The Populist’s Soapbox: “Clean” vs. Kid-Friendly

Recently my good friend Heather (H. B.) Moore received a rather scathing review of one of her books. Apparently the reviewer had bought the audio version  and had it playing in the car during a family trip. She was horrified at the content, which she found offensive, and turned it off because her small children were in the car and shouldn’t have been exposed to something that deserved a PG-13 rating. (And what, pray tell, she demanded, was such a thing doing on the shelves of an LDS bookstore?)

This from a book published by pretty darn conservative Covenant Communications.

The situation brought up some discussion among Heather and mutual friends, particularly how there’s an assumption that “clean” equals “appropriate for all ages,” so parents often send their kids–some as young as ten–into Deseret Book or Seagull and assume their child can pick up and read anything without the parent having to do more than pay for it.

But that’s really not the case, and I don’t think it should be, either.

Writers who publish in the conservative end of the LDS market have to abide by certain rules, among them no swearing, no sex, no gore, and so on.

A writer can abide by all the “clean” rules, but that doesn’t mean every book and every theme will be appropriate for all ages. Heather explained as much in a blog post inspired by this issue, which you can read HERE.

In that post, Heather goes through all her books, explaining the content of each. (“In this book, Nephi is nearly murdered by his brothers, several times . . .”) She writes Book of Mormon fiction, and frankly, the Book of Mormon has some pretty rough patches. Heather doesn’t gloss over them (a fact many readers have praised her for, and something that likely helped win her two Whitney Awards.)

For example, it can be uncomfortable to think about what it probably meant that Alma the Elder was a wicked priest of King Noah. So we focus on his repentance, that happy part, not realizing that he likely had to repent from some pretty nasty stuff. But Moore doesn’t shy away from letting the reader in on what those things likely were. Of course, she does so within the conservative bounds of the market. For example, we don’t see what Alma does with a harlot, but we know she shows up at his bedchamber, and she’s still there in the morning. We can figure it out without having to see it.

Alma the Younger has a pretty steamy scene with another harlot (at least, steamy for LDS standards), but it was something that, again, helped show how far he’d fallen before he turned from his evil ways and found redemption.

Another friend (and Whitney winner), Michele Paige Holmes, has run into something similar with her romances: an early reader complained that one scene could “turn on an eighty-year-old woman” and therefore needed toning down. Michele wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment, but she fought to keep the scene intact. It was perfectly “clean,” but yes, it had chemistry, as any good romance does. But that scene wasn’t written for young girls.

Sometimes publishers are all-too aware of this issue, so they make writers white-wash their manuscripts so they’re “clean” enough for even a Beehive to read, when a Beehive is simply not the intended audience.

I think of other books, though: titles like Man’s Search for Meaning or The Hiding Place, both fantastic books, both “clean.” And both nothing I’d in a million years hand over to a ten-year-old. Kids vary by maturity, but in my experience, a child that age can’t handle learning about the Holocaust in much detail. Not yet. But my teenagers? I’d love for them to read those books. Now that they’re older, they can handle learning the details of the Holocaust and they now have the maturity to process and begin to appreciate what happened.

Not long ago, a friend said she was putting together a list of “totally clean” books, which she defined as having nothing at all that could offend.

I stared at the monitor, furrowing my brow at that. What books could I possibly suggest? Every book has conflict. Many have villains. Anything with something negative like that could, theoretically, be “offensive.” I still have no idea what I’d suggest for the list. The way I see it, every reader is different.

Each person may get offended at different things. What I see as totally clean and non-offensive could very well be a book that someone else thinks is garbage, and quite possibly, vice versa. “Clean,” “offensive,” and “appropriate” are so subjective as to be almost meaningless when you get past the obvious “no swear words” type of thing and start trying to draw concrete lines.

I’m glad  Covenant and other publishers are putting out books with deeper and more compelling content, books that, yes, have the potential to (gasp!) offend. That includes my most recent release. Not long ago, a reporter asked me whether I had to fight to keep certain elements in Band of Sisters. She mentioned specific parts, including a teenage suicide attempt and some other rather strong issues. I was thrilled to be able to say that those things never even came up. Not a soul at Covenant, from the managing editor to a proofer, raised any concern about those things.

Yet those very things might not be “appropriate” for a ten-year-old, even if some girl sees the pretty pink cover and asks her mom to buy it.

You tell me: How do we get the message across to readers that “clean” doesn’t mean “for all ages”? Is there a way? Is it a gradual process that readers will figure out? Do we just wait it out? Is there something we can do? Or is this a non-issue?

(Note: A reminder to nominate your favorite 2010 books by LDS authors for the Whitneys. Don’t assume your favorite has the 5 needed nominations to be official.)

(Double Note: Eight years after its original release and several years since it went out of print, I revised and edited my first book, Lost Without You, and now have it available here on the Kindle. Yippee!)

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8 Responses to The Populist’s Soapbox: “Clean” vs. Kid-Friendly

  1. You said, [quote]"I’m glad Covenant and other publishers are putting out books with deeper and more compelling content, books that, yes, have the potential to (gasp!) offend."[/quote] I’m assuming that in your use of comparison words ("deeper," "more compelling"), you are comparing the same publishers over time–that you are saying that publishers are moving in a direction towards more depth and more compelling content compared to earlier in time. Am I right about what you meant?

    I’d be interested to hear your opinion about whether the kinds of things that Covenant is willing to take a risk on have changed since the DB acquisition (perhaps as a result of it) or if you think it’s more related simply to time passing.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m interested in the demographic issue. I assume the movement toward "deeper and more compelling" content has something to do with appealing to younger readers, with growing that audience. Those who were raised on narrative fare that was a tad more meaty than [i]The Brady Bunch [/i]and [i]Gilligans Island[/i].

    (Ah, by younger readers, I mean adult readers who are under 40, or 30.)

  3. Annette Lyon says:

    Darlene, I personally can’t point to anything about the DB acquisition as having affected the change. The only way I can see that it’s impacted me as an author is that DB stores are more likely to carry my books. (A happy change.)

    Yes, I did mean that the pendulum is swinging away from being so worried about offending that we can’t write about real issues, and toward writing about stuff all around while still maintaining the essence of "clean."

    In many ways, I think Josi Kilpack led the charge on this, first when she published with CFI and later with DB. She wrote issue-driven women’s fiction before anyone realized there was a need for it in the market. In many ways, I feel like my <i>Band of Sisters</i> was made possible by the path she blazed.

    Lisa, This is entirely my opinion, but I don’t think the change has to do with appealing to a younger demographic, either. I think it’s a natural change as a result of 1) an industry growing and maturing and 2) publishers realizing that their readers (target audience being 20-45) really do want MORE.

  4. Emily M. says:

    Annette, I am amazed that someone was angered by what is one of my favorite things about Heather’s writing: the way she faces head-on what the Book of Mormon says about Alma’s sins. Kudos to her and you for taking on issues that are important, but not necessarily appropriate for all ages.

  5. Roger says:

    When I owned a bookstore I was often asked if there was anything in a book that would offend anyone. I always answered yes–regardless of the book. I came to understand that if people are looking for something offensive they will find it.

  6. Excellent article, Annette, and very well put, as always. People will always find things to be offended by, if that is their intent, most certainly.

    Speaking as the friend who is putting together the list of clean reads, I didn’t mean to say that I’m only collecting books that no one can possibly be offended by – those don’t exist at all. I know things bother me that don’t bother other people, and things bother other people that don’t bother me. What I meant was that I’m collecting a list of books that don’t contain language or sensuality. What a person wants to do with their offense levels from that point on is up to them.

    I love Heather’s books and I want her to continue on in her vein – we can’t understand the man Alma became without better understanding who Alma was. I think it also gives hope for us in our own lives – we make mistakes, but we can repent and become who God wants us to be.

  7. Melinda W. says:

    Roger’s comment made me chuckle. So true!

    At the LDS Storymakers Conference in April, I went to the workshop by Kathryn Jenkins, the managing editor at Covenant Communications. She did say that Covenant had to tighten its standards after it was purchased by Deseret Book, and that there were books they’d published before the acquisition that they wouldn’t be able to publish now. The instruction she repeated a few times was to "be sensitive to the most sensitive reader." She went on to describe what amount of violence and sensuality might be appropriate, but was pretty open about suggesting people market manuscripts elsewhere if they need to.

    I think, in general, that people ought to be able to tell by the book blurb on the cover whether or not a book is kid-friendly. That should tell you whether the book has adult themes and issues in it.

  8. I think part of the problem is that people want a general principle they can articulate, as opposed to a set of criteria that have to be balanced and applied differently to different situations. There’s also a vague (or perhaps sometimes not-so-vague) sense that any argument about different stories being right for different audiences is edging toward rationalization. And if you stay away from the line, you avoid more arguments about what is and isn’t appropriate. Not that I like any of this, but I think it’s part of the mix of where this attitude comes from.

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