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.
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.