YA Corner: Because Wrong is Interesting

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.

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11 Responses to YA Corner: Because Wrong is Interesting

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    It’s an interesting balance. On the one hand, you don’t want fiction that helps youth become desensitized and accustomed to things that are all too common in the world around them. On the other hand, fiction loses much of its power to instruct (a dirty word to many nowadays, but I think that fiction *can* serve an instructive purpose without being heavy-handed or didactic) if it’s not dealing with the very same kinds of dilemmas teens face in real life.

    There’s a big part of me that thinks that as Mormons, we tend to focus too much on the more superficial aspects of “worth” as it applies to art, including fiction: absence of dirty language, sex, the occult, and (to a lesser degree) violence. This is the same part that itches (for example) for a good analysis of some of the metaphors we blithely use in our Sunday School lessons, like the infamous chewed-up piece of gum story. Or how about the fact that Mahana’s worth is commodified in terms of her value to others, particularly male others? (There are few texts that beg for a feminist reading quite as strongly as the original Johnny Lingo.)

    The example of I Am Not a Serial Killer is an interesting one. One of John Wayne Cleaver’s points of argument with his mother is her belief that if he would just stop thinking and reading about serial killing, he would be a healthier person. His point, on the other hand, is that seeing the potential to become a serial killer within himself, he thinks that reading and studying it may help him to avoid becoming one. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I have no idea if Dan Wells winds up coming down on one side or the other; but I honestly can see how it can go either way.

    A final example: In my late teens (when I was 17 or 18), I came across the Darkover sf novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The first one I read was The Heritage of Hastur, in which one of the main characters — a teen — has to come to terms with a homosexual experience in his past and his homosexual feelings for his best friend. For me, coming to the story with my own background and experiences, the story was profoundly affecting, but not in a way that I think others might have expected. I wound up taking away a profound sense that sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy were two different things, and that it was important to know which one was really important and not mistake the one for the other. So for me, that novel was highly moral.

    I’d still be cautious about giving it to a 13-year-old. On the other hand, it’s not like 13-year-olds aren’t going to be thinking, talking, and hearing stories about sex anyway. Maybe it’s better to have them read realistic ones that include more emotional realism. As a parent (and author of a novel that has been characterized as YA, though I didn’t intend for it to be such), I’m honestly torn.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    When I was a teenage girl, Flowers in the Attic was a rite of passage. Apparently, it still is. Or at least, so I’ve been told. I read everything I could get my hands on and fortunately, my mother didn’t really know what any of it was. (There was the summer she grounded me from anything until I read a Georgette Heyer novel. To this day, I haven’t read Georgette Heyer, although she is romance canon.)

    Like Jonathan’s experience with emotional/physical intimacy, I had a similar one reading “The Mist” by Stephen King. The whole idea of “comfort sex” blew my mind and made me uncomfortable in a way the romance novels I’d been reading didn’t. King’s felt real and necessary, whereas what I’d been reading in all the explicit books was just so much fantasy, like the violence in books you’d expect to be violent.

    It made me understand there was some human need that wasn’t being addressed in my life, by my mother, by YW, or by the other explicit novels I’d been reading–that there was some other plane of sexual existence that wasn’t about sex at all, but about need, loneliness, fear, anger, sadness, grief, and loss.

    It really curbed my ingrained (trained) reaction to judge people harshly who were “not worthy” by the definitions I was taught at home and in YW.

    Re what my kid reads: I buy her books galore, stuff I approve. Once I get my library shelves built and the books pulled out of storage, they’ll be fair game. And when she’s old enough to go to the library by herself, I will very carefully turn a blind eye to whatever she brings home.

  3. As a teen, I loved Andre Norton’s novels, which were about misfits finding where they truly belong (which is why I insist that the movie AVATAR–the one with the blue aliens, not the one with the bald kid–is an Andre Norton story). I loved the original STAR TREK (how’s that for showing my age?) because it told me, through Mr Spock and the way he was able to contribute to those around him, that “it’s okay to be different.”

    I still enjoy YA novels that show things like that.

    As for I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, to me that book is about overcoming the natural man, taken to an extreme, and I really, really liked it.

    I think that the important thing is to discuss what we take from a book, as readers. Too many people perceived the protagonist of the TWILIGHT novels as a very poor role model for young women. I see her as a young woman who is struggling with being different, and who is deeply self-sacrificing because of self-worth issues, because she feels so different. And when she finds her “niche” (Andre Norton again), she does anything and everything she can think of to keep it.

    If we can talk about the books and what, as readers, we experience through them, we can find out where they are virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy–if there is anything like that actually in there, that is.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      A valuable point, Kathleen.

      It’s interesting to me that although we often acknowledge intellectually that what goes on when a reader reads a story is an interactive process, practically speaking we usually still talk about it as if the good or bad resided entirely in the story itself. I don’t want to go all the way in the other direction, but it seems to me that we’d be more accurate — as well as more responsible — to talk about the different ways stories can be interpreted that can make them positive or negative for their readers. For a reader who interprets Twilight in a certain way, I’m sure it can be a negative story. For others who interpret it in a different way and have a different experience while reading it, I’m sure it can be a positive influence. A really interesting purpose of literary criticism, it seems to me, would be analyzing those different positive and negative readings, while at the same time not reaching that conclusion that one person’s reading experience invalidates another person’s reading experience.

  4. So is that what literary criticism is all about?

    I remember fellow students complaining about having to analyze (“pick a story apart” were the most common words for this, if I remember correctly) the stories we were assigned to read in high school. I loved doing that. I loved seeing connections and finding meanings in symbols and discussing foreshadowing and so on and so forth. But, then, I tend to be very analytical in some respects.

    I don’t think the same approach works for everyone. Some teachers make students hate reading by asking them to talk about “what the author intended” (especially if the teacher has some fixed idea about all of that, and the students have to try and guess what it is–I’ve been told that this teaching approach is referred to as “the Socratic method” though it doesn’t exactly fit my understanding of what Socrates was doing when he taught by asking questions–anyway, that teaching method raises my hackles and turns me passive-aggressive faster than anything else I can think of).

    So, where was I? Oh, yes. I submit that a possibly better approach might be along the lines of “what do YOU think the author was trying to explore in this story, and WHY do you think that?”

    But I’m interested in other possible approaches to discussing and understanding and sharing understandings of books as well.

  5. C. M. Malm says:

    I think that part of the reason this whole question is difficult to answer is because navigating adolescence is difficult. But here’s my thoughts on the subject (for whatever they’re worth):

    I think that shielding teenagers from fictional representations of the issues (such as sex) that they will have to come to terms with to successfully become adults is a mistake. Part of what fiction achieves for us is the chance to live another life (and experience the pitfalls and decisions of that life) without having to experience the real-world consequences of living that life. In that sense, I think that fiction *is*, as Jonathan suggests, instructive. As a result, I’m more concerned about fiction in which actions lack consequences than I am about fiction that contains “wrong” behavior. And yet…I am still left wondering at times, how much is too much?

    This is a question that I often end up asking about my writing as well, because part of the reason I *want* to write is to explore important issues that I see other writers ignoring or sugar-coating or glossing over. Do I want teenagers reading some of it? Frankly, no. Do they anyway? Yes. Am I a terrible person for having written it? I’m not sure, but I hope not.

    From my own reading experiences as a teenager, I’m inclined to believe that when it comes to reading material, “how much is too much?” is a question that most teen readers ultimately have to answer for themselves. Can we keep teens from thinking explicit thoughts by preventing them from reading books with explicit content? I don’t think so. I think teens–like adults–choose books they believe they will be comfortable with. So I think that if a teen is reading books with explicit content, it’s because they are already thinking about those things. In other words, by the time a teen has such a book in their hands, the horse has already left the barn (in terms of “shielding” them from that kind of thinking). And a teen who is already thinking about difficult adult issues is probably not going to be content reading “safe” books. At that point, I think the best we can do is steer them toward books that are truthful (in terms of actions and their consequences), even if they aren’t what Mormon culture would call “virtuous.”

  6. I recently read a YA book, and was very impressed with it and excited to share it with my teen daughters. Then I read the second book in the series. There is an explicit sex scene between the two teen protagonists. My problem is not so much that the characters had sex, (unfortunately this happens all too often in real life) it was the explicitness of the scene. It was unnecessarily titillating. The same effect could have been given without the detail. I do have a problem with books that claim to be YA and then are filled with adult content.

    I write YA which touches on subjects of abuse, molestation, violence, bullying…all things that go on in the world around us every day. Yet I attempt to do it in a way that I’m not at all ashamed to have either my own teen daughters, or the YW I work with in our ward, read. I DO NOT gloss the subjects over, not by any means. It’s tricky to keep it edgy and real, while retaining enough virtue that I can be proud of my work as a writer, a mom and a Mormon all at once.

    So I guess what my opinion is, basically, is that it is possible to keep YA fiction real, but also keep it at least somewhat virtuous, praiseworthy, and of good report.

  7. Mary Walling says:

    I think there are plenty of virtuous, praiseworthy and of good report books out there for our youth to read without them having to compromise their values. I remember as a YW that part of the Personal Progress program was to read books of this kind. We were given a reading list of books that were of this caliber. I read books like “Paint Box Summer”, “Cheaper by the Dozen”, “Bells on their Toes” and many others. My favorite was “A Tale of Two Cities”. I have since learned that there are plenty of LDS fiction with a moral agenda that fit well within the parimeters of “virtuous, lovely and of good report” that teach without being compromising and we should encourage our children to read not only these but other books that will be teaching experiences for them as well as for us.

  8. Marilee Clark says:

    C.M.–That’s interesting. I was talking to my office mates the other day about that idea of vicarious experience, and the question came up–Are there books that you have read that you wish you could have lived instead of experiencing in a book? I think it’s an interesting question for teens, too. Would you want to experience the things you are reading in your own life? Would you want to accept the consequences of those actions?
    I think it goes back, too, to what other commenters have said about honesty in literature–what Moriah called the “real and necessary.” I agree with Jonathon that when we focus on the superficial elements of “praiseworthiness”–the absence of controversial content rather than an honest examination of the difficult issues, we limit the depth of conversation we can have about important ideas, and reduce them to cliches.
    I guess, too, that I value fiction for it’s ability to create a space for compassion and kindness for others whose experience is different from our own. I sometimes think it’s easy, especially where I am in Utah, for LDS teens to become very insulated against anything that happens outside of their safe and sheltered communities. When they come across someone whose family or experience is different than their own, it’s too easy to discount them, to isolate them in the name of protecting themselves rather than developing empathy for them. But the books that can help them develop compassion also often portray some big mistakes and some harsh consequences. One of my favorite YA reads last year was a book called “Please Ignore Vera Dietz” about a girl in difficult circumstances. And she does some really dumb things. But she’s trying, against terrible odds, to do the right thing. I remember wishing that more kids would read it, but being afraid to recommend it because of language, sex (nothing explicit or gratuitous) and alcohol use.
    By the way, I definitely want to discuss Dan Wells and the morality of John Wayne Cleaver. I’m reading the rest of the trilogy right now. So stay tuned for more on that…

  9. Julie Wright says:

    I remember the time I read Forever by Judy Blume. It was a far different book than Superfudge. I remember being appalled, horrified and . . . well . . . interested. In so many ways I wish I hadn’t found that book at the library. I felt like it took something away from me it couldn’t give back. My innocence of such things was gone, and there was no way to unlearn what I had learned.

    so many authors in the YA market are striving for realism, but I believe they’re backwards in that endeavor. If they really want realism, why do the bed-hopping teens never gets STD’s? Why do the shoplifting teens never go to jail? Why do the teens hopped up on drugs never OD? And okay, I know I’m being general in terms here because there are SOME books that deal with those very things.

    My thought is that if you dare to write about the choice, then you had better be prepared to write about the consequence. It’s irresponsible to portray sleeping around as fun and recreational drug use as safe. Because though it might be fun and safe for a small window of time, an even larger window of consequences is waiting in the shadows.

    I wish more authors who are trying so hard to be REAL, worked just a little harder, and portrayed reality EVERYWHERE instead of the few select places where it creates sensationalism.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Amen. Excellent comment.

      One of the defining characteristics of some YA fiction is a veneer of unreality. Characters and their emotions may be larger than life, or more eloquent at expressing their inner feelings, or more beautiful or rich or magically powerful or whatever. That becomes a problem, though, when the unreality creates a false impression of the world.

      It’s a fine line to walk. And a lot depends on the reality that the individual (teen) reader brings to the work in question. We don’t generally ban our kids from watching Road Runner cartoons, because we sense that they have a good enough grasp of physics not to run out onto thin air and expect to be able to hover there.

      All of which suggests that a big part of this whole discussion of YA literature has to do with our perception of its readers, which in turn probably has a lot to do with the specific teenagers we know. Who, in fact, tend to vary as much among themselves as adults do, so any generalization we can come up with is likely to be wrong. Which raises real questions about the practicality of trying to impose universal standards…

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