YA Corner: What’s Up With YA Literature?

Something’s afoot, and I’m not liking it one bit. I’m not speaking as an author, but as a mother of teenage girls. Some years ago, an author friend of mine was invited to speak at a national writers conference. She sat with horror in the audience as writers and editors of YA novels arose and said things like, “I put sex on my first page to draw them in” and “These books are still completely under the parents’ radar. We’re free to do what we want.” When it was her turn, my friend stood and said that she liked to write wholesome, funny novels for girls. As you can imagine, that went over well, though one woman did come up and thank her later.

I thought this experience was an exaggeration. And then I picked up Wickedly Lovely by Melissa Marr. This novel came highly recommended by a friend, and I bought it for my sixteen-year-old for Christmas. At the same time, I came up for it on the library waiting list, so I started reading. The book is full of the regular (tedious to me) high school/teenage angst about romance, which I expected, but this seventeen-year-old character also had the physical freedom of a college student. Within the covers of the book, she drinks fairy mead and dances all night and has no memory of what she did. Later, she rejoices when she realizes she’s still a virgin. Good, right? Well, yeah, except that she’s not a virgin—not really. Because she sleeps over at her boyfriend’s, and they basically do everything except The Deed. In my book, sex is sex, regardless of how it occurs. Not, though, according to this character, who feels nothing but joy and excitement at her physical relationship with her boyfriend. There were no negative consequences to her actions, or any worry at all.

Now this book has been highly lauded and has topped many best-selling lists. If you compared it with adult literature in the national market, it was mild and not in the least graphic. The fantastic elements were excellent, despite the teenage angst, and I can see why my friend recommended it to me, an adult. Yes, you guessed it. She doesn’t have teenage daughters and doesn’t understand the challenges they face these days. But as I read the book, I clearly saw the attraction this character and her choices might have for young women. And after all, she didn’t sleep with anyone, right? And she was happy to still be virgin. That’s almost downright religious.

Yeah, right. The copy is still in my closet. My daughter might read this book on her own, but I’m not going to give it to her. Not without ripping out some pages. Or maybe I’ll wait until she’s married. Keep in mind, I’m not so much as objecting to the content, which everyone could debate the pros and cons of until the millennium, but that it targets teen girls. My teen girls.

I did, however, give my older teen another book, Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Unfortunately. In this book, the main character decides against marriage because she doesn’t want anyone to control her, so instead she has sex without commitment.


This may reflect what is happening among youth in the world, and as an author I can see why people would address the subject and why it would sell books, but as a mother, I want more for my daughters. I am keeping in mind that such stories can provide a basis for conversation, and I was able to discuss it with my daughter. But still.

Now to bring the conversation to LDS literature. An author in the LDS market came out some time ago with an LDS fantasy for young women. The premise is cool and my daughters loved, loved, loved the book. So I read it. Now, I hate the high school scene, and most seventeen-year-old protagonists don’t entice me in the least in a contemporary setting, but I did enjoy this book more than normal.

Then it came. The scene where the heroine kisses the hero in a way that I’m not allowed to write about in my Shadow Mountain adult romances. WOWSA. If it had been a national book, I’d have thought nothing of it. It was just a kiss or two. Well, really heartfelt, earth-shattering, soul-moving kisses, but only kisses all the same. Except that my daughters had just finished this book, and all I could think about was my innocent little fifteen-year-old thinking that kissing a boy like that was exactly what she needed to make her life perfect. After all, she knew this was a book written by an LDS author and published for youth by an LDS publisher. And it was only a kiss. Nothing like the scenes in the other two books I’ve mentioned.

Am I naive enough to think my children won’t kiss anyone until they become engaged? Not hardly. Still, I don’t want them thinking I condone that kind of heartfelt spit-swapping at seventeen. This isn’t a book and the boy may not be as good as the hero. So quickly that sort of thing can go completely wrong. Maybe I ought to lock them away in a convent until they’re married.

These books are tame. They are nothing compared to what is available in the adult market, or even what I read on a regular basis as I strive to stay on top of the market, but it’s strange how something takes on new meaning when you look at it through the eyes of your children.

I’m not saying teens should avoid everything out there, or even these books or authors in particular, but our children have enough challenges without false impression of sexuality. The point I’m trying to make is that parents need to be aware of YA literature. Some may have turned to YA to get away from the graphic sex in the national adult market, now they may have to go even younger. How long before the thirteen and fourteen crowd is having literary sex? One could argue that some teens this young are sexually active already, so why not?

Meanwhile, my high school daughter bemoans the fact that all the good-looking, outgoing boys have girlfriends and are making out and holding hands all over the high school. Since the boys she is attracted to now are in relationships, she wonders who she is going to marry when she’s older. Because at the end of the day, she doesn’t want a guy who sleeps around or who has made out with dozens of different girls. Even if these boys change later, that won’t alter what’s already happened, and she wants someone who has been trying all along.

I, of course, use my greater experience to remind my daughter that the shy, quiet, scrawny, pimply, nerdy boys will probably be the well-formed, handsome, supportive, compelling men of tomorrow, and they will reach out to girls like her as they mature and grow more assured of themselves. Better to make friendships with the boy who may appear average now, but inside is the type she’d like to end up with, instead of yearning after the football hero or class president, who never lacks for a date. In five or ten years everything will be different. My daughter believes me, I think, but it’s still hard for her now.

There is solid evidence that my lessons are getting through. My oldest daughter recently told a return missionary who kissed a girl on a one-time basis after knowing her for a half hour, “Sorry, maybe we can date in seven months. It’ll take that long to get her spit out of your mouth.” (This after researching bacteria on the Internet.) She wasn’t upset that he’d kissed someone, but that he did it so lightly. She understands it should mean something. This same daughter has a sign over her college bed dorm made by a friend: Cassi does not give out.

Go girl!

Literature has a powerful effect on our children. I hope we continue to see YA stories in the LDS and national markets that I can buy and feel good about for my young daughters. I’ve enjoyed so many with them. In the meantime, I’m going to keep an eye on this trend of sexuality without consequence in YA fiction for girls. It is a very worrisome thing.

This entry was posted in YA corner and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to YA Corner: What’s Up With YA Literature?

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Great and interesting post. Wow on several levels. And a heavy sigh. I agree that YA lit for kids ought to emphasize relationships that, in the Mormon world, we call "appropriate." I’m not surprised to hear the trend is otherwise. But–and I’m about to get in big trouble here–I don’t really understand why reading romance literature is such a great idea for youth (meaning girls). Period. IMO, the Mormon culture tends to emphasize marriage much too young for girls. (Who threw that at me??) Literature about boy/girl relationships emphasizes the quest for happiness through those relationships. Am I off on that? In my world and for my daughter, that just isn’t the message I want her to derive from her lit. In my house, romance literature is, generally speaking, off the table for her. In fact, the only romance my 18 year old daughter has read (and I just asked her to be sure I’m correct) is [i]Twilight[/i], which I handed her and we read in tandem. I’m grateful to report that my daughter came to the conclusion any girl who prefers a young man whose instinct is to destroy her (suck the life out of her) is, ahem, seriously whacked. But among her friends there are many romance readers who didn’t have that reaction to the books. Edward, Edward, Edward. So I guess what I’m asking is, Why have kids read romance at all if we don’t want them to receive the message that physical attraction leads to happiness? If we think they are not prepared to handle deep relationships? Again, I’m not asking about adults, or young adults, but pre-teens and teens. I have nothing against the genre, think its fun and entertaining for grown-ups. But kids? Not convinced…

    I want to commend Rachel’s example here. Good for her for reading what her kids read! A lot of parents give that up once kids are reading independently.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    Actually, Edward has existed since teenage girls had the leisure time to consume him: Elvis. The Beatles. Shawn Cassidy. New Kids on the Block. Screaming, fawning, fainting, reaching for something that isn’t there to try to make sense of their hormones. Safe targets, no risk. Edward finally just made it onto the page.

    In the 80s (when I was a teenager), I was no different (although I won’t tell you which person caught my fancy because I am tres embarrassed). However, there was no YA lit that I am aware of other than the Sunfire lines, and Silhouette experimented with teen romance–all of which was church-appropriate. No, my friends and I went straight for the adult stuff. REALLY adult stuff.

    And we knew it was adult, and there was the thrill of the forbidden (for simply reading it) and the ability to be obsessed by characters from books we passed around and read, giggling, and reading aloud THOSE parts to each other over the phone. My mother had no idea what I was reading. But underneath all that was a sense of adventure and empowerment and derring-do. I acquired a massive vocabulary and a decent grounding in history.

    I have no interest in reading YA lit now that I’m an adult. If it had existed in this form when I was a teenager, I doubt I would have been interested in it then. I was living teenage angst. I wouldn’t want to read it and I certainly don’t want to revisit it now.

    My daughter is 6. No idea what’ll be out there in the wild when she’s a teen, but I know what’s in my house, and none of it will be off limits.

  3. Rachel,

    It sounds like a big part of the problem in some of these titles, at least, isn’t that sexuality is being represented, but rather that it’s being either (a) romanticized, or (b) trivialized.

    I’m not honestly sure what I think on this issue. (Not to mention what I think about these books, which I haven’t read and therefore can’t have an opinion on.) Is it better for my daughter read something that’s more explicit but deals realistically with relationship dynamics, including the effects that sex has on a relationship, as opposed to something that may be less explicit but presents relationships in an unrealistic way?

    Literature is largely about exploring our own desires fictively. There are very real desires associated with romantic relationships. In theory at least, I’m committed to the notion that literature can help us learn better what it is that we really want, thus helping prepare us to deal better with real life. It sounds to me like what Lisa is suggesting is that the romance genre, however, has some built-in unreality that makes whatever lessons we may learn from it suspect.

    I dunno. Would you still call it a "romance" if it treated relationships realistically? And is there value to romances for teenagers (particularly teenage girls) if they aren’t realistic? Good questions I think.

  4. Melinda W. says:

    I picked up a series I thought my niece would really like, but never recommended it to her because of a completely unnecessary sensual scene.

    I don’t have teenage girls. I had a friend who forbade her daughter from reading the series "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" because of the sex. Her daughter was only 12, and I think that might be too young. But I liked the "Traveling Pants" series and thought the author dealt with the consequences of sex in a realistic fashion. In the books, sex does not make the relationship better; it does not make the character feel better about herself; it complicates things and the characters have to work through some deep regrets and relationship damage. I actually think those books would be good ones to read with a teenage daughter to open a dialogue about the real-world consequences of teenage sex.

    I haven’t read much LDS YA fiction recently, so I can’t comment on how romance is handled for the LDS teen scene. It would be nice to read books where girls and boys had healthy friendships, without the romance element.

  5. EricS says:

    I’m not sure I get ‘I put sex on the first page to draw them in.’ I don’t care if it’s sex or puppies or a really current pop culture reference, I don’t get writing like that, adding this element or that element to manipulate your readereship or something. Isn’t the point to tell a story, to create fully realized characters in plausible or implausible situations? I have a teenaged daughter, and I worry about her too, because she doesn’t like to read. That’s a situation that really worries me. But the few things she likes to read are all pretty good–she liked Goose Girl, for example. I worry a lot more that she’s reading some paint-by-numbers formulaic thing than whatever the sexual content might be. There’s tons of sexual tension in Wuthering Heights, but I’d be thrilled if that were what she was reading.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    EricS, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but yes, genre writers are told in workshops, conferences, chapter meetings, by editors, agents, and published authors, that you have to start off with a hook. People learn to write this way over time (I’m no different and have been trying to get out of that habit).

    Thing is, the terms start "in media res" has been construed and pulled completely out of distortion and has morphed into "start out with the hook."

    There are A LOT of bad habits perpetuated in genre romance/YA I don’t like–perpetuated by things one hears at conferences and workshops by editors and agents, gets disseminated to the chapters and misunderstood and distorted.

    A bunch of silliness, but that’s what all these writers do because they want to get published and they’ll write the way they’re told will get an agent’s attention. IMO, they’re almost like urban legends.

    Let me tell you. I’ve had to break a bunch of these habits I learned in the early 90s and I’m STILL trying to break them. It ain’t easy.

    [quote][b]I worry a lot more that she’s reading some paint-by-numbers formulaic thing than whatever the sexual content might be. [/b][/quote]

    So yes, you’re right, but in my latest wanderings around genre romance/YA land I’ve figured out that people don’t necessarily WANT to write like this. It’s just what they think they have to do and… Look what’s out there.

    They’re right.

  7. Susan C. says:


    The sexuality is one part of the problem, and certainly the one that jumps out most readily, but I also worry about behaviors that are treated as normal or even desirable, behaviors that to me encourage girls to enter into relationships with men/boys who are controlling and manipulative. I do not like girls portrayed as weak and stupid, needing to be rescued constantly or who can’t function on their own. There is also a theme of disregard for parental authority that runs through these books. I would like to see healthy relationships portrayed. Can anyone tell me what Bella and Edward have in common? What shared activities do they both enjoy? What goals do they share? What, besides animal attraction and neediness, is the basis of their relationship? Anybody?

  8. jendoop says:

    "There’s tons of sexual tension in Wuthering Heights, but I’d be thrilled if that were what she was reading." The major difference to me is sexual tension verses sexual detail coupled with complete falsehoods. To portray a teenage girl as interested in a boy- pondering what he thinks about, what his goals in life are, what it would be like to hold hands or kiss him – is one thing, but to describe the actual ‘sexual acts’ in titillating and completely false way is another.

    I know, it’s fiction, but it creates unrealistic expectations. Sex and real mature love are wonderful things, but they are rarely portrayed in a realistic way in modern day fiction, YA or otherwise (perhaps because there are few in our culture that know what it is?). I personally feel that for this reason extreme romances (eg. Harlequin, not Wuthering Heights) are harmful to YA AND adults. Sorry if that makes me a literature snob. There has to be some kind of connection to reality, not the face of reality with underlying fiction that a YA interprets as truth because of their lack of personal experience.

    Romance isn’t the only genre guilty of this though. My sister grew up on Sci Fi, my dad is a voracious reader and so our house was packed to the gills with Sci Fi and fantasy books. (I never could latch on to that genre as wholeheartedly as them.) She told me recently that some of those books had scenes that were sexually explicit and she wished there had been better monitoring of what she read.

    Thanks for the post, I hope to have my 15 yr old daughter read it so we can have another conversation about her choice of books. Despite my sister’s advice, I just can’t read fast enough to keep ahead of my daughter!

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I need to backtrack a little on what I said at the start. I shouldn’t have used the expression "off the table" in describing the place of romance lit in my daughter’s life. I can see how that can be understood to mean "non-negotiable" or "not allowed" which isn’t the case. If my daughter (who is now 18) read romance, I’d not have had a problem w. it. I have always tended to read what they read–just like I check out TV shows and films they prefer. So "off the table" was the wrong thing to say. Ironically, I wanted to say "not on the shelf" at my house, but I thought that might imply that I had something against the genre. I rejected one phrase in favor of another that was, as it turns out, worse. <heavey sigh> I’d be fine with it if romance lit had become a genre my daughter preferred to read. As it is, the only romance series she has read is the one I gave her. Go figure. I think she probably just developed her taste because of what I modeled and what I brought into the house. But three cheers for romance writers! Really. Wish I could write it. I keep thinking someday I’d like to give it a shot.

    I simply meant to call into question our cultural tendency to promote the idea that acquisition of the temple-bound romantic relationship should be the primary focus of young women, the raison d’etre. I’m worn out from seeing pencil-shaped 12 year olds strapped into Sister Gorgeous’ gorgeous wedding gown so that her photo can be taken and framed beside a photo of the temple. Of course the things are then displayed at New Beginnings or on Standards Night. Psychologists point out that men tend to find their value in what they do while women find their value in relationships. We’ve all seen teen girls who feel validated only if and when they have a boyfriend, even if he’s a bum. This concerns me more than whether or not my daughter reads about sex.

    But certainly romance lit isn’t the cause of this. I’d like to hear from women who, as girls, read the genre (especially LDS romance for adult women or teens) and felt it helped them develop positive attitudes about boy/girl relationships. I can see how it might be a positive experience.

    As to the "unreality" of romance lit, I can’t speak to that, since I don’t read much of it. My concern is more about whether or not the relationship as goal (happy [i]end[/i]ing) should be the literary focus for Mormon girls. Ug. I don’t like the way that sounds either. I guess I’m wondering, well, not so much if it [i]should[/i] be the literary focus, but how a parent should handle a daughter’s literary preference for romance in a positive way. Sure, as Rachel points out, the sex can be one problem, but aren’t there other potential issues as well?

    And Jonathan, I’d welcome frank discussions about the emotional consequences of fornication. I wouldn’t categorize the Traveling Pants series as romance, though I did reject it as an option for purchase for my daughter when she was a younger teen. We saw the films together.

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]I’m worn out from seeing pencil-shaped 12 year olds strapped into Sister Gorgeous’ gorgeous wedding gown so that her photo can be taken and framed beside a photo of the temple.[/b][/quote]


    Here’s the thing about romance novels, from sweetest of the sweet (chaste kisses and waving goodbye to the happy couple bound for their honeymoon, LDS or not) to the most explicit (just this shy of Penthouse Letters):

    They lie. That’s the point.

    But…as Jendoop pointed out, so does scifi/fantasy. And mystery. Thriller. Spy. Adventure. Historical fiction. Women’s fiction. It ALL lies.

    [But lest anybody think I'm condemning it (I'm not) for lying (definitely not), let me point out that I'd rather read a happy-ending lie than a lie whose only point is the utter misery and unhappy ending of the characters.]

    Lisa, I understand your point better now that you’ve explained a bit further. As you can tell, I didn’t know those kinds of things were STILL being done in YW. *sigh*

  11. Jonathan, you said it exactly. It’s more the problem of the sexuality being trivialized or romanticized. Most girls don’t have the maturity to see behind the lies, and so often their intent focus on impress boys really frightens me. As Susan said, they are being encouraged to enter into relationships not only too early, but with boys who are controlling and manipulative. I watched my oldest daughter endure several boyfriends who would drive by our house when she wouldn’t answer her phone to make sure no other male friends had come over to chat. Insane. Thankfully, she’s now at the age where she won’t allow herself to be controlled, but at the time it was scary that she’d rather put up with a controlling boyfriend she felt wasn’t her intellectual or emotional equal than to have no boyfriend at all. I am wholeheartedly for literature that shows girls they can and should function on their own. The only way to have a "whole" relationship is to work at being whole yourself first.

    As for our young women being "trained" from very young to seek marriage as their primary focus, this actually seems to be a lot more balance than when I was in YW. All of the girls in my past two wards seem to have been encouraged by parents and teachers to gain an education and develop useful skills that aren’t related to homemaking. Both my daughters plan to complete their degrees and they know we expect that of them. (In fact, one of my daughters has vowed not to marry until after college.) Very different from the way I was taught, so we are making strides in this area. I would assume this varies from ward to ward and may change with the economic status of any given area. It has been shown that the more education and money people have, the fewer children, the later their marriages, and so forth, and I bet this reflects in Mormon society as well.

    At the same time, temple marriage is important and shouldn’t be downplayed, either. I do want my girls to marry in the temple–I just want them to wait until they’re at least twenty-three or twenty-four so they have enough experience to have a hint of what they are getting into. The person I almost married at nineteen is nothing like the person I ended up choosing at twenty-three.

  12. SMD says:

    First things first, I want to say that I disagree with you in principle (in terms of keeping lit with kisses and sexual content from your kids). I don’t personally have a problem with such things, and when I have kids, I won’t have a problem then. I also don’t think you should have a problem with it, and here’s why:

    Towards the end of your post, you make it very clear that your daughters are ALREADY thinking about sex, but in the exact terms you’d like them to. This tells me that you’ve done, generally speaking, a damn fine job of teaching your kids what even I (someone who isn’t religious) would consider to be good values. They’re considering the ramifications, not because you kept bad things from them, but because you’ve taught them things that you (and many others) think they should know. And, honestly, while you’re free to parent however you like, I think that if you were to let your teenage daughters read these things and then talk to them about it, you’d not only find that a) they probably have similar views as you (with some minor variations, obviously; the world of today isn’t the same as it was in the 19th century); and b) that they may enjoy the books very much, but as books and not morality tales (or as influential tales). This all comes down to how YOU as a mother teach your kids. It seems to me (and I don’t know you) that you have taken the time to impart upon them the seriousness of sex and marriage.

    So, on the one hand, I understand you desire to keep these things from them, but I worry that you might do them a disservice to them. At some point, they might find this stuff, and they’ll never have that experience of reading it and having you to talk to, at a young and impressionable age.

    This is just food for thought. I too am of the impression that kisses should mean something (I’m also weird for my generation, but so be it).

  13. One of the most frightening reading experiences I’ve ever had was encountering Reviving Ophelia about the time my daughter (now 15 and a freshman in high school) was getting ready to enter middle school. We’ve been lucky (in some ways at least) that she turned out to be a determined geek and rather fiercely independent socially. At the same time it’s also made her rather lonely. (We also theorize that she may have a mild tendency toward Asperger’s, in part because there’s a lot about social cues that she just doesn’t get.)

    I was talking with a friend the other day and wondering who actually reads Mormon romances: whether it’s teens or (as he theorized) adult women. (I, as the previous paragraph attests, have no evidence to offer on this either way.) It would be interesting to know, both about Mormon romances and about romances in general.

    A highly successful writer said the stories he liked as a child and adolescent "were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened [i]desire[/i], satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded." The writer was Tolkien, talking about fairy-stories. It’s never occurred to me to be uncomfortable with that statement, but quoting it in the context of this discussion, it raises some pretty thought-provoking questions.

    The most successful authors, I think, are deeply in tune with the desires of their audience, whether through conscious analysis or (perhaps more typically) through subconscious identification. I think any successful ethics of fiction has to consider whether the rousing and satisfaction of desire is a good or bad thing.

  14. To clarify, SMD, I think it would be far easier to show children the value of intimacy with literature that reflects real consequences, so it’s natural that I’d prefer my daughters to read books that don’t glorify sexual experiences or playdown the importance the consequences. Literature that doesn’t condone relationships with controlling men.

    My children are voracious readers, and they will no doubt read a lot of things I haven’t approved, as I did as a teen, but is there really a point of passing on books that I don’t feel have any real value to them? I do agree that books offer a lot of opportunities for discussion. In fact, we’ve had discussions about [i]Twilight,[/i] i]Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,[/i] and other books they’ve stumbled across. However, I feel certain unrealistic portrayals may do more harm than good in these informative years. Perhaps that’s because I view things in an entirely different light now that I actually have teenage daughters. Fortunately, we seem to be muddling on okay.

  15. Interesting point, Jonathan. As for LDS romances, many readers are teenagers and that’s part of why the publishers are so careful with content. It’s a careful line to walk for an author or publisher.

  16. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    On what genre writers are told in workshops, it goes a little more like "editors have so many unsolicited manuscripts to go through that some will only read the first page and if that isn’t interesting enough (or well-written, or engaging, or clear, or grammatical, or any number of indicators that the manuscript has potential), the editor will not bother to turn the page; so you have to make sure that your manuscript starts well enough to keep the editor reading and turning the pages–don’t think that the ‘good stuff’ can wait till after the set-up and not appear until the fourth or fifth page and anyone will even get that far to read it."

    If aspiring writers hear the above as "start with a hook" or "start ‘in media res’" or other such formulaic things, perhaps they are only listening for quick and dirty secrets and not the truth. If people are advising aspiring writers to be formulaic in order to sell, they are not being fair to their own work, to editors, or to aspiring writers.

  17. Moriah Jovan says:

    Kathleen, yes, exactly so.

    [quote][b]perhaps they are only listening for quick and dirty secrets and not the truth.[/b][/quote]

    In the selling game, that IS the truth.

    [quote][b]If people are advising aspiring writers to be formulaic in order to sell, they are not being fair to their own work, to editors, or to aspiring writers.[/b][/quote]

    There is no fair. Only published.

  18. SMD says:

    "To clarify, SMD, I think it would be far easier to show children the value of intimacy with literature that reflects real consequences, so it’s natural that I’d prefer my daughters to read books that don’t glorify sexual experiences or playdown the importance the consequences. Literature that doesn’t condone relationships with controlling men."

    But this also implies that you are shielding them from literature about a different segment of reality. Not all intimate encounters have real consequences (not for everyone). People believe differently about a variety of things, and in some cases that means that what you or I might deem as bad behavior will not have consequences for them. But I’m also talking from a very different perspective as someone who makes a living analyzing literature, and so I’m always looking for those things that are contrary or in-line with the norm…

    "My children are voracious readers, and they will no doubt read a lot of things I haven’t approved, as I did as a teen, but is there really a point of passing on books that I don’t feel have any real value to them?"

    I think this is a limited view, though. If you think outside of your personal perspective on how things "should be" you’ll see that letting children read things that you may not entirely approve of, and then having a dialogue about them (not all of them, obviously, because nobody has to time to talk about every book read) isn’t inherently invaluable. Value can be derived from seeing the opposite end of the coin, or an alternate perspective, and thinking seriously about why that perspective is the way it is. Why, for example, would book A for teens seemingly glorify sexual behavior, while book B doesn’t? I would also question whether there were consequences, and you either didn’t see them, or they weren’t made apparent in relation to whatever else was going on (I haven’t read the books you mention above, but often times YA, particularly of the fantasy vein, doesn’t focus attention on the potential consequences of our actions so much as the resolution of the plot).

    "I do agree that books offer a lot of opportunities for discussion. In fact, we’ve had discussions about Twilight, i]Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,[/i] and other books they’ve stumbled across. However, I feel certain unrealistic portrayals may do more harm than good in these informative years. Perhaps that’s because I view things in an entirely different light now that I actually have teenage daughters. Fortunately, we seem to be muddling on okay."

    Twilight is a fascinating book when you consider what it is actually saying about women, and how the public has reacted to it. Meyers is not at all kind to female subjectivity (or agency, for that matter).

    I think in some respects you’re worrying a bit too much, though. As I said before, your post seems fairly clear on where your daughters stand, which implies that you got the message through. You also have to remember that the climate for teenagers has become progressively sexualized, so the fact that your teenage daughters are actually thinking about their position within that world, and are seemingly uninterested in participating in normative teenage behavior implies that you’re probably a better parent than most. Not many teenagers get that kind of foundation from their parents (usually they don’t get any foundations, so when it comes to things like sexual behavior, etc. they have to learn from scratch; teenagers who have some sort of parental foundation, whether it be the version you teach or another, typically exhibit those behaviors, at least minutely, if such subjects aren’t forced upon them…you can’t not give them structure and you can’t give them too much…)

    But I’m rambling. To each his or her own :).

  19. SMD–We’ll have to agree to disagree (though I won’t take offense at your saying I’m "a better parent than most," whether it’s true or not). Certainly, my daughters will not fall apart or change their values because of these books, but a few of their friends seem to bend with every change of the wind. I have been a witness to their conversations, and without guidance at home, they can’t see through the "lies" in these novels. I also believe there are consequences for every action, even if they don’t show up for a time or aren’t pronounced.

    The fact remains that there is a lot of fiction out there to choose from, so much that we can’t possibly read it all, so why bother with those books we don’t feel are right for our teens? Keep in mind that we and they are going to run into enough of those anyway. Parents must make a stand. We absolutely cannot sit back and allow our children find their own way. God gave us these spirits to love and to teach, and we have a huge responsiblity to raise them up in righteousness. As I’ve said many times, "I am not my children’s friend, I am their mother."

    Thank you (and everyone else) for your comments.

  20. EricS says:

    On the ‘formulaic’ issue, it’s easy for me to judge, because my primary income comes through teaching. I can afford to write without much regard for commercial considerations. So I shouldn’t point fingers either. When I write plays, i do think ‘well, this one might be good for that theatre company,’ but I don’t really tailor my work all that specifically. One company I write for quite a bit is a LGBT theatre, so if I happen to get a story idea with a gay character, I’ll send it to them, but I don’t really think ‘I need to write something for the gay market.’
    Let me toss this idea on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up: there’s a difference between formula and self-imposed limitations. Formula is what Harlequin insists on: the first sex scene has to be on page 43, or start off with a hook. That kind of thing. But all of us deal with self-imposed limitations. It’s not just language or content. I work with one company, an arts conservatory. All the actors are under 17 and most of them are female. So they’ll contact me, and say ‘we need a play on contemporary subject matter for a cast of eleven girls and two boys, forty to fifty minutes in length, no bad language.’ I LOVE that kind of commission. It’s a fun challenge.

  21. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]Formula is what Harlequin insists on: the first sex scene has to be on page 43, or start off with a hook. That kind of thing.[/b][/quote]

    True. BUT. I know many people who write for Harlequin and make TONS of money. Thing is, they put out 3, 4, 5, maybe 6 ~50k to ~75k word books a year. IMO, that’s phenomenal. I couldn’t do it. I’ll never bash on formula because they can do something I find simply extraordinary.

  22. cmmalm says:

    Why *do* novels tend to tell lies about sex, especially to women? This is one of my pet peeves, actually!

  23. Moriah Jovan says:

    Why *do* novels tend to tell lies about power and adventure, especially to men? This is one of my pet peeves!

  24. cmmalm says:

    Wow, that’s got to be a record time in a triple event: insulting someone you don’t know, utterly solidifying a bad impression, and making a venue not worth the effort, all in less than 25 words.

    And I was developing such high hopes for this community….

  25. Susan C. says:

    Sex scenes in books are about as realistic as the picture of the Big Mac in the McDonald’s advertisement. Obviously, nobody wants to read a sex scene where the people are not both beauiful, someone is having performance issues, is bored, self conscious, etc.

    In a television show like Friends, they make sleeping around look fun. Nobody ever gets an STD, very rarely does anyone get pregnant or feel used. It is downright scary to raise kids today. My kids are all grown now, but sometimes I think about my two little granddaughters and what they will be faced with. I am in the process of collecting good books that I loved as a child. I probably sound like a relic, but Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, those are great for young teens.

    When I was in high school in the 70s, we had an assignment in home ec to plan our dream wedding. Nothing was taught about home finances, taking care of children, how to choose a compatible mate. But bridesmaid dresses, flowers and the cake–all covered.

    I think something that is missing from a lot of YA literature is showing a girl who lives through the end of a relationship and survives. Let’s show girls for whom their boyfriend is not the center of their universe, but an addition. Let’s teach our YW that their worth is not measured by whether or not they have a BF. Most of my characters who have a romance have a few false starts along the way. I don’t think it is just young girls with the unrealistic expectations either. I think some authors portray husbands, even in the 1800s, that help with housework and are too good to be true. In some ways I worry more about the married women who still seem to be living in fantasy land. At least we expect the YW to be somewhat immature and impressionable, but my impression in visiting book clubs is that old married women think "Edward" is out there, too.


  26. Moriah Jovan says:

    @Susan C.

    [quote][b]Obviously, nobody wants to read a sex scene where the people are not both beauiful, someone is having performance issues, is bored, self conscious, etc.[/b][/quote]

    Yes, they do. That’s why they buy the books.

    @cmmalm Perhaps check the beam in your eye.

  27. Moriah Jovan says:

    @SusanC My apologies. I misread your statement.

  28. Susan wrote: "At least we expect the YW to be somewhat immature and impressionable, but my impression in visiting book clubs is that old married women think ‘Edward’ is out there, too."

    My response: Or they don’t believe that Edward is out there, but they want to spend time in a world where he is. They want to pretend.

    This is where the question of literature as a mirror of desire, as opposed to a mirror of reality, gets tricky to me. I admit it: I don’t really go to literature to see the way the world is. I’m not sure how many of us do.

    A good novel has to be realistic enough that we believe in it while we’re there, but unrealistic enough that we prefer to spend time there instead of in our day-to-day reality. Case in point: [i]The Chosen[/i] by Chaim Potok, one of my favorite novels as a teenager. One of the reasons I liked it so much was because it was realistic, because I believed utterly in the characters while I was reading it. But the reason why it spoke to me so powerfully was because it allowed me to enjoy a world where I could see and vicariously experience the emotion between best friends in a way that didn’t normally happen in my real world. It clarified to me what I wanted from my own friendships, in a way that was quite possibly unrealistic. In fact, looking back on my reading habits as a child and teenager, I was a junky for stories about friendship. Maybe in much the same way that some teenage girls are junkies for unrealistic romances.

    My point is that I think all of us, or at least many of us, do look to literature for things we yearn for but don’t necessarily have in our own lives, whether that’s a romance with someone who is strong and dangerous or a friendship with a teenage boy who’s actually comfortable talking about emotions — or a vision of sublime natural loveliness like Lothlorien or a world where Rambo can strike back at all the bad guys (and, perhaps, where there are identifiable bad guys to strike back at). I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and if it is, then I think maybe we have to conclude that pretty much all of literature is bad. So "realism" is a relative value in literature.

    For me, the importance and meaning of realism in literature — and this is not all that different from what a lot of other people have been saying here — is that if you’re going to depict a world of desire, you don’t lie about the price or conditions or circumstances that accompany the fulfillment of that desire. You don’t lie about Rambo’s body count. You don’t show women being happy in abusive relationships, or that men just need a woman’s love in order to change at a fundamental level. You don’t pretend that your teenage boy is actually a girl (and believe me, writing a story where a teenage boy will actually, realistically talk about emotions is quite a challenge). You don’t create Lothlorien without creating Mordor.

    Which makes all of this very much an exercise in how we view the world around us. If you believe that sex doesn’t have a powerful emotional impact on individuals, then you are, in my opinion, living in a dream world — and the literature you write will not seem realistic to me at all: neither powerful nor ethical nor realistic. I can’t believe in a world like that, not unless the character has become desensitized already.

    This is one reason why ethics and esthetics, in my view, can’t ultimately be separated in reading, writing, and discussing literature. "Realism" is not some values-neutral standard that exists outside our belief structure. Rather, at a fundamental level our belief structure defines or describes what realism is.

    I’ll shut up now and hope that someone will read and respond…

  29. Moriah Jovan says:

    Oh Jonathan. That was so perfect. Especially these:

    [quote][b]…Or they don’t believe that Edward is out there, but they want to spend time in a world where he is. They want to pretend…

    A good novel has to be realistic enough that we believe in it while we’re there, but unrealistic enough that we prefer to spend time there instead of in our day-to-day reality.

    My point is that I think all of us, or at least many of us, do look to literature for things we yearn for but don’t necessarily have in our own lives…[/b][/quote]


  30. cmmalm says:

    The thing is, from what I’ve observed, readers who encounter stories with "real" sex instead of "fake" sex (and there *are* a few such stories out there) actually *appreciate* the honesty. They tend to comment on it particularly. What I was trying to get at is that we do young women no favors by setting them up to fail with literary examples of sex (and sexual relationships) that are (unbeknownst to them) nothing like the real deal. Something similar can happen with young men and pornography–unrealistic expectations that can have a serious adverse effect on their future happiness in marriage. But I’m also not convinced that trying to protect our daughters from books with any hint of sexuality is the answer. And yet, "supposedly," as Mormon writers, we aren’t "allowed" to write about sex at all. But then, who is going to write the truth?

    I really wish I could keep participating–or even reading–here. But the signal-to-noise and cost/benefit ratios have taken an abrupt turn for the worse recently, and as far as I know, there’s no way to filter blog comments. I guess it’s back to the AML list for me. Ta.

  31. Scott Parkin says:

    Jonathan has written one of those comments that’s all but impossible to respond to; as far as I’m concerned he’s nailed one of the foundational questions of the purposes of literature–a context for consideration that frames further discussion.

    Still, I’m famous for burying clear concepts under a preponderance of unnecessary words, so here goes…

    An author friend of mine suggests that one of the purposes of story is to provide the reader with techniques for successful living–precisely by exploring real problems using unreal people or situations that are more clearly contextualized around core themes.

    Just as importantly, we as authors can explore those themes (problem statements, conflicts, issues…whatever) by proposing potential answers to those core questions. In other words, we can deeply explore the inner mind of someone who deals problems that are clearer than our own, and whose responses can thus be more idealistically focused.

    (I know that "idealistically" is a flawed word choice there, but I’m not coming up with better one off the top of my head. The idea I’m trying to suggest is similar to the distinctly Mormon concept of a "most correct" response or interpretation to a situation. If the core conflict is framed as the collision of an ideal result versus a suboptimal one, then any response can be considered–whether a successful or unsuccessful response–in context of that ideal. More importantly, that framework of consideration gives me tools to understand both the nature of the conflict and the array of potential responses, and thus an ability to learn or devise more successful ways of dealing with similar conflicts if they arise in my own life.)

    In other words, fictional worlds can give a thematic unity to events that rarely (if ever) exists in real life. A story is *about* something, and the very fact of that about-ness is what gives it both immediacy and distance.

    Part of that is that in telling a story we pick and choose the events that reinforce the core thread–and don’t include the details of the 347 other stories that are running concurrently in our lives. That focus allows us to consider both realistic and unrealistic settings, contexts, and events against a generic truism, and thus build models for response based on a our own view of what that "most correct" response might look like.

    In other words, it helps us ennoble our simple personal conflicts by seeing them as somehow resonant with similar conflicts played out on a bigger stage with larger consequences. The difference is in scope, not type.

    Thus, the idealized character (Edward Cullen, John Galt, etc.) or setting is offered not as a realistic portrayal of an actual person, but as an embodiment of one who does not struggle with the uglier aspects of reality that the rest of us have to deal with, and thus the author can get more quickly to the iconic essence of the underlying conflict.

    That same author friend (Dave Wolverton, who also writes fantasy under the name David Farland) reframes the idea of realism as levels of relevance.

    His specific thesis is that too much relevance makes a story unpalatable. The goal of the story is to evoke or resonate with the reader with something recognizable similar to their own experience, but sufficiently removes to enable cognitive separation.

    In other words, if the written expression is too realistic (relevant) the reader is no longer transported to a context of safely abstracted consideration, but rather is thrust back into the painful fact of their own experience. Most readers are not interested in wallowing and will reject the story as uninteresting.

    Tying that back to Jonathan’s comment on Tolkien, one goal of story can then be to create that cognitive distance through some level of irrelevance in setting, character, or situation to enable the reader to successfully engage the core conflict. One way is the idealized character who is recognizably better than we are yet still struggles for successful resolution of a recognizably real problem.

    If a goal of story is to enable exploration of successful techniques for living in the mundane world, then the imagined world must have contrasting ideals and represent those contrasts with as much power and realism as the preferred ideal. I would argue that an ethical fiction does precisely that, and cannot add anything to what Jonathan so elegantly (and briefly) suggested.

    If an alternative goal of story is to bask in the (unrealistic) warmth of an idealized setting with no downside and no cost of entry, then I would argue that as unethical fiction.

    Utopian/dystopian fiction uses that idealized setting in an ethical way–by providing a clear separation of the real from the ideal and inviting the reader to consider it precisely because it’s clearly exaggerated. The conceit of the form is to present it as potentially real (what we hope could be versus what we fear might be) with the full understanding that the reader knows better.

    That was a foundation of early science fiction (of the Hugo Gernsback ilk). It presented technologically idealized futures–along with plausible paths by which those futures could be reached–as an exercise in hopeful thinking intended to lead its readers to actively pursue creation of those futures through their own efforts.

    So the question I have is whether romance readers are expected to know better, and to treat those idealized worlds hopeful result of our hard work to create them, or whether those idealized worlds are offered simply as escape.

    If the first, then the fiction remains ethical (and by extension interesting to me) precisely because it asks the reader to participate in an act of creation and/or self-evaluation. If the second, the fiction can remain ethical if it acknowledges its own non-realism and asks the reader to consider it only as a model for consideration of idealized concepts.

    I have a hard time believing in a third possibility there–that the reader is expected to see the idealized as real but unattainable. That would be cynicism of the worst sort by the author and publisher, and suggests that their goal is to destroy readers, something that just doesn’t seem likely (where’s the profit potential in despondent readers).

    I may be the odd man out here because I have never considered fiction (or history or journalism) to be anything except a model to be considered, pulled apart, and provisionally accepted as useful in informing my own attempts to understand both myself and the world around me. I may yearn for the unattainable presented in fiction, but I rarely mistake the selective detail of the written word as anything but that–selective detail chosen to provoke thought or communicate fact.

    The only challenge remaining to me is to sift those details and decide how (or if) they can be useful. That’s my job as reader.

    Good stuff, Jonathan. Very thought-provoking (and useful).

  32. Scott, you’re definitely not the odd man out. The screenwriter William Goldman points out that nobody in movies has trouble finding a parking space because that kind of "realism" would waste film and ruin the pacing of the scene. So unless the story is about the frustrations of finding a parking space (as in a memorable [i]Seinfeld[/i] episode), constantly reminding the audience about what a pain finding a parking space is will only distract from the story you want to tell.

  33. Scott,

    Interesting and insightful stuff. Some thoughts in return…

    I’ve always known, of course, that writing simplifies and conventionalizes experience. I wasn’t fully aware of just how much it did so, however, until I found myself hipdeep in the nuts and bolts of writing a novel. I have more sympathy with Henry James now, and his endless efforts to capture in words the subtlety and nearly endless convolutions of experience.

    I like Dave’s idea as you articulate it. (I think I’ve heard some of the same ideas from him, but it was quite a few years ago and I don’t remember them clearly.) It sounds spot-on with respect to the aspect of story that has to do with helping us learn to problem-solve. I also like that you said this was [i]a [/i]purpose of story, not [i]the [/i]purpose of story. On the other hand, there also seem to be other purposes of story that are linked to having stories that address the circumstances of our own lives quite directly and seem to like a story best if it closely mirrors our lives. I’ve spent a while since reading your post trying to wrap my mind around how that relates to Dave’s notion of necessary distance from the reader’s experience, without success. More food for thought.

    "So the question I have is whether romance readers are expected to know better, and to treat those idealized worlds hopeful result of our hard work to create them, or whether those idealized worlds are offered simply as escape." Very nicely said, Scott. I’d be interested in the opinions of others who read romances more than I do…

    Thanks again for engaging in the conversation.

  34. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Why *do* novels tend to tell lies about sex, especially to women? This is one of my pet peeves, actually! CM

    Why *do* novels tend to tell lies about power and adventure, especially to men? This is one of my pet peeves! MJ

    I see a huge difference between these two "lies". (FTR, I have never called a fiction a lie, but I understand its use here because its kids we’re talking about.) The difference is that when the "lies" about power are believed by a boy–and if he acts on them–that boy doesn’t place himself in a position of subjection or vulnerabilty. The boy is in charge; he’s smart; the magic works only for him. Whatever. And he learns very young that waving a talisman he buys at the dollar store doesn’t really do magic.

    But the sex lies that girls read and hear, if they are believed and acted upon, can get them in some pretty awful situations, situations that can seriously wound or, in some cases, destroy them physically and/or emotionally. Literally. Girls don’t get to learn that lies about sexuality are not true at the age of 8 or 9, but in their teen years. Danger.

    I remember how naive I was. This is why we mothers are careful about what our daughters consume and why we keep doling out to them doses of reality. Most of us raising teen daughters now were raised in the age of free love. We heard these lies ad nauseum and have seen how they wounded our friends or have felt the wounds ourselves.

  35. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Also, someone (I can’t see it now) mentioned how they’d like to see books where the teen has a boyfriend but he isn’t the reason for living. I give you Nancy Drew. At least in the older ones, Nancy had a life that certainly didn’t revolve around Ned. She succeeded on her own merits. All hail Nancy!

  36. Scott Parkin says:


    To me they connect on the issue of the reader’s role relative to the text. Part of Rachel’s concern (as I understand it) is that many of the YA romance texts do a couple of objectionable things:

    * They create idealistic depictions of sex, love, and the nature of worthwhile relationships

    * They expose readers to incomplete/dishonest renderings of those ideas with the result that unhealthy/unworthy relationships are depicted as good

    * They do so with an audience that may not be mature enough to distinguish the intentionally overstated conventions of the genre from advocacy of the events depicted

    * The blending of legitimate exploration of issues with the more crass conventions of commercial success (sex on the first page) conflate very different elements and techniques into a single delivery or message

    My meander into Dave’s theories on relevance comes with the idea that where a more mature reader may understand that the conventions of romance are intentionally unrealistic and see that as the artistic distance that makes the rest tolerable, a younger reader may mistake those idealized overstatements as realistic (or at least potentially realistic) portrayals.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a young person I desperately wanted to know what normal looked like, and I was more than happy to artificially adopt the conventions of teen normalcy so that I could at least look normal on the outside even though I knew inside that I was broken and wrong. I remember adopting the idea of what a teenager’s bedroom was supposed to look like from The Partridge Family and went on a spree to steal road signs to I could hang them on the walls–not because they had any meaning, but because they represented a popular depiction of what "normal" teen abnormality looked like.

    I had no idea what normal was, so I sought definition in popular media–not because I thought it was real, but because it was generally accepted; aka, it represented the conventions of the genre (of being a normal teenager).

    In my case, I was acutely aware that conventional and me were very different things, so I never took the written word as real, only as symbolic. I may be slightly atypical in that I have always mistrusted the authenticity (or at least pure accuracy) of texts. As such, it was all wish fulfillment fantasy to me–the only question was whether I shared that wish. When I internalized a text it was on the basis of hope, not belief.

    So for me the question returns to conventions of genre and the relative responsibilities of author and reader to recognize, honor, and interpret those conventions. Unrealistic portrayal is a useful tool so long as the audience understands that it is unrealistic (I’m reading a novel by Dan Simmons right now that features a completely unreliable narrator–a fact that Simmons is using to wonderful effect). It’s the artistic distance that enables safe exploration.

    So I guess my question is whether we believe that young readers are equipped to make that distinction, and what responsibility the author has to make narrative distance so obvious that it becomes intrusive.

    This is clearly several branches away from what Rachel wrote about, but it’s where my mind meandered when considering both her text and the (possibly tangential) discussion deriving from it.

  37. Moriah Jovan says:

    Lisa, when I continue to see broken marriages in and out of the church because married men cannot let go of their World of Warcraft or RPG long enough to support their families– When I see young men so involved in their gaming that they can’t bother to date and marry…

    The argument that romance novels are MORE harmful to girls/women than anything the boys can come up with just doesn’t hold water. May not be a perfect analogy because it’s books versus games, but boys/men have their escapist minefields.

    It appears to me that the discussion is starting to turn heavily on deprecating women’s intelligence and their pastimes–and the people in this thread who seem to be doing it the most are other women.

  38. Scott,

    In the spirit of letting the discussion meander yet further…

    Your comment about generic conventions reminded me of the Harry Potter stories, which (at least in the earlier versions) clearly partake of the tradition of deliberately exaggerated evil adults in British children’s fiction a la James and the Giant Peach (spoofed so nicely in the Lemony Snicket books). The fact is, Harry is living in what (if this were to be taken seriously) is a seriously abusive situation. The ethics are appalling, particularly of Dumbledore’s behavior in putting Harry there–at least, if you’re inhabiting a world of realistic fiction. But not here (until the later books–more on that below).

    One of the interesting things that some fanfiction authors did with the Harry Potter books was reinterpret those events in a way that took them seriously. It was an interesting generic shift. The truly fascinating thing, though, was in Book Seven, where Rowling essentially wound up saying that those fanfiction authors had been [i]right[/i] all along: that Dumbledore had been knowingly condoning child abuse with the intention of making Harry someone who would willingly sacrifice himself for the wizarding world. Really rather appalling. The genre of the last few Harry Potter books is not the same genre as that of the first couple of books.

    In the end, I think Rowling was pretty savvy about that particular ethical dimension. I’m not sure I agree with her, but I think she knew what she was doing–and she largely laid bare to her audience what she had been doing in earlier books. Anyone who isn’t disturbed by Dumbledore’s actions by the end of Book 7 hasn’t been paying attention.

    Bringing this back to the earlier discussion… Yes, genre has its conventions. But a skillful writer can sometimes lay bare those conventions in ways that open them up to question. I’m not saying that every writer needs to do that, but it [i]can[/i] be done–surely just as much in romance as in children’s fantasy.

  39. Lisa and Moriah,

    I agree that male-oriented fiction can be just as damaging as female-oriented fiction (or gender-neutral fiction, for that matter). I think Lisa has pointed out a particular way that YA female fiction is potentially harmful in ways that other types of fiction may not be, but the same could probably be done with pretty much any genre.

    I’m not sure there’s much value in setting up hierarchies of more/less harmful among genres–or more/less virtuous, for that matter. Personally, I take it more or less as a given that any genre has its own characteristic virtues and vices.

  40. TeresaR says:

    Ok, I’m gonna step in now. :) I haven’t read all of this, still scrolling through the comments. But I have to say a few things about romance/YA and formula and all that kind of stuff.

    First, as LDS, and as an Author (and I do not profess to be an LDS author who writes LDS material), I can say a few things here. I’m not going to agree with Moriah on everything, but she does make some valid points.

    I wrote this big long response, then came back up and looked at the rest of the comments, and you know what? None of that was important. It didn’t matter that harlequin isn’t the only publisher out there. It didn’t matter that hooks are not required to be sexual, contrary to posts here.

    what matters was something else I saw.

    * They create idealistic depictions of sex, love, and the nature of worthwhile relationships

    just as Battlesstar Gallactica, in my youth, created idealistic depictions of a father/son relationship, and how space would be so awesome and cool, and how with a push of a button, they could over come everything.

    * They expose readers to incomplete/dishonest renderings of those ideas with the result that unhealthy/unworthy relationships are depicted as good

    If your a good parent, as seen above, you will review the material before your children read it, either by reading it yourself, or checking it out online, and decide if it’s what you want them to read. Don’t judge an entire genre by a few books.

    * They do so with an audience that may not be mature enough to distinguish the intentionally overstated conventions of the genre from advocacy of the events depicted

    Again, see above. Not every book is for every child, YA or adult. Children mature at different levels.

    * The blending of legitimate exploration of issues with the more crass conventions of commercial success (sex on the first page) conflate very different elements and techniques into a single delivery or message

    Let’s get something straight. I’ve never read a book, adult or YA that had sex on the first page. Now if you’re talking Erotica, that’s a whole other animal, if your children are reading erotica, you need to take another look! I don’t know where this thing about sex on the first page came from, but it’s wrong. It’s an out and out lie. Romance books are about developing a relationship. It’s what separates it from say, urban fantasy, where there are often multiple partners and none with a relationship! So if your kids are reading UF, you might wanna look at them closer. Romance is all about the relationship. Sure, some books have it wrong. Some books are more about stalking behavior (Yeah, I didn’t like edward either), but as a young LDS girl, I’d have loved that book to pieces.

    So get your facts straight. At no time have I been in any conference where I was told the hook had to be sexual. Nor was I told it had to be violent. I was just told a book has to have a hook, something to grab a person’s attention right away. I personally like that. Yes, it’s harder as an author to do that in every book. Especially a really deep book, but that doesn’t mean it’s a WRONG method. I’ve never seen a hook that was sexual in any YA book. Even the YA’s that I wouldn’t recommend as YA’s didn’t have sex as their hook. They had vampires or school events, the bully or the chick who was on the cheerleading squad.

    seriously, Moira is right. Romance is not an evil to be looked upon as something destroying women. It’s a valid, educational, and heart warming subgenre of fiction. It tells the story of women who open their hearts. Okay, some of it’s over the top, and no, not everything is designed to be read by young woman. But that doesn’t mean it’s all evil. And yes, men/boys have their problems as well. Boys (And yes, I know it’s mostly boys, but not all) who play their games on the computers to the detriment of the rest of the family is an issue. Just as people who read ANY book to the detriment of their family is an issue.

    Coming down on one genre does not make sense. Because all of one genre is not evil.

    If that’s the case, when we were younger, Battlestar Gallactica should have been boycotted by church members instead of all of us standing in line for hours to get tickets on release day, when the entire ward went as a group. After all it was filled with violence and fighting, discussions of wars and death.

    Remember, all books are not created equal.

    there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy. It’s good for the soul.

  41. Scott Parkin says:


    While you state it a little differently than I would, I tend to agree. That was the primary point of my last comment–that conventions of genre are intentional conceits designed to be understood as such. One of the primary conventions of romance is that these are fantasies, not realistic portrayals.

    What I’m trying to figure out is whether people believe that young readers don’t understand that–in other words, do people believe that young readers are taking the overstated conventions of the genre as realistic?

    In an informal survey of my one teenage daughter, she doesn’t care for YA romance because she finds them fundamentally uninteresting–a fact of her individual personality. When I pushed her on it, she said she didn’t particularly care about the characters or situations, and found that she just wasn’t engaged by the conventions of the genre. She likes different characters, situations, and settings than she has seen in the limited selection of YA romances she’s looked at.

    More importantly, she wasn’t beguiled or confused by the idealized relationships in the one romance she did read. She saw them (as I do) as the way the author chose to tell the story, and not as some deep comment on the nature of relationships. She sees them as no more real than talking mice or the Lorax; her only concern is internal consistency in how the characters are presented.

    I think teens are often smarter and more capable than we give them credit for.

    One point of clarification, though. The bullet list you deconstruct here was my attempt to state other peoples’ concerns, not a list of my own concerns. I may well have misrepresented those issues; because they are not mine, I can only offer what I think other people have said.

    As such, please don’t take my outsider’s attempt to condense other peoples’ thoughts as a fair representation of those thoughts.

  42. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]What I’m trying to figure out is whether people believe that young readers don’t understand that–in other words, do people believe that young readers are taking the overstated conventions of the genre as realistic?[/b][/quote]

    I can only speak for myself, and I may not be the best example. However…

    I cut my little 11-year-old teeth on the big "bodice rippers" of the late 70s and early 80s. I didn’t really understand much of what was going on sexually then. They were historicals. Much adventure and derring-do. Powerful women doing powerful things. I wanted to be powerful like that, but I also knew that was in a vacuum and what I DIDN’T know was how to apply that to my life. So I carried on and enjoyed the adventures and derring-do and then, when I finally understood what all else was going on, enjoyed that too.

    Fast forward to 15, and I had left that behind and gone with Stephen King and V.C. Andrews and John Jakes (that was my Civil War period, I think). If it was a doorstopper I read it.

    In between all this hodgepodge, though, were the Sunfire line of historical YA romances http://snurl.com/u8etu

    and Silhouette’s First Love line of YA romances (long since defunct) http://snurl.com/u8eu5

    and Bantam’s Sweet Dreams line of YA romances. (The very first one was AMAZING. http://snurl.com/u8eth. Spoiler: The boyfriend is terminal and actually dies at the end. It was amazing because it was so REAL, but…not. I mean, I wasn’t going to be housesitting a $3M mansion with a to-die-for-pool and killer wardrobe anytime soon, right?)

    All very sweet, all very church-appropriate. No tongue kissing.

    This was way before Sweet Valley High (by which time I was in college and had ceased to read for pleasure).

    Anyway, all that said, I didn’t have any expectation that these could be my lives. I certainly ENJOYED housesitting that $3M house and swimming in that to-die-for pool and having the killer wardrobe, along with the heroine, but I closed the book and went back to my boring ol’ life.

    In short, I wasn’t stupid enough to think ANY of the lies applied to my life in any way.

  43. TeresaR says:

    Lisa, but Nancy Drew isn’t a romance, which is the topic of this discussion. The entire point of romance is for the relationship to be a pretty big part of that character’s world, just as Nancy’s whole world revolved around thefts, murders, and such.

    And Scott, my apologies, you are absolutely right. I did realize after I posted that you were paraphrasing what others had said, to ensure you were clear on the issues. My comments stand, but not necessarily directed at your post specifically. :)

    And you are right. Teens are smarter than we give them credit for, and while your daughter may not like the current YA books out, I’ve found some to be very stimulating (of the mind, not the body), and very interesting. I’ve found others to be overstimulating in both. LOL. But, as a youngster, I remember specifcially checking books out of the school library and being shocked at the content. I knew what they were and what they weren’t.

    No one monitored my reading, and for that I’m happy. I had very little control over my first 18 years of life, and reading was an escape. And that’s what it’s always been. a Fantasy world I can visit when I want to.

    Would I have read YA romance had it existed at that day and age? You know what: Probably. Would I have been able to separate fantasy from reality – you betcha.

    I was raised on Dark Shadows and Star Trek….. if I can’t tell fantasy from fiction by the time I was a Young adult, then I was in big trouble!

  44. Moriah Jovan says:

    Oh! To answer the actual question! *headdesk*

    "Do people believe that young readers are taking the overstated conventions of the genre as realistic?"

    I think they do. I think children/teens aren’t given enough credit for being not stupid.

    My kids are 4 and 6. They both know what pretending is and they do A LOT of it. They also know that mama has "imaginary friends" and that those friends don’t exist, that they’re all in my head, and that I write books about them. My daughter will read my son a book and say, "That’s not real, Calvin. It’s just pretend." [Calvin's not his name, but it might as well be.]

    So, yeah, I do think kids aren’t given enough credit for knowing what’s pretend and what’s not.

  45. Scott Parkin says:

    My reading experience was the same–no one monitored my reading and I went fairly far and wide (including reading The Story of O when I was about nine–most of it went well over my head–and Ian Fleming’s James Bond books at the age of eleven, just a few weeks after I read Roots).

    Oddly, I mostly missed out on YA literature. With the exception of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile science fiction novels I pretty much went straight into the general fiction market the summer after I turned ten. I vaguely recall reading a recommended title called The Unmaking of Rabbit, then I read Call of the Wild, then White Fang, then moved into general science fiction.

    As such, I honestly have no meaningful experience with YA fiction, and as such have no idea what the assumptions or conventions of the category are or how they compare to general market fiction. Some of the recent stuff I’ve read (Holes, The Giver) struck me as essentially the same thing as regular fiction, just with younger characters.

    So I’m working from a standpoint of complete ignorance when I ask questions about anything regarding YA fiction. Since my own experience (much like yours) was deep immersion at a very young age in titles intended for adults, I struggle to imagine how one distinguishes YA from regular fare.

    The general tendency to become immersed in fiction and to prefer it to mundane life is relatively universal and doesn’t seem age-limited. Unrealistic portrayals are simply the standard (I’m watching FlashForward on Hulu as I write, and I’m amused at the huge and artistically decorated homes these FBI agents all seem to live in), and are part of the fantasy of all fiction.

    The question of moral frameworks or assumptions in fiction is a different one, but I tend to agree that young people are quite capable of understanding poor choices as such even when couched in sparkling prose or vivid imagery.

    Having said that, I think there’s much to be said about open and frank discussions about what titles mom and dad will supply versus what titles my kids will find on their own, and why. For those parents who object to any content in fiction who choose to lay out ground rules on what constitutes decent content, I can only offer support and approval. Setting a standard and making sure your children understand what it is any why the lines are drawn as they are is pure goodness as far as I’m concerned–wherever those lines are drawn.

    To Rachel’s original point, it sounds like modern kids no longer need to go to the general market aisle to be exposed to fairly direct and explicit content–which is a shame. I like the idea of an age-defined literature that chooses not to go certain places, and that chooses to keep idealism as a central focus. The mainstream literature will always be there dealing with its heavy issues; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with concept-driven fiction that simply chooses to steer clear of sex or explicit violence.

    Some bemoan the over-categorization of fiction, but I tend to appreciate it as a tool to help readers self-select. The literary omnivores will never be daunted by the divisions, and the wary reader will be comforted by the clear promise–so long as the lines are honored and the promises kept.

    Horse dead now… ;)

  46. "In 2005, males ages 15 to 19 were four times more likely to commit suicide, six and a half times more likely to be victims of homicide, and nine times more likely to be involved in a firearm-related death than were females of the same age." I’d say the "lies" society tells to boys are a lot more dangerous.

    Though I’d bet that the dysfunctional behavior of either sex has a strong [i]negative[/i] correlation to the total amount of reading they do (regardless of genre).

    When I was in high school, what Moira Redmond calls the "dreadlit" craze was taking off. In English classes, we were force-fed drearily "realistic" stories about kids "like us," which somehow meant suburban kids whose lives SUCKED. I can almost believe this was a nefarious plot to get boys to hate reading.

    "Tales of a Seventh-Grade Scare Tactic: The New Gothicism of Children’s Books," by Moira Redmond: http://slate.msn.com/id/2066314

  47. jendoop says:

    Reading the comments as they come in I am surprised at the denial going on about the effects of reading on youth. It seems like on the one hand writers (not necessarily those in this discussion) want to ‘make a difference’ and ‘impact youth’ yet on the other hand they cry that their writing doesn’t need to measure up to moral standards because it doesn’t make a difference or impact youth.

    Of course what we read impacts us. It is blindness for adults or youth to say that what the content of a book is doesn’t effect them. Then why read it? The scriptures are the ultimate example.

    It’s similar to the argument that advertising makes – Ads don’t require moral boundaries because what they do doesn’t really effect people. Then they spend millions of dollars to not effect people.

  48. Nobody here is denying that narratives don’t have effects. The interaction between the work and the reader that Scott describes is deep and profound. What is at issue, rather, is the assumption that such effects are unidirectional and reducible to a single variable that can be categorically assigned to a genre and its readers.

    I reject the solipsistic contention that what affects or even offends me must necessarily affect or offend everybody else the same way. Advertisers spend amazing amounts of money to influence very tiny segments of the viewing audience, knowing that even those affected will be affected in highly unpredictable ways.

    I mean, how much money and marketing resources were spent coming up with "iPad"?

    Or put another way, I operate under the conviction that the "willing suspension of disbelief" is, in fact, conscious and willing, and the human will is not a one-size-fits-all cause/effect logic switch.

    But again, when it comes to questions of social welfare, let’s not choke on gnats. When push comes to literacy rate shove, the biggest fault lines will be found between those children who read and those who don’t. Getting the non-readers to read is far more important than fretting about what the readers read.

    Besides, good luck getting the readers to stop reading what they like to read. If scolding and moral superiority worked, romance would have died a long time ago. Better to respect the reader’s tastes and choices and offer the "same only better," recognizing that they already know the difference better than you.

  49. Scott Parkin says:

    As Eugene suggests (and our own varied experiences seem to reinforce) an active reader will find titles of interest regardless of parental controls.

    But I tend to agree with Rachel that there seem to be fewer and fewer safe havens, fewer categories of story that stay clear of ethical ambiguity, active sexuality, or explicit violence. YA used to be one of those safe havens, but the last several decades have seen writers attempting to deal with "important issues" encroaching into ever younger literary categories with subjects (arguably) better reserved for older or more mature readers.

    The problem is that when some of us call for a reserved genre (or at least marketing category) for a "clean" YA, we’re decried as parochial or regressive or weak-minded, and I don’t think that’s right or fair.

    That is not to suggest that any category be banned, but rather than a few categories be protected. Cover the gamut and let the reader decide–but cover the entire gamut, not just the more aggressive end.

  50. Susan C. says:

    So, okay, romances, adventure–sure it is escapist fiction and kids know it isn’t real. But attitudes are shaped by what we have exposure to. As a parent, I’m not crazy about my kids vicariously breaking any of the big ten–stealing cars on Grand Theft Auto, spending a steamy afternoon under the sheets with Fabio, offing people as part of the mafia, etc. It doesn’t mean that I think they are going to necessarily follow suit, but it all feeds into their behavior on some level.

    I noticed that the lastest Disney movie, the Princess and the Frog, does not have the usual helpless female waiting to be rescued. Did Cinderella and Snow White influence a generation of young girls to sit around waiting for their prince to come? Of the twenty or so girls I grew up wth, class of ’74, I was the only one who went to college. When I was 25 and unmarried, what was it the church ladies said to me? "Someday your prince will come." Perhaps that is why I am looking for alternatives to The Disney Princesses for my granddaughters.

    So sure, Cowboys and Indians have been around forever, but that doesn’t mean I let my son have the excessively violent Mortal Combat video games. Every parent draws the lie in a different place. Likewise, Elvis/Edward/hearthrob de jour will always be around in some incarnation as well. There has to be a happy medium between total parental censorship and "I’m just glad she’s reading." Romance books are written so that the reader vicariously experiences the romance and hard core sexy passages are porn for women. The Harlequin romances that are the "clean" versions, usually just mean that the act is not completely consummated. Things still get pretty steamy before they decide not to give in to their passions.

    We don’t have a way to meaure the impact of various media on our children. Is a whole generation more disrespectful to their parents after years of Bart Simpson? Perhaps Donna Reed vacuuming in a shirtwaist dress and pearls was as damaging to women (or more) than Raquel Welch in her cave woman duds. (I know I’m dating myself here, but oh well.) Has Miley Cyrus influenced the behavior of young girls? I used to be disgusted at the content of CSI but now I watch it regularly with my husband. How much exposure does it take before we become desensitized to things or have our attitudes affected?

    Kids hear about sex at school, they have friends doing it, tv and advertising is full of it. We have to exercise some control in the few areas in which we still have some influence. I think awareness and communication as Rachel first mentioned are key. I gave each of my granddaughters a bookcase for their first birthday. My plan is to fill them up. Right now we are safe with The Berenstain Bears and Elmo. I’m hoping to offer them good choices and turn them on to a love of reading. My mother read out loud to us, and I later learned that she skipped parts of some novels when I read them laer to myself.

    Just a few more thoughts. There are no easy answers, no one right way to do it, but as parents and grandparents, we have to be vigilant because all the other security guards are asleep on the job.

    Susan C.

  51. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I haven’t read all the comments between my second and the end. Only skimmed ‘em. But golly, I want to apologize if again I came off as saying romance is bad for girls. I didn’t. In fact, I asked to hear positive experiences and Morijah touched on that. I’d like to hear more.

    My second comment was about "lies." Again, I don’t like the word in relation to fiction, but someone else used it; I repeated it because of that. I do mean distortions of reality that hit at the young reader at a vulnerable time. I don’t believe for a minute that all romances create a problem. Some may. I read sex scenes as a child and saw sex on TV that seriously warped my view as the hormones kicked in. That is where a parent needs to be cautious.

    I never wanted to set up some kind of competition between what kind of lit is worse–boys’ v girls’ lit. Its seems to me someone else here did that. I responded to that. But I will say 2 things: An adult male who becomes somehow addicted to video games doesn’t get my sympathy nearly as readily as the 15 year old Mormon girl I visited in the psych ward because she drank anti-freeze after agreeing to sex with a boy she’d just met because, as she said, it seemed like an experience she should have. I’m certainly not saying this happened because of romance lit. Obviously what happened to her is far from romantic, but the notion of love at first sight, the notion of physical love equating with emotional love did. Haven’t a clue if she ever read any romance, but I do know, because I know her well, that many of her misconceptions did come through stories she consumed–film, tv, that sort of thing.

    I’m not about to say Columbine was caused by Marilyn Manson or exposure to games. Nor will I ever say girls submit stupidly because of romance fiction or TV shows. But the kids that do get in whatever kind of trouble they get into tend, it seems to me, to do so because they believed one type of distortion or another. Parents have the responsibility to watch out for that.

    I’m rather confused by the animosity I’m sensing here. I think Rachel brought up a wonderful point for discussion. My apologies if what I mentioned initially brought up in some a feeling of being picked on. I need to follow Scott and Jonathan’s example and weigh my words more carefully.

  52. Moriah Jovan says:

    Scott said:

    [quote][b]To Rachel’s original point, it sounds like modern kids no longer need to go to the general market aisle to be exposed to fairly direct and explicit content–which is a shame.[/b][/quote]

    I can agree with that 100%. If that was Rachel’s point, then no problems here and I misunderstood her post. YA lit didn’t really exist when I was growing up (or if it did, I didn’t know about it) and so the whole YA thing is rather mystifying to me.

    I agree with those who want YA lit that’s clean, and Scott’s observation that further subdividing the genre would assist with self-selection. In general, I’m for more diversity, not less.


    Lisa, my irritation was not because of anything you said. I tend to be abrupt when typing posts so I don’t lose my point (or my mind). But comments like these:

    [quote][b]Why *do* novels tend to tell lies about sex, especially to women? This is one of my pet peeves, actually![/b][/quote]


    [quote][b]porn for women[/b][/quote]

    effectively shut down the discussion, and reveal a vast ignorance of the topic that is being discussed.

    Jonathan’s and Scott’s remarks were essential for helping me to understand better where they are and what they are trying to understand. I shared my experiences in the hopes of helping to further that understanding. When I say novels lie (and I didn’t confine it to romance), I was stating a fact as I see it, and was NOT a judgment statement.

    But some people took the opportunity to jump on it with both feet as it pertains ONLY to romance, disregarding everything else I said (and took it even a bit further than that).

    Do you want to know what lie *I* have a serious problem with? The lies that the books from DB my church friends read that made it clear that if YW did everything right and married in the temple, they’d have happy marriages and blissful lives. That’s a lie, and IMO, a more insidious one because it’s backed up in YW every week, and the YW are encouraged to believe the lie, that, in fact, it CAN apply to their lives. Because it can’t, any more than any other novel, except that because of our cultural construct, it’s FAR more believable. (I don’t know if those types of books are being published currently, so I can’t speak to now.)

    In any case, Lisa, my irritation is not because of you. Or the original post. Or most of the people in this thread. It may be that what happened here is as Jonathan said in a different thread, that everybody eventually gets to feeling beleaguered.

  53. jendoop says:


    (sorry for the threadjack) The lie that you have a problem with is being addressed as the YW who believed it are growing up and finding that it isn’t true. It takes time for those truths to come out in the wash so to speak. The understanding is there in most active adult members, but it isn’t always effectively communicated to youth.

    Also that belief can be perpetuated as an unspoken belief. People may come to believe it without ever expressing it to enable it’s correction. I have heard many leaders recently correct this mistaken belief over the pulpit. It’s a long road, but we’re getting there.

  54. As for Y/A alternatives to "Disney Princesses" that feature strong, creative and resourceful female protagonists, I can suggest the following anime:

    [i]Whisper of the Heart
    Kiki’s Delivery Service
    Howl’s Moving Castle
    Tweeny Witches[/i] (series)
    [i]Porco Rosso
    Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind[/i]

    The first two I would categorize as appropriate for all ages. The second two are more in [i]Harry Potter[/i] territory. [i]Nausicaa[/i] gets pretty intense at times, akin perhaps to [i]The Empire Strikes Back.[/i] [i]Porco Rosso[/i] is a "Lost Generation" cross between [i]To Have and Have Not[/i] and [i]Casablanca,[/i] and includes a teenage girl who’s an airplane mechanic. Except for [i]Tweeny Witches,[/i] they’re Studio Ghibli productions distributed in the U.S. by Disney.

    And for a fantasy action/adventure heroine who is a competent, skilled and mature [i]woman[/i] (and who doesn’t run around in skimpy outfits), I highly recommend [i]Moribito[/i] (series).

  55. Thanks everyone for your comments. I’ve been awed with the insights expressed here, and I regret that I didn’t have more time to respond or review the posts at more length. I appreciate those of you who stepped in and carried the conversation. Though I finally turned in my newest manuscript yesterday, another deadline lurks around the corner, and I have to stay focused. Once my children are out of school for the day, it’s all over.

    I do have a bit of an epilogue to “What’s Up with YA Literature?” Two weeks ago I attended writers conference in San Francisco where many national agents, editors, and authors gave presentations. I was interested when all of them concurred that everything seen in adult literature was being published and sought by agents and publishers in the teen market. Everything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>