Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wednesday Words: Rating YA?

I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who has the occasional "head-desk" moment every now and again. These can come along for usually one of two reasons: 1 - I forgot something really obvious and now momentarily feel like a moron or 2 - I learn something that makes me want to close my eyes and unlearn it because it makes absolutely no sense to me.

When the report from US News came out last week showing numbers from a recent BYU study and questioned if the time has come for young adult novels to start coming with content warnings, my head-desk reaction definitely falls into the later category.

I mean, seriously?! People are seriously thinking about this? Okay then, let's talk about it.

The American Library Association is incredibly clear that they view censorship as the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons find objectionable or dangerous. A more in-depth explanation of their stance can be found here. The ALA is also incredibly clear that they are anti-censorship, and that while in many cases, the people trying to do the censoring have good intentions (such as in this case where they are concerned about teens reading more mature content or profanity), it is still not okay to try to prevent access to these materials.

Now I am not a parent, so I don't know what it is like to be in the shoes of a mother or father trying to keep track of what my child is exposed to and help them interact with positive influences. I am, however, a librarian and one who does a lot of work on collection development for the few thousand teens who utilize the school library I work in. When I'm selecting books for purchase, a few questions run through my mind: is this a genre in demand right now? Would this be an asset to our current collection? Is this something I feel this particular community would benefit from having readily available? If the answers are yes and my budget allows it, then the book is ordered.

I'd be lying if I said that none of these books had more mature content or language. Learning about  sexuality, relationships, drugs, abuse, and swearing all parts of being a teenager, so why wouldn't it be a part of YA literature? If people have a problem with those things, then I think they have a problem with teens. Open your eyes and ears. If you're worried about what teens are reading, then read along with them, don't slap a warning label on the cover and then tell them not to read it. Hasn't Banned Books Week taught us that the best way to get people to read something is to tell them not to? Anyway, these are the things that also occupy much of the tv shows and movies aimed to teens, so why are people surprised that these themes show up in books as well?

If anything, I believe that when these items are in books, it's much more purposeful. Sure, sometimes it's thrown in to be scandalous or for shock value, but more often than not, "controversial" items are included to teach something or to make a point. It happens in adult and classic literature all the time, so why not for YA also? For example, Nathaniel Hawthrone's The Scarlet Letter is the story of a woman who has an extramarital affair with her minister and deals with the public shame of it and raising her daughter alone while her ex-husband is out to get her and the baby's father deals with his guilt. Talk about spicy topics that wouldn't be out of place on a soap opera or reality show today, right? And this is a book that we consider to be a prime example of classic American literature and it's regularly taught in English classes across the country.

In short, I think that context matters. If you're concerned about what your teen is reading, ask them! Read along with them and have that discussion. Raise the level of debate, and challenge teens to think critically about the books they read. I have no doubt they are full of potential and are more than capable of rising to the occasion.

Comments welcome and as always, happy reading!

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