. By and large though I believe there is no long-term damage caused by these books. Reading is escapism, reading trashy novels lets kids think they are getting away with something, which is the holy grail of teenagers.

As to students who have experienced abuse, it depends on the individual and generally how the book is handled. At a middle school I worked once students did read a contemporary book that involved child abuse. It was hard for many to process why that happened in the book, even the students who had been abused themselves. I was not the teacher who assigned the book, but I saw the students later. Of the students who had been abused, I think the difficulty was less in reading about it, and more in the public speaking about it, even if they weren't speaking directly of themselves.

Former teacher

Hippy Goodwife said...

The middle schooler at my house can read most anything he chooses. He knows the difference between what happens in real life and what happens in a novel. I think reading scary/salacious/uncomfortable things is just another way of practicing your own reaction to those events and situations in the real world.
( I worked at ALL For Kids too. I'm sad that it isn't around for my kids)

ArchStanton said...

My oldest isn't going to be a teen for a few years, but I can't imagine prescreening everything she reads now, let alone a few years from now. She learned to read early (Harry Potter in first grade) and I would pre-read books that I wasn't familiar with for several years. We stalled her on the later books in the HP series as much for the darker content as for the boy-girl relationship themes that she wouldn't have been able to relate to. Today, she plows through books at a rate that would make it impossible to keep up with. I don't know that we could really keep her from reading something if she were determined to, but clearly we can influence her choices by what we are willing to buy or check out at the library.

I think it depends on the kid and what you think they are prepared for and what they can handle. To me, books seem a safer medium for exploring "dangerous" or "risky" material than say movies or video games. Maybe it's because books can more easily provide depth or context without glorifying as easily.

It's interesting to contemplate being in a place where one would feel inclined to limit/guide/restrict a child's reading as opposed to being in a place where one would simply be happy to have a child pick up any book. I'd rather let most kids read anything than have them read nothing.

Anonymous said...

My 11yo daughter is a strong reader, and since about age 9 she has had some difficulty finding appropriate books that are interesting and not too easy. She feels some pressure to "read up" to The Hunger Games and the Twilight series. I don't feel like they are appropriate to her age, and in the case of Hunger Games I think she will gain more from reading them in a year or two.

What I've done is not forbid her from reading anything, but instead tell her honestly my feelings about those books and why I don't recommend them for her. I also don't make it too easy to read them -- she can check them out of the library herself, but we don't own copies. Now it is up to her. She decided to wait on Hunger Games and after asking around concluded she probably wouldn't like Twilight much anyhow.

Kristin said...

This is a tough question. I have read some books as an adult that I felt like I wasn't mature enough for! But on the other hand, I think about how extremely violent fairy tales are and how they do help prepare kids to understand their own feelings and the world around them. And they're getting exposed to more and more younger and younger. Can fiction inoculate them?

Monica said...

First grade teacher and mom chiming in here...

Just want to make the connection between this post (and its various references) to an essay in this month's Atlantic on the overwhelming vigilance practiced by some well-meaning parents:

"How to Land Your Kid in Therapy"

I would suggest that censoring the reading of teenagers may not be a great idea, at least where young adult literature is concerned. Teens who read avidly will likely not appreciate their choices being dictated. If your reader is younger than 13, read the book in question with your kid (or in parallel) and talk about the intense themes... offer a bit of guidance if needed.

As a teacher of early literacy, I must agree with ArchStation. The conundrum of whether to intervene into our children's reading choices is a blessed one. Be very happy you have this "problem".

And from the mouth of my 14 year old, who devoured the Hunger Games trilogy (and whose 8th grade English teacher read the first one aloud in class): "mom, kids are already submitted to a lot of violence in TV and video games and stuff... maybe that's somehow contributed to violence in books..."

There's a lot of competition for those eyeballs, so publishers offer what they think will entice the reader.

seattle citizen said...

Children should only read that which makes them ready for careers. "Every student ready for college and work." Historical novels, science FICTION, romance (and bromance) novels, dystopian novels...all these are frivilous and might lead to dis-satisfaction with one's place on the assembly line as one actually thinks about the richness available in life. "Literature" is best locked in the safe in the Director's room.

Anonymous said...

At the The Seattle Public Library, the new bowdlerized versions of Hucklebery Finn and Tom Sawyer are featured on the new books shelf at the Southwest Branch, or were last week.

This brings to mind the messy Twain fiasco at Hale.

But SPL does have The Hunger Games and the others in that series, and many other thought provoking YAs.

No SPS library that I've ever seen is as good as SPL. That's an area for improvement, in the back of my mind, but way down the list these days.


Anonymous said...

What age Shakespeare? Date rape drug and bestial transformation in Midsummer's Night's Dream; an entire family murdered in Hamlet - oh, and the ghost plus insanity; real witches and curses and poisons and betrayal in Macbeth, etc. Not to mention terrifc sword fights and Romeo and Juliet's elopement.

Mostly a reading kid is a good kid. They will take what they are ready for and forget the rest.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Lisa, I'm going to consult my trusty list of books for different ages.

Anyone? Age appropriate books for an eleven year old strong reader? I think there's a lot out there to challenge her without confusing her.

ArchStanton said...

What age Shakespeare? Date rape drug and bestial transformation in Midsummer's Night's Dream; an entire family murdered in Hamlet - oh, and the ghost plus insanity; real witches and curses and poisons and betrayal in Macbeth, etc. Not to mention terrifc sword fights and Romeo and Juliet's elopement.,

Sure, it's all there. It's in the bible, as well. The thing is that you have to work for it - you have to get past the prose to get to the "good stuff" - and maybe even learn something along the way. Maybe that's why we suck all of the fun out of the classics, so that kids will find them so boring that they won't go looking for the good parts. Only now, young adult fiction gets straight to the "juicy" parts.

I remember being bored with Shakespeare and Dickens in HS, but enjoying them in different settings outside of school. One was as a teen with a group of adults at a summer solstice dinner party where we read parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream (I had a little wine, too - don't tell my mom). Another was as a twenty-something at-sea in the Navy when I was looking for something different to read and decided upon Oliver Twist. It seems like we don't let kids read literature for enjoyment before we start analyzing, dissecting, and sucking the life out of it.

ArchStanton said...

a followup thought: Clearly my fondness for Midsummer Night is due in large part to the context in which I read it. I think my fondness for Oliver Twist was due to the lack of an imposed external context - I was free to just read it and enjoy it.

SE Mom said...

We had the very same dilemma when my daughter was 10/11: finding interesting and more challenging reading with age appropriate content.

So, I just asked my daughter (who is now 15) if she remembers what she read at that age and she came up with following titles:

Evil Genius books by Catherine Jinks
Holes and Small Steps by Louis Sachar
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

Another idea is the teen library section at the downtown branch. They have a librarian just for that section who has made some great book suggestions for my kid.

peonypower said...

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I was even the librarian's assistant in elementary school and she let me check out books before they were in the card catalog (talk about library geek.) I read nearly every fiction book in my school library and vividly remember reading Gone With the Wind at 13 (a very racy book at the time.) My parents let me read what I liked and my reading was something that fueled my world view (that there are all kinds of people in the world and that the world is not always a safe place.) I read the Hunger Games this year and I did not think it particularly violent. No worse than V.C. Andrews or Stephen King. I say that If a kid loves to read let them read.

Anonymous said...

What I don't know how to handle are age-inappropriate books the school gives my children. At home, my child will actually stop reading a book if the content doesn't seem quite right ("too much girl-boy stuff, mom, yuck").

What do you do when you think think your children are too young for certain topics, yet the school reading groups are given books that deal with pretty heavy topics? It's not about keeping them from being exposed to certain topics, but about waiting until they are at a more appropriate age to discuss and handle various topics. It's about getting the most out of books because they've waited to read them.

I'm finding the Readers Workshop exacerbates this problem because rather than reading one book as a class and having the teacher be a filter and put things in context, the kids are left to fend for themselves. Sometimes the teacher hasn't even read the book.

I can trust my child to be the judge about whether a book is "ok" or not when taken from the library, yet I have to be vigilant about the books given to them at school.

Some of the books are simply bad literature.

Has anyone else been experiencing this?

-parent of a pre-teen

dj said...

My parents let me read whatever I wanted. That Included Stephen King, V.C Andrews, etc. in elementary school. I don't intend to police what my kids read. I will talk to the about it, sure, but they can read what they can find at the library.

Melissa Westbrook said...

From my book list, Lisa:

- The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
-Ella Enchanted by Levine
- Tuck Everlasting (much better than the movie)
- Marianthe's Story, Painted Winds
-Who Was that Masked Man Anyway (very funny WWII story)
- Artemis Fowl (a series)
- The Westing Game
- Flush by Car Hiaasen
- Scorpia
- Stargirl (a favorite of mine)
-The Number Devil; A Mathematical Adventure
- The Ink Drinker
- Shiloh (series)
- Paradise Cafe (short stories)
- The Jump-off Creek (historical fiction)

Also, if you ever need help, Rene at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park is THE person to guide you. I worked with her at All for Kids and she reads everything (especially YA) and knows the landscape.

Chris S. said...

My 7th grader recommends Gilda Joyce for 5th-ish-graders. I love all the Carl Hiassen books for kids, and after some resistance am letting her read some of his adult books too - I'm not a policer but that did test my limits for a while. Margaret Peterson Haddix has written a lot of exciting, edgy but not too violent books.

seattle citizen said...

Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian was just banned by the Tri-cities school board. They didn't even read it: They relied on comments by parents and citizens.

lendlees said...

I find the 'steampunk' genre is great for an advanced reader/YA. Leviathan series, Boneshaker (both recommended this summer by SPL). They are alternate histories taking place in the early 1900's. My 10 year loves them, along with the Alchemist series.

seattle citizen said...

here's a Steampunk "contest" brought to students by Seattle Public Library (check their website):

Steampunk Summer!
This spring, Teen Services Librarians will bring copies of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld to Seattle middle and high schools. We'll also hide some copies in secret locations around Seattle.

Your challenge!

Find a book. Need clues? Click here.
Read the book, and then initial the back.
Pass it to a friend or re-hide it.
Connect back to our teen blog and post an entry about where you hid the book (and if you want, where you found it, what you thought of it, etc.)
Claim a free book at the Library as your prize!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Seattle Citizen. We make every effort to read banned writings! The list keeps getting longer and longer.

PS mom

Jamie said...

SC, thanks for posting that about Alexie, who is a national treasure in my opinion. That is such a damn shame. That book is wonderful.

observer said...

Look into the many Rick Riordan books and series (Percy Jackson, Heroes of Olympus, 39 Clues, the new Kane Chronicles series).

John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series got good reviews, but may get a bit boring as they go on (still worth a read, IMHO).

Ursula LeGuin has some good books for kids that age, and slightly older as well - Earthsea Cycle (which now has 6 books in the series, I believe), and a newer series Annals of the Western Shores, which may be aimed for a slightly older teen, but they are good (Gifts, Voices, Powers).

Also try Animorphs or Everworld series by KA Applegate, and the Emily Windsnap series by Liz Kessler.

Shorter, slightly simpler reads (but page-turning stories): Midwife's Apprentice, Catherine Called Birdy, Ella Enchanted, Princess Diaries (better than the movies), Julie of the Wolves, Our Only May Amelia, Because of Winn-Dixie, No Talking, My Father's Dragon (easy read, but very fun).

From my youth, and getting mostly good reviews from my kid: Island of the Blue Dolphin, Wizard of Oz series by Frank Baum (gets boring after a bit), Witch of Blackbird Pond, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, It's Like This Cat, Wrinkle In Time series.

And it is never too early for Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. Or even some science fiction/fantasy, if she likes that route. I suggest Dragonriders of Pern or anything by Anne McCaffery. Also anything by Octavia Butler or Ursula LeGuin, or selected books by Asimov (I Robot and The Gods Themselves, at least the middle story in that book) or short stories by Phillip K Dick or Harlan Ellison.

We are also thinking of going through the list of Newbery award and honors books, starting with this year and working backwards.

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