Recently, one of our librarians recounted a conversation he had overheard in the teen stacks. A teenager and her mother were looking for books for the girl when they came across a popular vampire series. The young woman pleaded with her mother to check the books out, to which her mom replied, “Now remember, we’re looking for books that are virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy.”
“But Mom,” the teen cried, “they are so good!”
As readers, and especially as parents, teachers, and advisers to teen readers, how do we balance the command to seek after anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy with the desire to read meaningful, honest, interesting stories? Meaningful, honest, interesting stories need characters who screw up, who make mistakes, big ones. And the mistakes characters make in adolescence can scare the wits out of a conscientious parent. Early in the novel I Am Not a Serial Killer, the anti-hero John Wayne Cleaver makes a statement that describes the sometimes troubling truth of teen novels. Teens want to read things that disturb their adults “because wrong is interesting.”
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this lately—I think about it all the time, actually—how the adult impulse to censor teen reading is strong, particularly in LDS circles. I’m responsible for buying teen books in my library, and a funny mixture of publishing quirks, adult misperceptions, and past experiences leave me on edge more often than I’d like. Sometimes, adults assume that the teen collection is “safe” from potentially offensive content; they believe that because it is written for teens there will be less sex, violence, or offensive language than you’d find in a collection for adults. Publishers and authors, however, understand the “wrong is interesting” impulse, and there is a wide range of sensibility to such content in books published for the YA market. Not long ago a parent objected to a scene in a historical novel, and I couldn’t help but think that if that non-sexual nudity was offensive, I could name at least 20 other titles I had bought for the teen collection that this patron would find horrifying. I secretly hoped she wouldn’t ever come across them.
First sexual experience is a common thematic element in YA publishing. High octane, often violent action is used as bait for reluctant adolescent male readers. Authors work hard to recreate teens’ native tongue in print, which often requires that it be peppered with terms you wouldn’t use in polite company. As a librarian I’m committed to honoring the free market of ideas for all ages. As a reader, I’ve come across stories that wouldn’t be a worthy reading experience for anyone. As one who is invested in the reading lives of teens, I have worried over what they might find in the stacks, and whether they are ready to read complicated issues with a critical eye. And as a Mormon, I approach reading as a moral act in a corrupt world.
How protective do we need to be of teen readers? What qualifies as virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy when we read? Or when we write (a task, by the way, that I refuse to undertake, what with my inability to craft a convincing plot and all)? If you are an LDS author, do you have a responsibility to avoid violence, sexuality and profane language? And if you limit yourself, as a reader or a writer, to the stories that can be told without those elements, is it possible that you might miss out on something virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy in the bargain?
I don’t have many answers, and it’s certainly not a particularly original debate. It just happens to be the one that’s been on my mind. What qualifies as a worthy read to you, and does that change if the reader in question is under 21? I could go on about the value of vicarious experience, or the way a difficult story honestly told can inspire compassion for lost sheep, but I’d rather see the direction you will take in this thread. Tell me about the stories that moved you, in positive or not-so-positive ways, when you were a teenager.