Here’s how I feel about the whole WSJ YA censorship thing…

All right, look. This is going to be brief, because a thousand-and-one people out there are going to say this better than I am.

This relates to the Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Gurdon, talking about YA books:

Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?

I first heard about this article from Alison Kemper, who posted about it on her Facebook wall.

Did you see some of the “appropriate” books they recommend for teens were written 50 years ago? I’m so sick of people saying kids can’t handle what these books are about. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: books are a safe way to explore the world around you

When you can’t watch the evening news without hearing about meth addiction (Ellen Hopkins’ CRANK) or a female teacher having sex with a middle school student (Barry Lyga’s BOY TOY), or a kid being booked for murdering a classmate by lighting him on fire (RIGHT BEHIND YOU, by Gail Giles), then what’s wrong with reading books about it? I’m intrigued by Mormon polygamy due to all the media coverage and the stigmas attached to it, from the beliefs behind it to the religious sects that still practice it. Do I want to move to Utah and join a sect to give it a whirl? Do I want to practice polygamy right in my own home? No, I read THE CHOSEN ONE by Carol Lynch Williams, and it was graphic and horrifying and downright amazing.  

(All those books I just mentioned are awesome, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give them to the right teenager.)

Personally, I think it’s far safer for kids to read these things and virtually experience them than for kids to explore things they see and hear about on the news in their own way. Fifty years ago, the news wasn’t broadcast far and wide, with headline crawls and graphic images on thirty different stations. Fifty years ago, there’d be no question of whether to show the gruesome images of Osama Bin Laden’s death wound — there’d be no question, because we wouldn’t see it. The article mentions that people protested a graphic cover on a book about cutting? Because that would be too much for a teen to handle? What about when the photoshopped (yet just as disgusting) image of Osama Bin Laden’s death was all over the internet — and on the front page of some newspapers — for all to see. My four-year-old saw that picture on the newsstand at the grocery store. And we expect teens to be shocked by the image of a few razor scars?


I was discussing this issue with my husband this morning, after he read the entire article. He said, “I kind of understand what she was saying.” He then described a graphic scene in the book he was reading, a book about zombies. He said, “I don’t know if this book is marketed to teens or not, but I’d never give it to Jonathan to read.” (Jonathan is my fourteen-year-old stepson.)

I hustled to Amazon and looked up the book. Though the protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl, it’s not marketed to teens.

And you know what? My husband is handling books like this the right way. He’s reading them first.

I agree that parents need to parent. I had to think long and hard about letting Jonathan read Elemental, because it deals with some pretty strong bullying and there’s one near-date-rape. I agree that teachers need to teach, and schools have an obligation to guide teens towards appropriate books. (Much like the author of the Book Reviews and English News blog, where books are read and reviewed prior to being recommended in the school library.)

But I don’t think that anyone has an obligation to censor books. If you don’t think it’s appropriate, don’t read it.

Just don’t take that opportunity away from anybody else.


Age vs. Experience

I just finished reading both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was late to the party.

This isn’t going to be a book review. I’m no good at those, and they’d probably come out like some half-rate book report like the kind I used to write in fifth grade. Besides, you can find a bazillion reviews all over the net. Those books are bestsellers, and with good reason: they tell a great story, the characters are fantastic, and the writing has some serious depth.

This wasn’t Suzanne Collins’ first attempt at writing. She had another series going well before The Hunger Games trilogy hit the stands. She’s also in her late forties, and one interview mentioned that she drew inspiration from her father’s career in the Air Force, to better understand poverty, starvation, and the effects of war. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) The books are intense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of drama, and a lot of thought provoking moments. These are books about kids being thrown into an arena to kill each other — for televised entertainment. It’s like the ultimate Survivor.

The books also touch on a corrupt, oppressive government, with some vivid scenes showing how violations and uprisings would be punished. Characters are threatened, tortured, and brutally killed.

And these books are recommended for age 12 and up.

I’ve read a couple reviews where people are up in arms about the violence. People wonder if these books are too violent for kids to read, or if the themes are too mature.

But here’s the thing about reading: it’s just words on a page. Your imagination is only going to take you so far. I’m an adult, with a husband and family. I can understand how tragic and terrifying it would be to see my child dragged into an arena to fight for his life. A thirteen year old boy, who doesn’t have kids? He’s going to get a glimpse of the pain based on the effective writing. But those words aren’t going to have the same impact for him as they do for me.

That’s part of the problem with censoring YA books. There’s a big drama about Ellen Hopkins, bestselling author of Crank, being un-invited from a recent author event. It’s ridiculous. Some parents thought her books were too dark. Crank is about methamphetamine addiction. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard it’s quite powerful.

Kids read for a lot of reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is that it’s a safe way to explore intense and frightening experiences. A safe way. Because they’re just words on a page.

When I was in high school, I read Tale of the Body Thief about fifteen times. It’s an Anne Rice novel, and in it, the vampire Lestat acquires a human body. See, as a vampire, he wasn’t able to experience human things like eating, peeing, and having sex.

Yeah, you read that right. Having sex. I was maybe fifteen years old, and I read that book a dozen times. Of course I was a virgin, and I was going to an all girls’ school. I knew all about the mechanics of sex (thanks, Mom), but I didn’t have any experience. I read all about it. It didn’t scar me. It didn’t make me run out and have sex with the first guy I met. I’d never seen a naked man, and I’d certainly never felt a man touch me in an intimate way, so in reading Rice’s words, I was limited to my imagination. Nothing threatening there.

I’m sure reading that book again now would be a totally different experience.

Kids aren’t as sheltered as we think they are. They see stories of real life murders and rapes on television every day. I have a friend who’s a high school teacher, and when 9/11 happened, she said that an administrator came over the intercom and asked all the teachers to turn on the news station in their classrooms. My friend had been teaching all morning, so she had no idea what was going on. She turned on the news.

And then she had to explain to a room full of terrified sixteen-year-olds what was happening. Completely unprepared. Do you remember the 9/11 footage? I was at work, and since I work for a brokerage firm, we have the news on 24/7. I watched the footage from start to finish, from the planes hitting the towers, to the people leaping out of the building because suicide was a quicker death than burning. It was terrible. Every minute of it.

Kids all over the country watched it. And that was real.

Books are safe. Saying a book is too violent, or too pornographic, or too intense for kids is ridiculous.

Because books are limited to words. Readers are limited to their imagination.

A book is never going to take you farther than you’re ready to go.