Monday, January 26, 2009

Young Adults?

Forgive me for being lax on my postings, but things have been ridiculously busy. Still, no excuses.

I am currently exploring the world of Young Adult Literature, otherwise known as YA. I'll be doing several postings on the topic, but for now, I want some of your thoughts.

I have just completed a book by John Green called Looking For Alaska. The book recently won the ALA's Michael Printz Award for young adult literature. The story follows a group of teens in a private school in Alabama. Along with the usual angst one would expect, the story flows. Green is a fine author, he has a way with dialogue, his plotting is spot on, and his use of the language is at times utilitarian and at times poetic, and he knows when to turn on the poetry.

Ah...I're waiting for the but. Okay...

But I have a problem with some aspects of the content as it regards YA literature. I do believe this book is marketed for those fifteen and up. The characters in the text smoke cigarettes, secret away alcohol, regularly exchange obscenities, and at one point the main character has oral sex performed upon him.

Now, I have thought long and hard about this and although I love the book, I am not sure it is appropriate to be taught in a school district, or that it is appropriate as a Young Adult novel. On the other hand, I think that its themes of friendship and accepting responsibility are wonderfully done. And certainly there are many fifteen-year-olds who would be fine reading this.

Some people are going to say: "Stewart, it's not like fifteen-year-olds don't smoke, drink, swear, and have sex."

I agree. And I am obviously struggling with this, or else I wouldn't be posting on it. However, let me relate this anecdote:

I once had a discussion with a young man about rap. He was listening to some rather offensive material. We went back and forth about the virtue of rap from an artistic point of view. He finally defended rap by stating: "Rap is real. It's about what's really happening."

"Defecation's real, too," I responded. "But I really don't want to hear a song about it."

Or do I? Donovan once sang a ditty called "The Intergalactic Laxative".

The point I was trying to make to him was that while we can write about life, or take a picture of something, what makes it worthwhile, in my opinion, is when we show the essence of reality, when we reduce it to an abstract, or when it makes some sort of comment.

So, where do we stand on Young Adult literature? If a book deals with content that is questionable, should it be rewarded with an award from the ALA? Or should we say: "Life is hard and kids need to know about and read about. They already live it." Or should we re-examine our approach? Are we reinforcing negative behaviors by giving it an indeliberate seal of approval ?

Lastly, I recommend Looking For Alaska. It is a finely crafted effort and John Green should be commended.


spyscribbler said...

Well, I don't know, either. I have a problem with it, too. If it's taught in schools, it would have to be with a this-is-why-you-shouldn't-drink-etc. lecture, which they would discard. Otherwise, parents would freak. So teaching it in schools doesn't exactly strike me as effective.

As far as YA? Well... you can put a bunch of "innocent" books in the YA section, but it won't change what teenagers read. They'll just walk over to whatever section has what they're looking for.

I think of the YA label as "this is what YA's read, collected for your convenience here" as opposed to "this is what YA's should read."

But if you're deciding what to teach in a school, then the books carry the last connotation.

I do believe in the power of fiction to teach kids how to process their world. So I do believe books should have their world in it. I understand the fear that by presenting the world in a book, they'll think they should live like that, or they'll think its cool.

So it comes down to what the story is saying. I mean, they read murder mysteries and don't think they should go out and kill, LOL. Unless something is already wrong with them!

Charles Gramlich said...

that is a tough question and I don't have an answer. Big shocker. I liked the old days of YA books when they focused on adventure instead of cultural relevance. I've always wanted to read, and write, about things that are not everyday, things that I don't do or see done constantly. I live those things; I don't need to relive them through literature.

Jon said...

"It's real." The excuse of the age. Rude is real but that's no excuse for rudeness. Stupidity is real, but much to be avoided. Defecation is real, but the stalls still have doors.
"It's real." Or, "It's my reality...what I feel." The excuse for 97.65% of poetry today.
To paraphrase the fellow on Mythbusters, "I dismiss your reality and choose to subsititue my own."

Virginia Lady said...

Definitely a subject for discussion. I know many will automatically say those issues shouldn't be in those books because there are parents out there that think YA means 'innocent' and they don't think the books will have things like that. However, the youth of today are exposed to much more raw material than any other youth in history. They see horrific images and stories everyday.

I think the way the issues are handled in the book can speak volumes for it. Does the story show these things as totally glamorous? Or does it give a glimpse of the downsides to those actions? It doesn't have to be a lesson or lecture, just a nuance in the story may provide enough balance.

I think, in the end, it remains up to the parents of the reader to review what their kids are reading and decide how to handle it. I would hesitate to place it in a classroom just as there is hesitation in even mentioning oral sex in health classes. It could be an optional read just as there are opt-out sections of health classes.

Personally, I have no problems with it, but then I've found I'm pretty open minded when it comes to these issues. I know my kids are investigating these ideas. I did, why wouldn't they? But we also have talked to them about these things and our views and expectations for them. Not everyone is as ready to do so with their youth.

Akasha Savage said...

I am the librarian at a small primary school; the oldest children who attend are eleven years old. It is my responsibility, and mine alone, to fill the shelves with books. Sometimes I do wonder about the content of the books I buy. The girls love the books by Jacqueline Wilson, and many a time Ms Wilson touches on very sensitive issues: divorce; one-parent families; step-parents; death within the family unit - and she pulls no punches. But I do agree with Virginia Lady, the youth of today are much more aware and street wise than earlier generations. Plus, if a child is having the same issues as a story character I think they can deal with their real live a bit more, knowing these things happen to others as well as themselves. I very rarely stop myself from putting a book on the shelf, fiction is such a tool to helping us cope with reality.
When I was thirteen I read my first horror book: Let's Go Play At The Adams. It was about four children who were left in the care of a teenage babysitter while their parents went away on holiday. The children ended up raping and then murdering their carer. It did not lead me to do either of these things. Over the years I have been an avid reader of horror and dark fantasy, but it has not turned me into an axe-wielding psychopath. If someone is going to go down that road I think they will go there regardless of what they read.
My daughter is fifteen now, and I do not censure what she reads. Her latest book was My Booky Wook by Russell Brand - and what an eye-opener that book is! I believe she is now mature enough to read whatever she wants to read.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Your right, parents would freak. Green's book was to be taught in a class on the east coast somewhere and people started going nuts. He is defending his work by stipulating that the sex isn't meant to be titillating. However, I just don't know about describing a girl giving a teen age boy oral sex. I have replayed that scene in my mind as a writer, and I think: he could have cut that out entirely and it wouldn't have affected the plot or character development.

Still, it's the writer's perogative, isn't it?

It's brutal tough. I wish I didn't straddle the fence, but one moment I have one feeling and the next moment I change my mind.

What a great quote. Reality. If we have a book where this is going on, then isn't it a form of condoning. I know people will argue we are just reflecting real life and things that the kids are exposed to, but dammit. Maybe if we weren't so casual and so accepting, maybe if we took a stronger stand, we wouldn't have such high pregnancy and divorce rates. OMG..I sound old.

VIRGINIA..That argument is a strange one for me. A parent says: I experimented with drugs, how can I condemn my kids for doing so? I think that you can. You must. I think that things have changed dramatically. The kid experimenting with marijuana in the seventies is different from the kids experimenting with drugs today. At least I think that's the case. Or maybe I'm wrong? Maybe I'm too close to death's door to be able to look back over my shoulder and have a correct perspective.

You make valid points. I read that same book by the way "Let's Go Play At The Adams". about a flashback. But about your other point; you are quite right. It is a different world and perhaps the difficulty I am having is recognizing that. I have worked with challenging teens for years and I guess I am coming from another idealized view that I need to abandon. I don't have an answer.

Angie said...

I think we should do both.

Let there be the goody-goody books, where the teenage characters never smoke or drink or swear or have sex and aren't ever mean to each other, for the uptight parents (biased, me??) and the occasional teenage reader who actually prefers that sort of thing, and let there also be books where the teenage characters act like actual teenager. Because seriously? Kids at my school were swearing up a storm on the playground from aroung fourth grade on (that's age nine, as a data point) and my junior high (twelve and thirteen) was riddled with couples sucking on each other's tonsils and groping each other's jeans every break and lunch. High school was moreso. So just whom are we supposed to be protecting? Maybe more teenagers would read if there were more characters they found recognizable.

Or actually, they do -- they just read adult books. But I think it'd be a good thing if there were a middle ground, and teenagers could read about characters their own age, in the kinds of situations they themselves are in and dealing with, and also see the characters in the book as bearing some resemblance to themselves and their friends.

With however many YA books as are published every year, I think there's room to please everyone on this issue.


SQT said...

I think if a book is in the YA section then there should be a standard that applies to the effect that there won't be any explicit sexuality or other graphic content. I mean, why give it a designation otherwise? Just because the main characters are a certain age doesn't mean that it belongs on the YA shelf. Too many parents aren't reading the books their kids pick up and assuming the content is age appropriate. Obviously, parents should be monitoring what their kids read-- but that won't happen.

I see that now, in the bookstores, they have everything separated by age with the most adult YA being labeled "teen" fiction and I think that's where the rub is. What constitutes appropriate content for a teen book? I know kids in high school (and younger) are having sex, but that doesn't mean I want to encourage it. But the authors are really pushing the limits with this age group so parents really need to pay attention. At this point the YA label is only a rough guide for parents to go by. Oddly, a lot of fiction, especially fantasy, on the adult aisle is more innocuous than a lot of teen fiction. And that really makes me wonder-- what are the YA fiction authors who write explicit content really trying to do?

Sheesh. I'm rambling.

spyscribbler said...

LOL, Stewart, that explicit? Erotica for teens... gotta tell you, that just squishes my squickness factor. Or you know what I mean. *shudder*

In that context, um, let them steal magazines and sneak online like all the rest of us did. :-)

SafeLibraries said...

Excellent blog post! You are spot on and don't whitewash things as a "coming of age" book.

You ask: "If a book deals with content that is questionable, should it be rewarded with an award from the ALA?"

I answer: "Porn Pushers - The ALA and Looking For Alaska - One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children." (Read before passing judgment on the title alone.)

Stewart Sternberg said...

ANGIE, I know. I know. But I think the issue with some of these books is that when an ALA award is give, or when the book is being given through something like Scholastic Books that the parent feels the content is "safe". Parents are going to be annoyed by some. We can't protect our children from everything, but sometimes, when it comes to an ALA, we just want a little help.

Let me describe a scene to you from this book marketed to fifteen year olds and above. A boy in a room watching tv and a girl, same age, both around seventeen, are fooling around. She offers to give him oral sex. She undoes his pants and pulls out his penis. She then takes it into his mouth and does nothing else with it. Although it feels good, he isn't sure what she should do, nor is she. The two teens go to a third teen, a girl, and she demonstrates oral sex, giving a minilesson, using a toothpaste tube. The original boy and girl go off to practice what they've learned. did you squirm???? Is this YA?

Strange. I've been to your website, I've read and disagreed with some of your material, and agreed with others. I think this is something which needs to be discussed and debated.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think your comment was significat. Thank you. I think your statement about a book being about teens not necessarily being YA is something that we need to heed.

Jon said...

"In olden days a glimps of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows...anything goes."

Another reflection of the, "Good job Scottie," metality of child rearing.
They tell their wild kid to sit down and he sits down and gets a, "Good job Scottie!" I am tired of the pandering.
The fifteen year old's parent finds out about the oral sex incident...Good job Scottie, good job!

Fab said...

Djeez I haven't been visiting here for ages it seems. Love the new lay-out, Stewart!!!

Barbara Martin said...

While growing up in Alberta, all the books and movies available had been censored by the government. Occasionally, a book would slip through but often would be discovered and then pulled from stores.

Although today's youth are exposed to much more of life than I was, they aren't much different. If they don't find what they're looking for in the book section, they will find it elsewhere. Though I feel by publishing about negative behaviour the message is clear: these things are ok, when, in fact, they are not. Certainly they are not topics for polite conversation.

Rather than get into a psychological diversion, perhaps publishers are aiming books at a certain sector of the buying public to fill their requirements.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Barbara..the message I have always felt from the five corporations controlling the bulk of media is that our kids are pieces of meat and they would sell them razor blades if in the process they could make money and not be prosecuted.

I don't have a pat answer. I suppose none of us do. However, I still need to explore this, to understand my own feelings on the topic as a reader, a parent, an educator, and a writer.

And you're right, kids will find what they want to read. Lord knows when I was a kid I had my hands on Playboy. Maybe the answer is what it's always been: we can't always protect our kids. All we can do is give them a solid foundation and trust in their innate common sense and upbringing to triumph.

Gwendolyn said...

I really can't stand the label young adult. And for the most part I don't enjoy books labeled as such. In my opinion the genre is aimed at middle school readers. And while they are young, they are not yet adult.
I have a middle schooler, and I think this is a fantastic conversation, because it can be taken beyond literature or the classroom and applied to parenting this age in general! It is such an in- between, innocent-but-not age.
After middle school, a young person should be able to read absolutely whatever. The hope is by then they are able to discern good writing from bad and have been sufficiently encouraged to choose well written books, with whatever content they are interested in.
The issue with content in YA is this: we as teachers have been taught that kids don't like to read and in order to make them like to read we have to teach books that are relevant to their lives and contain as much drama, violence, and sex as the television programs they watch and the video games they play (or else they will get bored).
I absolutely, one hundred percent want to instill a love of reading. However, I feel that themes that are relevant to their real lives can be taught without being gratuitous or appealing to baser instincts.
It's as much about how you teach as what you teach.
I'm not a fan of censoring literature, but I do feel that writers, teachers and parents need to make choices that above all focus on students' development as human beings. We can't get lazy -parents need to stay involved past elementary school!
BTW: Jon, I keep agreeing with you and love your phrasing...

Stewart Sternberg said...

Gwen. I think you are correct in your statement that we, as teachers, need to quit offering our students intellectual bribes. Great response.

Virginia Lady said...

Actually, I was thinking more of the sex aspect, since I never experimented with any drugs, though I could have gotten anything from pot to crack to LSD. It was an well-connected school.

But I meant more of learning about these things more from others & books than from actual usage. Though we have told our kids we think it's stupid to smoke, drink, do drugs, or even have sexual relations.

Chances are good that they're going to try at least one. I'd rather they were prepared to deal with it and know the possible consequences than pretend they'll just not do it because I said so.

Of course, I didn't wait until they were teens to have these discussions either, so their views on the issues tend to match my expectations,surprisingly enough.

Jon said...

One other thought...
"Young Adult." In real life, non-Orwellian speech, that actually means a person of eighteen years or a little more, not one of early or mid teens. Maybe we should call them, "Old kids."

Zoe Winters said...

I think in most cases it's really a non-issue. I mean if I was 15 or 16 I could walk into any bookstore in America and buy a romance novel (which would likely be pretty racy and have lots of sex in it and cursing and whatever else people in the book decide to do), or even an erotic novel.

There is no ratings system for books that keeps minors from buying certain content. So if YA novels are kept "clean" most kids will just skip them and go on to the adult novels if that's what they want to read.

I know I never read YA novels. (Though I've read them since becoming an adult) And I know people who read Story of O when they were 14. So I guess I don't see the issue.

Avery DeBow said...

The content is there, in real life, just as it is in the book. Some kids will take the information presented as a cautionary tale, some will take it as an instruction manual, and others will just read it for what it's worth and go on with their lives. The rub is, there's nothing in the book that's going to change a kid's behavior IF they have a strong foundation. There are girls out there doing much worse than blowing a guy off, and I'll bet most of them didn't learn how to do it from reading a novel.

I agree the world is slightly broken. Kids are jumping into adult situations too fast. But, blaming novels with explicit material is just a tired excuse from apathetic parents doing very little to help their children navigate their teen years. Knowing about the existence of rainbow parties is vastly different than attending one. Reading about one in a book and understanding the implications of the action, and having the combination of unsupervised freedom and crushingly low self-esteem to participate in one are vastly different.

Not all kids who read about these things are going to do them, and the ones who do, well, their problems go deeper than the type of material they're reading--and should be addressed as such. The bandaid of removing "explicit" subjects from our youths' view will do nothing to cure the underlying issues.

Anonymous said...

I think that it's not the content that makes a book YA, but the depth in which the topic is explored. I don't know how much detail the book you read went into, but in my mind, there is a big difference between one or two lines about oral sex and a few pages

I think all topics are fair game for YA, but in more toned down versions than in adult literature.
The YA books I have read seem to be faster paced and gloss over a lot of things that would be explained in depth in adult books (not just taboo topics, things like people having magical powers with no explanation).

As a side note, that book description just about sums up my fifteen-year-old high school experience.

L.A. Mitchell said...

What a thoughtful discussion here. I've enjoyed everyone's posts.

I agree with spyscribbler that it has to come down to what the story is saying. I jumped ship from the YAs and read romance novels as a teenager. Yes, it taught me about sex, but in the context of a loving, committed, monogamous relationship and two people who fought life and circumstance to be together.

Many books labeled "YA Romance" are pushing the boundaries to keep young readers from jumping ship to the adult section, so it's hard for parents and guardians to know.

Joe Ponepinto said...

Late to the party, but here's my thoughts . . .

The issue, I think, is that we try to restrict YA lit (and movies and music, etc.) by ages. But some kids can handle more difficult and risque material at age 15, and some can't handle it even as adults. The question really becomes whether an author is comfortable knowing that his/her book may be misinterpreted by some of those who read it. Does that outweigh the benefit it may have to those who understand?