People are always debating what’s “appropriate” for teenagers to read, but the topic was in the news once again last month when the mother of a high school student criticized Toni Morrison’s Beloved for being graphic and disturbing. To be fair, the book is graphic and disturbing—but it’s also a great work of literature that’s profoundly moving and important. To say that it’s not appropriate for teenagers seems, at best, kind of silly.
Although Morrison’s book is (obviously) not YA, this got me thinking about the frequent criticisms lobbed at YA books. Overzealous parents frequently complain or try to censor/ban YA books that they think are too dark, violent, sexualized or whatever. A couple of years ago, Meghan Cox Gurdon decried the current state of young adult fiction, claiming the genre as a whole was “so dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.” Gurdon was concerned that all this darkness was too damaging to the fragile psyches of teenagers, that this was harmful to their still-developing minds.
In a similar vein, in January The Daily Mail published an article by Tanith Carey about the phenomenon of “sick-lit” (ugh, I’m so sorry I just used that term, you guys). She described books about cancer, self-harm, suicide and depression as “exploitative” and expressed her concern that books with liberal sex and swearing were being marketed towards teenagers. She was referring to books like John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars–you know, the one that’s widely regarded as one of 2012′s best books.
Well, to these writers and anyone who attempts to decide what’s inappropriate for teenage audiences, I have to respectfully say that I disagree.
I’ll admit, I’m not a mother. Maybe my opinion on this will change when I have children of my own who are eager to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower or whatever YA book is frequently challenged by that point, but I sincerely doubt it.
To adults who want to ban or censor young adult books, I need to ask you: Do you remember what you were like as a teenager? Because I remember what I was like. Truthfully, I probably remember way too well. It can be easy, from the far-away perch of adulthood, to forget what those years can be like, to romanticize the innocence of childhood. But the truth is, kids are smarter and tougher than most adults like to give them credit for. When I was a teenager, I read voraciously, anything and everything I could get my hands on, and it didn’t scar me. You know why? Because I loved learning! I didn’t want to read a sanitized, pre-screened selection of books where no one ever used profanity and the characters always made the right decisions, where no one ever got hurt and people never behaved badly. I wanted to read about real life and the real world.
I’m not a teenager anymore, but I’d be willing to bet that teenagers today still feel the same way. Assuming that kids can’t handle books about intense, upsetting, controversial topics is worse than just silly, it’s insulting. Kids aren’t stupid. They know every story doesn’t have a happy ending—not in real life, anyway. In The Daily Mail’s piece about sick-lit, Carey writes that these books “don’t spare any detail of the harsh realities of terminal illness, depression and death.” Well, yeah. Teenagers deserve to read about reality.
My biggest problem with articles like this one is the complete lack of respect the authors have for teenagers. Believe it or not, teenagers are people, too. People who’ve been on this Earth for a shorter period of time, but people just the same. To insist that they only read books that ignore the “harsh realities” of life is just dumb. Obviously, parents have some obligation to protect their kids from some things (like, I’m not suggesting you get your kid a subscription to Playboy or anything), but letting them read books that talk about difficult topics in honest ways is probably going to do them much more good than harm.
That books can force painful, uncomfortable subjects out into the open can only be a good thing. Speak, a book that’s as dark as they come, deals with protagonist Melinda’s sexual assault. Instead of telling anyone about what happened to her, she retreats. She loses friends, becomes incredibly depressed, and blames herself. It’s a secret, a shame, a burden that (she thinks) is entirely her fault. That’s what happens to kids when these very painful, but very real, topics are not talked about. The fact is, 44% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 18. Pretending that teenagers don’t face these problems will only lead to more Melindas, to more kids who hide their problems and blame themselves.