On Censoring and YA

Photo credit: CCAC North Library on Flickr
I was a pretty sheltered kid growing up. 

Though I moved around a bit, I always lived in safe, upper-middle/middle class areas. I had a religious (Christian) upbringing and went to church almost every Sunday. It’s something I am, actually, very much grateful for, even if my worldview has shifted quite a bit since Sunday school times.

That being said, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Largely because of that upbringing, I didn’t really read many books with cursing or sex as a young teen. (I did have a healthy dose of violence in my books, largely thanks to my Ted Dekker obsession, but that’s another matter entirely). The first book I read with an f-bomb in it was The Catcher in the Rye my sophomore year of high school. I remember rather vividly coming across the first f***—it was followed by a nervous smile as I glanced around and thought, we’re allowed to read this in school? 

Oh little, sheltered Ava. You were so adorable.

Come to think of it, we read Brave New World that year, too. Also shocking to my sheltered mind, though for entirely different reasons. Sophomore year was an interesting school-reading year. Anyway.

Despite my relatively sheltered upbringing, I did not, shockingly, learn vulgarity from Holden Caulfield. I’d heard cussing in movies, in music, from my peers, from my peers, oh and did I mention from my peers? I mean, I had a bilingual best friend in middle school who tricked me into saying curse words in Swedish—after all, the forbidden is interesting and fun to kids (and adults, really). You can’t go to a public high school (or middle school, for that matter) without hearing all about sex, drugs and students expanding their vocabulary to a couple choice four-letter words.

My point? Sex, drugs, cursing, and yes, even violence, are all part of a teenager’s life. Exposure is inevitable. And trying to imply that those things aren’t a part of the average teen’s life by pushing for a censoring of YA, quite frankly, is disingenuous.

Literature isn’t about escaping reality, not really—it’s about diving into reality in a whole new way. Maybe that reality isn’t necessarily the same as yours, but that’s also part of the point. It’s about exposure to different world views, different lives, different experiences that you yourself haven’t (or can’t) experience. It’s about a deep, human connection; it’s about reality reflected back at us in a way we’d never considered before.

It’s not about hiding.

It’s not about pretending the world is something it isn’t.

It’s definitely not about sheltering.

Here’s the thing, I think it’s important to represent all aspects of teen life—and yes, that includes the swearing, the sex, the drugs and the violence. Because whether we like it or not, teens are swearing, are having sex, are using drugs, are dealing with violence on one level or another—whether it’s a heated argument or something much more dangerous. And no, not all teens do all of the above (or even one of the above). But the point is there are teens that do—a hell of a lot of them—and don’t they deserve to see their experiences, their struggles and their realities reflected in fiction as well? Don’t they deserve to know they’re not alone? That their struggles aren’t impossible to overcome? That they can each have happy endings, that regardless of what they are or aren’t involved in, they’re people who deserve to be loved and respected? That they aren’t somehow lesser for their decisions or circumstances?

I don’t know, you guys, but it just seems insanely important to me.

I understand wanting to protect your kid from the world, I do. And one day, when I’m a parent, I’ll probably understand it even better, but for now, I sympathize.

But here’s the thing: censoring literature, whether it’s by banning books or trying to keep your kids from reading certain novels? It’s not going to do much of anything, except maybe limit their ability to empathize with people unlike them.

Barring bubble-boy over-the-top-type sheltering (which I really don’t think is going to do anyone any favors), teens are going to be exposed one way or the other. Maybe it’ll be through their peers, maybe it’ll be from a book, or movie, or TV show, or video game they watch or read or play under the radar. But one way or the other, your sheltered kid is going to face reality, and you know? They’ll probably be okay.

What do you think? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
"Literature isn’t about escaping reality, not really—it’s about diving into reality in a whole new way." (Click to tweet)  
.@Ava_Jae shares why she thinks NOT censoring YA is so important. What do you think? (Click to tweet


petebauerblog.com said...

My wife and I home schooled our kids for many years until they entered high school. We didn't do it to hide them away, but the allow them to accelerate their learning. It worked. My daughter graduated college two years early and my son is kicking butt in a college prep high school. Our entire goal was to prepare them for the real world.

That being said, there were many things we knew they were being exposed to by their friends that we didn't find acceptable in our house. We never sheltered our kids, but talked to them about choices their friends or stars were making (btw - Lindsay Lohan was a boon for parents wanting to talk to their kids about bad decisions). We honestly answered any question our kids had, no matter the subject.

Just as not all kids are physically the same at 14 to play sports or mentally the same to be on the deans list, children are not all the same in their sexual maturity either. No one will know when their child is ready to digest information better than parents, so not all reservations is an attempt to shield children than it is to make sure they are able to understand it in a healthy way.

Yes, we knew a few home school parents who were creating emotional bunkers to keep their kids in, but they were the rare case.

When my kids entered high school they would say, "Dad, they say/do/try those things in school" and I would say, "That doesn't make it okay in our home." I agree with you that parents shouldn't shelter, but I don't think they should abandon their responsibilities to raising their children, introducing various subjects, to institutions or groups that don't know the child as well as you do.

Parents should be doing their best to educate their children on the root causes for their friends making crappy decisions, instead of accepting that "Just because other kids do it, we should make that the new standard."

At the end of the day, you're right, our kids are going to be surrounded by teens making bad decisions. I think the best thing we can do as parents is to raise our children so they recognize them as bad decisions and hope they choose to avoid them more often than not.

Great article. Thanks.

Ava Jae said...

Hi Pete,

Great response! Really. I actually agree with you on several points here, but I want to start by saying that I didn't mean to imply that all people who homeschool their kids are attempting to hide them away or anything like that. I think homeschooling is an awesome alternative for parents who can handle it. :)

Anyway! I also agree that just because kids are exposed to certain situations or behaviors doesn't mean you have to accept that they're a standard or acceptable within your home–for example, just because lots of teens do drugs doesn't mean I'd condone doing drugs. I'd just argue that just because doing drugs is unhealthy and dangerous doesn't mean it should be banned from books, because it's an (unfortunate) reality. Hopefully that makes sense.

I also agree that not all kids are on the same maturity level at various ages, so I can totally see that argument and I absolutely get parents wanting to be aware of what their kids are reading (something, I imagine, I will absolutely want to do when I'm in that situation).

Looking over the last few paragraphs, I'm finding I agree with everything again—so I think we're actually on the same page. I absolutely think it's important for parents to raise their kids to recognize bad decisions, like you said, and hopefully understand the world and how to navigate it in a healthy way.

Thanks for such a thoughtful response!

Heather said...

I know this is about book censorship, and I totally love most of the points you made, but it also reminds me of something an author I follow said once. It was after that event where the statement was made "Adults should not read YA" because it was degrading and pointless, or something along those lines. The author, A.C. Gaughen, took the time to write a post and said there is one really good reason adults should read YA: it shows that they care about the problems teens have to deal with.

And so you say swearing, sex, and drugs, and those are kind of universal topics. They matter, because they matter to teens. So I guess, in the end, I'm not just against sheltering, but I'm against not caring, like you said. There are a crap-ton of issues teens have to deal with and suggesting that adults should not care about those or teenagers should be kept away from those is angering. Which is why it is good to live in a country where we can publish and read all sorts of things—even if our parents do not approve.

Ava Jae said...

That's such a great point from A.C. Gaughen! I love that–thanks for sharing!

I think I maybe accidentally came off a little heavy-handed on the sheltering bit, which is probably another argument on its own, but you're right—I really meant it in terms of book censorship. So yes. I just think representation of all topics, whether it's sex, drugs or something else is important because there are teens who deal with it and they deserve to see themselves in literature, too.

Briana said...

As someone who also had a sheltered upbringing, I think reading is one of the best ways for teenagers to gather information on the world around them--whether that knowledge is practical, technical, cultural, or an entirely different category. It saddens me when parents and other people in authority try to limit what their children are reading. I know a lot of parents worry that their children are going to rebel, but the best way to prevent your kid from running off the rails is to give him or her a little freedom to explore. My parents let me read whatever I wanted to growing up, and I can't thank them enough for that.


George McNeese said...

I feel like I missed out on a lot of things from living a sheltered life. Books were not the issue, though. We lived in a nice neighborhood, but the surrounding area was tough. My mom did what she could to shield my brother and I from the violence of the city. Though, she was liberal in what we could watch and our choice of friends, to a degree.

As a writer, I try to create stories I feel readers want to read, even if it's for a more mature audience. And that is where I have a conundrum. I don't feel the need to curse just because my character is foul and a rebel-rouser, or insert a sexy scene just because. However, there is the issue of authenticity. There are times where the story calls for it, so I need to find a way to compromise or change the course of the story.

Living a sheltered life has its positives and negatives. Regardless, it shouldn't influence my writing to an extent. I shouldn't be afraid to write what I want.

jezzell19 said...

Fantastic post, Ava. Ultimately, I do believe parents have the right to govern what their children read. (Whether I think that is a practical and effective way to parent older teens is MY opinion, and I hope they'd respect that as I respect their authority in their own homes. :) And I totally respect the somewhat newer notion of actively working to preserve your children's childhood by limiting their exposure to certain things. (We, as a society, are in such a damn hurry to make everyone grownups it seems. Kids need a chance to be innocent and live in a protected world--even if that's not what they're eventually going to walk into.)

However, there's always a tendency to want to apply our own rules and preferences to the entire herd. For lots of reasons. It's easier to parent if you're not constantly worried your children are going to be exposed to things you don't morally (or otherwise) approve of. It's easier to live if we all play by the same rules. And so on.

But as you said, that's not what is best for everyone, even if it's best for you and your family. There are kids in the world (too darn many, actually) who don't have a person in their lives to teach them the important lessons , like how to grieve for love or life lost. Or how to cope with their first sexual encounter--particularly if it isn't a positive experience. There's no guidance or role model for them to look to when drugs and alcohol are put in front of them.

Books have filled that role for so many, and it would be a shame to take that away simply because it wasn't what we wanted for our own children.

Ava Jae said...

I totally agree that reading is a fantastic way for teens (and people in general, really) to learn about the world. Reading allows us to step into different viewpoints and see the world from different perspectives, which I think is incredibly important.

I'm also thankful that my parents never actively banned any book exposure (though, come to think of it, I didn't really read much YA until my late teens, but that was my choice). At any rate, I think there's so much to be learned from reading and censoring (especially on a large, book-banning scale) can really limit some of those perspectives.

Ava Jae said...

I find that really interesting. Honestly, as I said in the post, I'm grateful for the way I grew up and I don't really mind the sheltered-ness I experienced—I just don't think it's necessary to apply it to all books out there and censor YA in general, which is kind of what I was trying to get at.

I don't think living a sheltered life should negatively affect your writing in any way either, and I also agree that you absolutely shouldn't be afraid to write what you want to write. :)

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, E.J.! I actually agree on your first point—I think it's absolutely within a parent's right to decide what their kid is exposed to at least to a point. (I mean, eventually the kid is going to grow up and make their own decisions, but that's a whole 'nother matter and not really the point of the post). I also think, especially with younger kids, that there's totally nothing wrong with preserving that innocence so-to-speak.

I think the point I was trying to make with the "kids are going to get exposed" argument wasn't so much that parents shouldn't bother even trying to protect their kids or anything like that—it was that chances are, books aren't going to be the tipping point of exposure. From what I've seen at least, usually by the time kids start picking up books with questionable material (questionable, as in sometimes banned), they've already been exposed through school, movies, video games, what have you. Though I suppose there could always be hypothetical exceptions?

Anyway, I really love your points in the last two paragraphs—sadly, as you said, not every kid has supportive people in their lives to teach them those lessons, and for many, books can be that gateway. And that, to me, is something so precious and important that the thought of losing it isn't one I want to see realized.

George McNeese said...

I agree. Being sheltered shouldn't affect how one writes. I was trying to correlate how one was raised to experience. Everyone spouts the old adage, "write what you know." I was recently given that advice from a family member. While writing from experience can help, it can also be a hinderence if you don't a lot of what can be considered "adventurous experience." That was my point.

As it relates to censorship, you are right. The genre exists because what teenagers and young adults go through is real and it's not pretty. It can be tough. NO matter what parents do to shelter their kids, they're going to seek it out eventually. Parents cannot follow their children to school and back. Exposure is inevitable. And YA fiction reflects that. So censoring the genre is pointless.

Jason Burns said...

"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it."-Mark Twain

Ava Jae said...

Ha! I like that.

Suzanne McKenna Link said...

Kids are exposed to much more than what most parents are willing to acknowledge… but how much and what type is a parenting issue. I personally never wanted my children to be exposed to instances of gratuitous sex or violence, in literature or movies, before they were old enough to grasp what it was or at least form some type of opinion on it. That said, I don't think we can truly shelter kids from the realities of life around them, only try to counter this exposure with a sturdy introspective and solid foundation.

Reading about violence or sexual situations (not erotica) in true forms of literature is, in my opinion, actually a great way for young people to learn about situations they have not yet been exposed to. Most times the author leads the reader to contemplate the acts in an affecting, yet safe way.

Ava Jae said...

I think the whole sheltering/parenting debate is another matter entirely and I can definitely see both sides on that one. As far as censoring lit goes though, I agree entirely that literature can be a fantastic way for people to learn about situations they haven't encountered themselves in a safe environment. It can also be a great way to get people thinking about situations and circumstances that they may not have otherwise even considered, which to me, is fantastic.

Ava Jae said...

I see what you mean, and for that reason I tend to interpret "write what you know" more as "draw from your experience." But that absolutely doesn't mean you can't (or shouldn't) draw from inspiration that isn't related to actual in-life experience (I mean, that would completely rule out most fiction, when you think about it).

Braden Russell said...

Good thoughts, Ava! I was homeschooled all the way through twelfth grade, and although the stereotype of the uber-sheltered, painfully unsocialized homeschooler is more or less a myth, I did know my fair share of families who /did/ fall under that umbrella. Watching my fellow homeschoolers as we've grown up together, I've seen that the ones with heavily censored childhoods who were forbidden every PG-13 movie and were trained to blush at every Hell or Damn were the ones that grew up, fled the nest, and ended up an addict or single parent. Sheltering children from bad stuff isn't necessarily a bad thing, but sheltering them from Life is a really bad thing.

That being said, a pet peeve of mine is reading YA stories by authors (especially ones in their teens/early tweens) who throw in bucketloads of pointless explicit content because it makes them feel like big boys and girls. I like dark gritty stories that make me hurt for the characters and feel like I've learned something in the process. I dislike stories that are disgusting and random and smell like poop for no good reason.

Glynis Jolly said...

I've heard of the snowflake approach as the star-burst approach. My household is on a tight budget so the Scrivener is out. However, I did download yWriter 4. It does have a story board. I'm just not sure if I can use it because moving scenes around on it actually requires two hands. One of mine just won't help. I'll have to see if I can figure out a 'go-around' for this task. Otherwise I'll have to find some index cards to use as flash cards.

Ava Jae said...

Index cards work really well if you can't do the digital stuff. I definitely recommend it!

Ava Jae said...

Great points, Braden! Yeah, I think the whole sheltering argument is probably a separate (and pretty complicated) issue with valid points on both sides.

As far as overly explicit YA books, I can't say I've come across any (yet), but I don't doubt that they're out there. There's definitely a fine line between what's necessary for the story and what's excessive, and sometimes it can be a little difficult to toe that line successfully.

Braden Russell said...

Well, I probably should clarify that I haven't really read any published YA novels that I would say had excessive explicit content... mostly stories I have critiqued that are written by angsty young authors who think they're being all groundbreaking and stuff by pushing the envelope. :P

Ava Jae said...

Ahhhhh. That makes sense. Ha ha.

pd workman said...

I've also found writing a synopsis before first draft very helpful. And I'm with the others on the snowflake method. I don't generally follow the whole thing, just the first five or so steps, but it works very well for me.

Ava Jae said...

After doing this experiment, I can definitely see how the snowflake method would be helpful. That's something I'll have to look into a little more in the future...

pd workman said...

I have changed from mostly a pantster to mostly a plotter over the past few years. I think that a synopsis would be possible for a pantster; but maybe more of a "back cover" synopsis than a "full plot" synopsis. So, rather than the Snowflake-type synopsis where you outline the premise, three-act or three-difficulty structure, and conclusion, it would be more of an open premise. A statement about your character or what drew you into writing the story, the conflict that your character is facing, and a question.

"Joe Smith is a middle-aged garbage man who just found the key to happiness in Steve Jobs' trash. But will it really get him the cute redhead down the street, or did Steve know something Joe doesn't when he binned it?"

Gives you focus, sets up the conflict, but doesn't dictate what's going to happen or how the story is going to end.

Even while pantsing, I sometimes knew how a story was eventually going to end, just not what would happen before that. Some writers swear by writing the last sentence before anything else. I guess it all depends on your process.

Kaitlin Hillerich said...

This makes me feel a little better about having a prologue in my WIP since it doesn't fall into any of these categories. I hate prologues and never use them because as you said, they're usually unnecessary (and pretty cliche).

I've been wrestling hard over my prologue because it's a scene from my MC's childhood where her parents are murdered, and it's that event that sets the story in motion.

Normally I would just reveal this background info throughout the story, but in this case I felt showing it was necessary because there is something important in that scene that will come into play later. I don't want readers to feel cheated by not setting it up. Do you think that's a decent justification for a prologue?

Ava Jae said...

Maybe? Honestly it's really hard for me to say without reading it. I'd say trade with CPs and see what they think.

Caryn Caldwell said...

Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. And I love how you didn't tell people to banish ALL prologues, but gave some clear, concise advice about which ones should generally be avoided.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Caryn! I definitely think prologues can sometimes work (for example, the prologue in Shadow in Bone by Leigh Bardugo works really well, IMO), so I definitely wouldn't recommend banishing them all! It's just important to make sure they're 150% needed. :)

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