Age-Appropriate Themes for Your Teen's Reading
One of the first "big" stories I did as a fledgling newspaper journalist was about censorship -- or was it about common sense? Point of view is everything.
The book in question was Lily: A Love Story (Onyx Books, 1994) by Cindy Bonner. It chronicled four weeks in the life of a sheltered 15-year-old girl in 1883 Texas. In that four-week span, she meets and begins an affair with a young outlaw. Eventually she marries him while he's on the run, but prior to their marriage, their first sexual encounter was a disturbingly graphic sexual scene that in our era would definitely classify as date rape. The book ends with her pregnant and him in jail.
As a journalist, my job was to cover the story in a completely objective manner, writing articles featuring both a mother who was trying to have the book removed from a library and the librarian for the newly-formed young adult section who was fighting tooth and nail to keep it in. The former claimed it was common sense, the latter cried censorship.
As a mother, I can now admit that I would have been appalled if my daughter, who was only 7 at the time, was reading that kind of explicit sexual material at age 13. In other words, I was on the common sense side.
Welcome to Reality
Since then, I have "been there, done that." Now 16, my daughter and I often read the same books. And yes, at age 13 she was reading books that just six years prior, I could not have imagined allowing her to read.
The censorship vs. common sense incident that I covered in 1994 was merely the beginning of what was becoming a national debate about the content of young adult books. After being considered a dead market in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the young adult market began to come back in a big way in the mid-1990s with edgy, realistic themes.
According to acclaimed young adult author Cynthia Leitich Smith, this writing connects with today's teens in an important way. "Young adult literature has its earliest roots in contemporary stories," says Smith. "Think back to Cormier's early work or S.E. Hinton. But yes, young adult authors have expanded their reach into today's world, a trend that notably includes publishing acclaimed work from authors of color such as Rita Williams-Garcia, Alex Sanchez, Lori Aurelia Williams and An Na. In addition, few themes -- from first love to school shootings -- are considered off-limits. I don't know if that's what draws kids in, but I do think that, to them, may be what legitimizes the body of fiction."
Smith also points out that there are more choices for teen readers than ever before. "Not every teen reader is a fan of contemporary realism," says Smith. "Fantasy authors such as Franny Billingsley and Donna Jo Napoli, horror writers like Annette Curtis Klause and Vivian Vande Velde, have brought in young adult fans. National Book Award winner Kimberly Willis Holt has done a great job of crafting heroes of the mid 20th century -- though some grown-ups may cringe as I refer to her work as 'historical' fiction. But whatever the venue, every effort is made to make the story resonate, connect and inspire."
Reading: Not Just for Kids Anymore
Kara Fennell, children's librarian at the Kennewick Branch of the Mid-Columbia Library District in Kennewick, Wash., sees a trend among libraries, including her own, to encourage young readers regardless of genre. The Mid-Columbia Library's Web site has a link to the Teen Zone that, in turn, has links for teens to explore topics as diverse as books and comics, college and jobs, community service and even sex education.
Fennell says that Mid-Columbia does a lot more programming for teens and young adults than they have in the past. "This trend is just going to keep growing because there is really a need for it in libraries and bookstores," says Fennell. "We're beginning to tell teens, 'Hey, we want you in this space, and we want you to be reading.' I don't think that has always been the case, but teens are definitely showing us they want this. What happens is that they then become adults who love to read."
However, Fennell is no stranger to the occasional controversy when a parent or group of parents feels that the material the library is providing is too risqué.
"We can't shelter kids too much," says Fennell. "A lot of the complaints that come in stem from the belief that if teens read about these things they may go out and do it, but I don't agree with that. Reading merely gives them a broader view of life. It can also open the lines of communication with their parents if you're reading the same books as your teen. Many of these books are definitely of a quality that could interest an adult and really make them think."
Smith couldn't agree more. In fact, she encourages parents to make informed decisions by reading a book they think may be objectionable in its entirety and then taking a few days to let it sink in. She thinks many parents would find that they have connected with their own inner adolescent.
"Real life is complex and full of high stakes and it includes characters and situations that we wouldn't wish on anyone," says Smith. "Why not let your teenager open a book and see himself as the hero, the survivor? I'll tell you a secret: Young adult literature does not moralize, but it does have a moral center. You would be hard pressed to find a book that was about a protagonist who doesn't grow and change in a positive way. And in those very rare cases where that's not true, ask yourself whether the author is challenging her readers to make the better choice."
Drawing Literary Lines
Although Fennell is no proponent of censorship, she does agree with a more common sense approach to young adult books that would more carefully consider the subject matter.
"Looking at young adult literature right now, I can divide it into two areas: preteens, which is about 11 to 13, and then 15 and up," says Fennell. "There really is a division there concerning what is appropriate for that 'tweenager' age group. Unfortunately, making that distinction is tough sometimes and gets you into issues of who makes the decisions, what are they based on and when can exceptions be made. It can be a slippery slope."
Fennell also sees a brightening up of "reality" fiction for young adults. "For a while everything was so depressing, and it seemed that the best books dealt with themes that almost couldn't have a happy ending," says Fennell. "I'm seeing a lot more sarcastic, funny and audacious books. They deal with real issues but in a lighter, more humorous manner."