In the spirit of Banned Books Week (and the fact that my Top Ten Tuesday was horribly boring this week), I decided to stir the pot a bit with a discussion post. Here I want to ask the age old question: How far is too far when it comes to young adult novels?
You know what I’m talking about – the sex, the drugs, the drinking, the swearing. They all play a major part in our lives, obviously for some more than others, and despite the controversy, also in the lives of teenagers. I often wonder if I were to write a book, how would I feel on including these controversial subjects? Would I sensor myself in order to reach a wider audience and younger teens? Would I have a tell-it-like-it-is attitude and keep my novel gritty and heavy? Obviously this is going to vary from author to author and the reception of this will vary from reader to reader. Technically, there is no right or wrong answer on exactly what is appropriate for young adult readers and what is not, and I’m more so talking about the inclusion of these elements in general, not quite the severity of them (I think the majority of us can agree that graphic sex scenes, rampant cursing, and very heavy drug use is generally inappropriate for teen novels. This is meant as an interesting and fun discussion so please understand what I mean when I’m talking about what’s “appropriate” to include in YA).
I don’t know about you guys, but I swore like a sailor as a teen (I guess I still do. Oops). A lot of times there are ways to avoid using curse words to make a book a little less harsh in language and a little more friendly to the younger teens (I’m not a parent, but I would venture to guess the parents would be happier about this too). The best example I have right now for this Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I’m in the middle of the audiobook (gotta love Wil Wheaton’s narration…) and I’m actually quite surprised at not only the frequency but the selection of curse words throughout the book. Now it doesn’t bother me in the least – if anything, it enhances the story for me a bit because it makes it seem more real. With plenty of surprising moments, bouts of frustration and anger, etc, swearing not only seems appropriate but naturally how I would react in these situations too. I can easily see where people would say it’s too much an unnecessary. For my tastes, it really works with the story. Another thing to think about here is that the main character Wade is also eighteen. It’s not like this is a book where the main characters are on the younger side of adolescence. If they were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year-olds, I’d actually say the cursing would be a bit excessive for what I’d like to read from that age group. Obviously this is all my personal opinion, but for me, it fits. The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to see that it really depends on the age range of the characters and the age range of the target audience that seems to be swaying me in either direction. Another example that comes to mind is Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne. Emmy has quite a different approach to swearing in her book: if ever it’s a “harsher” curse word, she actually censored the characters herself. Sometimes it was just “Screw you” or “you’re such a jerk” instead of the more crass language. A lot of the time, that actually took away from the story for me because it felt so unnatural. If I was that angered to the point of insulting someone and yelling, let’s face it. I’m not gonna use the word “jerk”. When the actual swear words were used, it was the bare bones of the swear and letting us fill in the rest of the letters to figure it out. From this method, I would guess that the target audience for Monument 14 may be a younger one and this would be a way to stretch the audience down to younger teens, even pre-teens considering we have characters that range from around 5 years old to 18; but then comes my issue with that balance. Throughout the book, we also have teen drinking (and a lot of it by the “cool” kids), nudity, sex, and violence (although the violence isn’t severe). So then I was left with the question, how subjective are one of these “taboos” to another? Personally I thought it was pointless to censor the swearing if we’re also reading about underage drinking, sex, and teenage fantasies. I thought those ranked a bit more severe on the taboo scale, but of course, that’s just another opinion. Which leads us to….
Sex in high school was kind of a non-issue for me. I didn’t really have any relationships that lasted in high school so I was never really in that situation and I never had to think about it. I guess if I had to say how I felt about it back then, it was towards the negative side because I heard the negative stories: the wild parties, the teenage pregnancies, etc. So when I read YA books where the characters are sexually active or losing their virginity, I’m never quite sure what to make of it. Okay, here’s my confession: I was raised fairly conservatively and despite the mass amounts of movies and TV shows where sex is no big thing and everyone’s doing it in high school, it wasn’t like that for me. I grow a bit hesitant at the amount of young adult books I read with the same kind of situations. Is sex included because that’s the ultimate step to take as a teenager? That’s how you know the characters have finally committed to each other and fallen in love? I can see some books including it, but I’m afraid at just how many there are out there that all included a sex scene with their characters at 16, 17, or 18 years old. I don’t want to bring up books that may result in spoilers so I’ll try to use more familiar ones, like the Twilight series. I was crazy surprised that part of the main theme in Eclipse/Breaking Dawn is sex. Let’s be real: That’s the main reason Bella even marries Edward, right? Let’s get married so we can have sex? It didn’t seem like she really wanted to marry him otherwise (especially the way they portrayed it in the movie! I haven’t read the books in a while so that part is a little fuzzy). Am I right in saying that at least a little bit? And then Breaking Dawn happens and okay, so they’re married at this point, but the big moment finally happens and Bam! Immediate pregnancy. I guess that does really set up the plot for the rest of the book, but still. You just barely graduated high school, throwing away the college experience, begging to be a vampire just so you’re A) not older than your boyfriend by one year and B) so you can get it on. I don’t know. The more I think about it, the sillier it sounds. And don’t get me wrong – the Twilight series is still one of my favorites, but when I really stop to think about it, you can’t deny that sex shaped the entire second half of this series. Another series I loved but was still left with my jaw-dropped: The Chemical Garden by Lauren DeStefano. When I finished Wither, I was so excited to finish and really, really enjoyed the book, but at the same time, I was slightly appalled in a way. Whatever crazy mutation that this was that killed boys at 25 and girls at 20 (okay, what virus is really that specific and could really do that? – I overlooked it…) created a crazy teenage pregnancy break out. In order to keep the human race alive, there has to be teen pregnancy. Some of these girls are picked as young as they can so they can produce the most amount of babies for their teenage husbands, and poor little Cecily who is either 13 or 14 in Wither (I think maybe she turns 14 in the book?) is the first to get pregnant. And she’s excited for it. Wait, what? I mean, when I stop and think about it, I’m not sure how I ended up liking this book so much because how is that okay in any way? But again, this theme is something that shaped the entire plot of the whole series.
There are plenty of others of my favorites where the guy and the girl finally get together and then have sex. And sometimes, as much as I’ve loved the book, I just roll my eyes. Is sex always necessary to prove that this relationship is valid? For me, sometimes it’s the absence of sex that makes the book even better. I love the slow burn relationships and the sexual tension that pulls you along the whole story – and the characters don’t even have to hook up to make for a great ending – and sometimes I think that’s even better writing than having them jump in the sack together. Perfect example: I just finished Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins and it instantly became one of my favorite books and one of my favorite literary relationships. No sexy times involved there (in the euphemistic sense…. because there were PLENTY of sexy moments between Anna and Etienne) and honestly, I think it was so great and perfect without the two of them hooking up.
Another thing we can’t deny is part of the lives of teenagers is the presence of drugs and alcohol, although I’d say more often alcohol. I still frowned upon drugs pretty hard when I was in high school (again with the conservative upbringing), but I’d say by junior and senior year, the vast majority of kids were breaking into their parents liquor cabinets and having their older siblings buy them some booze. I’d say alcohol and some forms of drug use (I guess most commonly marijuana) are bound to slip their way into young adult fiction because they really are that present in so many people’s social circles. For me, I’d say their presence in YA books aren’t quite as controversial to me when it’s the “upperclassmen” (junior and senior aged high school kids) drinking and smoking pot. I think it’s fair to say that drug use more than marijuana isn’t commonly seen in YA lit (at least I can’t think of drug use like that in books that I’ve read – let me know if you have) due to the fact that once drugs like that are introduced into the story, I think the story immediately takes on a much more serious and controversial tone that aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot at hand. Alcohol, however, plays a much stronger role. It’s what makes the classic party scene and seems much less taboo to include. I was actually quite surprised to see such a strong presence of drugs and alcohol in one of my favorite books, Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins. The story goes that Anna is a nephilim of one of the Dukes (that is to say, a higher demon) and along with others that represent the Seven Deadly Sins, Anna’s father is the Duke of substance abuse. His job as a demon is to lure people into alcohol and drug abuse and Anna as the super-innocent Southern girl has never touched the stuff. So long story short, we see Anna get familiar with these substances, learn how to control them, and has the classic battle between good and evil and whether to lead these people astray or keep them clean. I actually found the plot line extremely interesting, but really, once we were talking about serious drugs and those drugs showed up on the scene (although not actively used by the characters), it still brought up a serious turn in the tone of the book for me. It was instantly transformed into something that was just a little bit darker and a little bit more for “maturer” audiences (for lack of a better word). In Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry, the pot usage by Noah and his tight group of friends didn’t really seem that off-putting. It’s a lot more common to see that show up, even among teenage crowds. Not to say I’m always in favor of its presence in YA novels, but I think it’s much more acceptable – in a way – than any other drugs. Then as far as alcohol goes, I think that’s a very real part of teenage life, like it or not. Where I think it really starts to get taboo is the age of the alcohol drinker. Like I had mentioned earlier, the norm for the kids that I knew at that age was drinking at 17 and 18 years old. I think if the drinkers in the story are younger than 17 (for me at least) it starts to cross a line a little more and begins to raise red flags the younger the drinkers get. I think I start to feel uncomfortable when the main characters are under 17 and drinking. I’m sure it has a lot to do with my personal experience so I’m interested to see what other people have to say about that!
This turned into quite the long winded post so I’ll start to wrap it up. All of these situations are clearly my personal opinions – and really, that’s what makes all of these situations so touchy. Everyone has their own personal experiences that shape their reading experiences as well. What’s taboo for one person is on the fence for another and is crossing the line for the next. It’s really all on the perception of the reader. I’m sure my opinion (as a 20-something) on these topics can vary extremely from someone who is a parent and has children who are reading the same books, as well as varying quite a bit from the actual teen. Mostly I’m really interested to hear what you guys think! I know a lot of us are adults reading YA novels because they’re fun, there are so many great ones being published, and they’re so enjoyable. So here are my questions for you:
How do you feel about these topics?
How controversial do you find them?
If you’re a parent, how do these themes affect how you feel towards the books?
Would you tell your kids not to read any books because of these themes?
Do any one of these elements turn you off from a book just because of their presence?
Let me know anything I missed, any opinions you want to throw at me, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!!