Sunday, February 3, 2008

Adult means "dirty" and mature means "dirty, therefore teen means "not dirty" unless you're actually a real live teen or a writer who writes for teens

So, since John Green is the hero of many of us at YAYA, and since he kindly agreed to do an interview with us, and since he has recently been accused of writing porn. I would like to pose some questions about teenagers and sexuality and what is appropriate. I’m not going to go into the John Green debacle since I think he’s handling it marvelously on his own. I will ask if anyone knows if this is the first time the book has been under fire or if there have been other occasions? It just seems like these things come out of nowhere. I read awhile back about a school official who received death threats because a class was reading Fat Kid Rules the World. It just makes you wonder. Do these same people let their kids watch television? Do they buy them copies of Grand Theft Auto (and no I am not here to argue about video games or televison ruining the youth of America) the youth of America are no more or less screwed up than they've ever been, if you ask me. I'm here to look at the things some people think should be hidden from teens.

Okay, so I recently wrote a description for a high school course called YA literature. If I had been smart and creative I might have called it survey of YA literature, but you know…I only have so much smart and so much creative. I put a warning in the description about mature language and topics. And then I stared at it for a long time. Because it seemed such a juxtaposition. I was wanting to introduce a class for fiction written for teens. And I was calling the subject matter “mature”.

Here’s the description

In this class students will read a selection of modern books written specifically for teenagers. They will compare the common themes of young adult literature, coming of age and dealing with issues (these are commonly called problem novels). They will analyze the ways that writers combine these themes while writing in various genres (mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction). By the end of this course students should have a strong understanding of voice and plot. They will evaluate and compare novels, and will write analytical responses to the books that they have read. Students will read some books as an entire class, and will have the opportunity to select some books on their own. Be aware that young adult literature tries to look at teenage life in a realistic manner and that language and issues may be somewhat mature.

So where’s the disconnect? Is it that we write about mature topics for people that are immature? That, I think is what the people who are attacking John Green think. Or is it that we are pretending that these are issues that are only of interest to adults. And dirty ones at that. (please add an lol here, kthanx). Also note that was me pretending not to be over thirty. Okay. So I’m an adult. If I read an adult book does that mean it’s a dirty porn/erotica book? Does it mean it’s not a YA or children’s book? Does it mean ANYTHING.

And maybe we’re coming back to semantics here, but by saying that certain things are mature, are we saying that only adults can talk about them? What about the kids who are surviving negative things? Abuse, addiction, prostitution, self mutilation, incest, suicide, violence. Are these not things that teenagers have to DEAL with. Are these not things that are REAL?

And sexual issues go in another category for me. Because all the stuff above is non-categorically bad. And sex in itself is not. Of course as a society we know that young people often make bad choices due to having less life experience. Okay, well I’m not really sure that I know this. I know that I became a better drive with experience. I know some people who haven’t. Same with life. You can do really f***ed up stuff at any time in your life. I might be willing to say at the age 14, 15, 16, that you have less experience based wisdom than you will have later. But how much you will have is a very subjective question.

Do teenagers have sex? Yes. Do teenagers regret having sex? Sure, I’m sure some of them do. Maybe many of them. How can you measure regret? There were things I did that I regretted because of the outcome. Or that I regretted in certain company. Or that I regretted not at all. Overall I don’t really believe in having regrets unless you hurt someone, but maybe that’s just me living a hedonistic life and not wanting to beat myself up for not paying my credit card bill on time that once (what did you THINK I was talking about?) Yeah, get your mind out of the adult zone. Be mature. Or um, not mature. Oh, hell. See what I mean?

I am a parent. I am not looking forward to the days when my children begin dating. I am also in touch with reality. It’s scary. And if I can impart one thing to them, it will be, if you do something regrettable, do it because You want to, not because you were pressured into it. If I can raise children with self esteem, I will be happy.

So, I am coming back to the disclaimer that I really worked and reworked in my course description. I used mature as the best word that all people would recognize. I stand by my assertion that YA lit tries to show teen lives in the most realistic way. I don’t want to argue realism and the word real. I mean that it shows what teens do, not what we the establishment, want them to do.

Young Adult does not mean fully mature. It means becoming an adult. That means breaking away from parents and you know, experimenting with life. Very often the protags in literature (of all sorts) are more daring, in different situations, make mistakes, that are not as common in real life, that we can sit in comfort and feel the thrill of. Or experience the horror of. That's the joy of literature. It's complex and wonderful, and it reflects and goes beyond our experiences. I love YA literature. Mature or not.

So I leave you with the question, what is too mature for teens and who should decide?


Aslera said...

Teens should decide what is too much for them. If it is not something to which they may relate, then the book will flop and it is unlikely that other people will write similar topics. If teens can connect to a story, then it is appropriate content. If it talks about becoming adults, if it is about issues that most people went through at some point on that path to adulthood, then it is also YA literature.

I don't know if I"m making sense here. I don't like when people (school boards, teachers, parents, etc) make arbitrary decisions about what kids should read. Of everything that should be controlled in a teen's life, books are not one of them. We learn through books. We learn by the mistakes of a friend, and we learn from the mistakes of a character. There's a shared experience level if a teen connects to a novel.

By the time you're a teen, you know that the purpose of Harry Potter and JK's secret motives are not to teach you witchcraft.

By the time you're a teen, you know that a YA book that involves sex isn't REALLY about the actual act of sex and they're not encouraging you to have sex.

I stand by my frequent statement that people underestimate teens and what we (oops, I guess I'm not a teen anymore but I am a YA) can handle. Some school board members and teachers and parents would be surprised by what their perfect little teenage sons and daughters read online.

;) My parents STILL don't know that I read and write fanfic smut. I'm not even sure what they would say to that! But I know they wouldn't take away internet privileges, even when I was 16. Better that I read about sex and become curious that way rather than sleeping around high school, I suppose.

Trish Doller said...

For me, it is very simple. I decide. My job as an engaged and responsible parent is to know what my kids can handle and what they might not be ready for.

The teenagers among us might snicker that they've probably read stuff their parents haven't known about...and that is probably true with mine, too. But you know what? I'm not bothered by that, because it's part of the process teens go through in becoming adults who can think for themselves.

I'm unequivocably opposed to other people trying to tell me what is or isn't acceptible reading material for my child. I decide. Period.

Haphazard said...

Well, I'm going to have to disagree about the 'realism' stuff, because even, discounting the entire debate of books never being realistic that I have, like adult books, there are all sorts of kinds of teen books, some more realistic than others.

I'm going to assume that you're talking about edgy YA, which usually has more of the 'mature content' that you're talking about.

A lot of teenagers, by the time they're in high school, are reading adult books, as in books not found in the 'young adult' section of the bookstore and in the literature or spec fic or whatever section. These sections are not monitored by whatever and whenever they have 'mature content,' nobody cares.

That said, the reasoning behind the freak out with 'mature content' in literature read at schools is mostly just to let the school districts cover their asses. Yes, there are a lot of parents that let their kids watch TV and buy Grand Theft Auto and whatever, but there are also parents on the other side of the spectrum that keep their children in hermetically sealed rooms when they're not at school. It's not a matter of disturbing the kids, it's a matter of not making the parents angry.

I don't really think that anything in particular is too mature for teens, at least not on the older end of YA. There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book, said Oscar Wilde, and I definitely believe that. That said, I don't think there should be books that are shocking just to be shocking, because that's just stupid, but I'm sure what I think is gratuitously shocking to the point of idiocy would not be to somebody else.

Just, if you're teaching something with mature content, make sure to cover your ass. For all of us. We wouldn't want anything to happen to you, Beth.

courtney said...

Great post, bethany. I think teens should decide, as well as (shock), their parents--and when parents are involved, they shouldn't be deciding for any teenager but their own.

Books about the nitty-gritty offer a great launching pad for discussion about sexuality, consent, drugs, violence etc, which is so vital because they're very real issues that teens face--and have always faced. Books about such things provide the opportunity to do broach these issues in a very safe way--better to discuss that novel about teen pregnancy with your teenager than to you know, have it come up when she tells you she's pregnant herself.

Books that touch on these topics are giving parents the opportunity to be involved in making sure teens are informed about these issues--which teens are going to face whether or not they read books about them--enough to make safe decisions for themselves, so they can protect themselves.

courtney said...

That said, the reasoning behind the freak out with 'mature content' in literature read at schools is mostly just to let the school districts cover their asses. Yes, there are a lot of parents that let their kids watch TV and buy Grand Theft Auto and whatever, but there are also parents on the other side of the spectrum that keep their children in hermetically sealed rooms when they're not at school. It's not a matter of disturbing the kids, it's a matter of not making the parents angry.

The issue with the John Green thing though, is that the school did all the right things. They sought permission to get the book read and offered an alternative selection for students that didn't want to read LFA, or for parents who didn't want their children reading LFA. But some parents have decided they don't want ANY of the students reading LFA--even though those students have parental permission and want to read it themselves.

Haphazard said...

@ Courtney: You've also got to take into account the demographic of the school and whatnot. Some areas will be more angry than others... But yep. That sounds like proper procedure, to me. It doesn't sound like the book's problem but rather the parents'.

Trish Doller said...

Since the school district in John's case did all the right things, I sincerely hope these parents don't get away with having the book pulled from the curriculum. If I were a parent who signed the consent form to allow my child to read LFA, I'd be livid.

Lauren said...

Seeing as I've stalked -- I mean, followed -- John Green to all corners of the Internet, I remember a blog post he wrote several years ago in which he linked to another blog post about a debate in a private school as to whether a class of high schoolers should study a certain YA novel that included an oral sex scene. (Clunky sentences ahoy!) It was pretty clear it was LFA, though the book was never named. I thought I had bookmarked that post somewhere, but I can't find it. The protests were similar, though, if I recall -- people had problems with the fact that a book with an oral sex scene in it was geared at teen readers.

I like what Aslera said about teens being able to decide what works for them. The type of teens who read regularly, the teens who go to bookstores and libraries and pick out books for themselves... we can assume that most of those teens are intelligent and analytical and media-savvy. They can look at covers and read jacket flaps and tell there's a difference, content-wise, between a Gossip Girl book and a Simon Pulse romantic comedy and an edgier contemporary book like, say, Barry Lyga's Boy Toy. Teens can self-censor. And if someone reads something that's maybe a bit too old for him, or about something he has no personal experience with, and comes away from it a little bit white-faced and shocked... well, isn't that a healthy experience to have every once in a while? You're learning about something from a safe distance (sex, for instance), and you'll be able to think about the characters' experiences and be that much more mentally and emotionally well-armed when you have that experience for yourself. I suspect my parents would be happy to know that some of my most memorable loss-of-innocence experiences as a teenager were reading experiences.

(Just popped over here from AW. Love the blog!)

bethany said...

I do feel like some books might be too mature for some kids at some times in their lives. Just like there is no way I could read a book that dealt with a child being hurt or dying during my hormonal pregnancies, and I know that kids may at times be equally hormonal.

But the thing about reading is it's such a thoughtful experience. And I would so much rather a kid read LFA than some romance book to get their ideas about sexual experiences. And yes, I've actually said I didn't find the "dirty dirty dirty" scene that believable. But compared to some romance books, well, it's not fantasy, and it is honest.

I put a disclaimer on the class, and I will send notes home to parents. I will not read LFA out loud or require it, it will be one of a wide selection of YA choices.

bethany said...

Oh, but I do have a delimma. Most of the kids who have talked about signing up are like, but we are going to read Handcuffs, right?

Of course I would love to teach Handcuffs, but am I ready for that? Is the world?

Haphazard said...

Bethany, is Handcuffs coming out anytime soon?

bethany said...

Next December.

Haphazard said...

Well, you should totally make it an option. Or maybe give them extra credit if they read it outside of class. Lol.

Catherine said...

hmm very interesting topic.

If YA is defined by the age of the protagonist, then we have a nice range of books from mills and boon-lite to murder mysteries to uh...edgy(yay! YAYA's favourite word) So it stands that there's something for everyone's comfort level.

I hate the idea of a parent going "Thou shalt not read such filth!" but I suppose that is what happens.

When I was younger, I read things that would never have been put in a YA novel back then (eh...showing my age much?) because I would just get out books from the adult section. Not all young adults are only reading YA books, and if parents draw the line at things because they appear in a YA book, then they are fooling themselves if they think their darling isn't just going to read the same somewhere else.

Uh - look, I'm not making sense as usual, but why whine about the content of a YA book when their kid is flipping through Cosmo and learning the best way to give a blow-job?

So, there's me. If their needs to be a sex scene, a rape scene, an abortion scene - whatever is the hot button topic, then put it in. Teenagers *do* these things, they cut themselves because they think no-one is listening, they starve themselves so that they can looks like a Mary Kate lollypop-head - if we don't like to acknowledge that, then we are doing younger readers a disservice. We're lying to them, and why should they trust us if we do?

So yeah, I guess one can see I'm pretty vehemently anti-censorship. Let the reader decide what they're comfortable reading, and let their be a range to choose from, says I.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Intriguing topic! My debut novel, Courage in Patience, comes out in September, although it goes on sale (sometime) this month. I'd love to have feedback on it from the folks on this blog. Check out the synopsis, visit my website, & let me know if you'd like to interview me on your site! I'd love to do it.
Beth Fehlbaum

Ashley Nicole Asher’s life changes forever on the night her mother, Cheryl, meets Charlie Baker. Within a year of her mother’s marriage to Charlie, typical eight-year-old Ashley’s life becomes a nightmare of sexual abuse and emotional neglect. Bundling her body in blankets and sleeping in her closet to try to avoid Charlie's nighttime assaults, she is driven by rage at age 14 to to tell her mother, in spite of the threats Charlie has used to keep Ashley silent. Believing that telling will make Charlie go away, instead it reveals to Ashley where she lies on her mother's list of priorities.
“We’re just going to move on now,” Cheryl tells Ashley. “Go to your room.” Ashley's psyche splinters into shards of glass, and she desperately tries to figure a way out, while at the same time battling numbness and an inability to remember what happened when she blacked out after Charlie tackled her. She knew that when she awoke her clothes were disheveled and the lower-half of her body was covered in bright red blood-- but she has only a blank spot in the "video" of her memory.
When Ashley’s friend, Lisa, sees a note from Cheryl telling Ashley that Charlie would never “do those things to her,” and insisting that she apologize for accusing him of molesting her, Lisa forces dazed Ashley to make an outcry to her teacher, Mrs. Chapman.
By the end of the day, Ashley’s father, David, who has not seen Ashley since she was three months old, is standing in the offices of Child and Family Services. He brings her home to the small East Texas town of Patience, where he lives with his wife, Beverly, their son, Ben, and works with his brother, Frank. Its neighboring town, Six Shooter City, is so quirky, it's practically on the cusp of an alternate universe; a trip to the Wal-Mart reveals to visitors that "there's either something in the water..or family trees around here don't fork."
Through the summer school English class/ Quest for Truth taught by Beverly, an "outside-the-box" high school English teacher whose passion for teaching comes second only to her insistence upon authenticity, Ashley comes to know Roxanne Blake, a girl scarred outwardly by a horrific auto crash and inwardly by the belief that she is "Dr. Frankenstein's little experiment";
Wilbur "Dub" White, a fast-talking smart mouth whose stepfather is a white supremacist who nearly kills a man while Dub watches from the shadows, forcing Dub to realize that he cannot live with the person that he is, any longer;
Zaquoiah “Z.Z.” Freeman, one of the few African-Americans in Patience, whose targeted-for-extinction family inherited the estate of one of Patience’s founding families and has been given the charge to "turn this godforsaken town on its head";
Hector "Junior" Alvarez, a father at sixteen whose own father was killed in prison, who works two jobs and is fueled by the determination to "do it right" for his son, "3", and his girlfriend, Moreyma;
T.W. Griffin, whose football-coach father expects him to be Number One at everything, and whose mother naively believes that he is too young to think about sex; and
Kevin Cooper, a not-so-bright football player with a heart of gold, whose mother, Trini, a reporter for the local paper, is instrumental in exposing the ugliness that is censorship.
Every person in the class is confronted with a challenge that they must face head-on. The choices they make will not be easy—but they will be life-altering. With the exception of her mother and step-father, Ashley is surrounded by people who overcome their fear to embrace authenticity and truth-- the only way to freedom. But will Ashley have the inner-fortitude to survive the journey to recovery and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Will Ashley find her voice, speak up for herself, and break the bondage of her abusive past?
Realizing "she's gonna need a lot more than we have," David and Bev enlist the help of Scott "Dr. Matt" Matthews, an experienced, slightly unconventional therapist who insists that Ashley can and must come out hiding in the closet in her mind.
The Chris Crutcher novel, Ironman, is taught by Beverly Asher in the summer school class. When T.W.’s overbearing parents read the book, they decide that the book should be censored, and they involve the pastor of Patience’s largest, most conservative church to lead the fight through the Purify Patience organization. Its mission is to cleanse Patience of Profanity, Promiscuity, and Parent-Bashing Pedagogy—all complaints the group has about the novel, Ironman. Its hidden agenda, however, is to return Patience to a time when "Patience was 100% white", "women knew their place","everyone had plenty of money", and "Christian values were taught in school."
The censoring, pseudo-Christian, white-supremacist, misogynist organization is exposed for what it is in a courageous move by one of its own (well..his mother threatens to twist his ear off if he doesn't speak up), isolating the pastor and causing most of his “flock” to deny they ever knew him. National and world press attention shine speculation on the dirty little secrets hidden in Patience, and its inhabitants are forced to examine their own values and beliefs.
Alone in the dark, Ashley must face her worst fears in a pivotal scene between her, Charlie, and her mother. Through this confrontation, Ashley at last finds the strength to advocate for her own right to exist in a world that is free of abuse. She, too, has found Courage in Patience.

bethany said...

Wow, you've really got to develop a one or two sentence blurb for your book.

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