Can YA Books Ever Be “Inappropriate”?

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.

By writing and reading about these things, by forcing them out in the open, we can acknowledge that bad things happen. When kids realize that they aren’t alone, they’ll see that their pain isn’t something they have to face by themselves. Books like Speak, Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are there as reassurance to kids who know what pain is. They say, “You’re not the only one.” They say, “You can get through this.” They say, “You matter.”

And what about the kids who haven’t experienced these things? These kids who aren’t on a first name basis with assault, oppression, racism, self-harm, etc.? I’d argue that these books are just as necessary for privileged kids who haven’t faced extreme hardship. We do kids no favors by sheltering them, by acting as if these injustices and injuries don’t exist. Kids need to know that life isn’t all sweetness and light, that their neighbors are suffering. Why not let kids explore these dangerous, scary topics safely, through a book? Because as graphic, violent, and disturbing as a book may be, it can always be put down. Reading is the best way to learn about another person’s experience while staying out of harm’s way.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the escapism of a light book—after all, YA romance is probably my favorite kind of YA. There are times when the relief and fantasy of a Meg Cabot book is just necessary, for a teenager or an adult. But that’s not all YA is, and that’s not all it should be. YA can be dark and graphic sometimes, and that’s okay.

Back in 2011, Sherman Alexie wrote a response to Meghan Cox Gurdon’s condemnation of “dark” YA. Here, in a few paragraphs, he describes what I’m trying to say far better than I ever could:

“And 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.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

I like thinking of books that way—not as comforting blankets, but as weapons. That’s why I’m so passionate about writing about YA here each week. Sometimes, yes, the books are comfort reads, where the problems are relatively small and the endings are unquestionably happy. But more often, these books deal with the troubles and pains of real life, where a kiss at the end doesn’t fix everything. Sure, these books may be dark, but they can also be weapons for people who don’t feel like they have anything else.

What about you guys? Do you think there are any topics that should be off-limits for YA? And what books have helped you deal with the problems in your lives? Let me know in the comments. And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, email me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

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