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MIND MELD: Is Young Adult SF/F Too Explicit?

A recent post by Nancy Kress concerning the mature themes of current young adult science fiction struck a chord with my own observations over the last few years. Namely, that the fiction being marketed to today’s young adults deals with adult themes more than the young adult fiction from yesteryear. This seemed like a good topic to throw at some of the people in the field:

Q: It seems that more and more, fiction marketed as “Young Adult” deals with mature themes. Has it crossed a line? Is young adult sf/f is too explicit?

[UPDATE: See also, a belated answer from Orson Scott Card.]

Steven Gould
Steven Gould‘s first science fiction story, “The Touch of Their Eyes,” was published in 1980 in Analog. Since then, his stories have appeared in Analog, Amazing, Asimov’s and various anthologies. His novels include Jumper (which was recently released as a major motion picture), Wildside, Greenwar (co-written with his wife, Laura J. Mixon), Blind Waves, Reflex and Griffins Story. Besides his own website, Steven is one of the group bloggers at Eat Our Brains.

Short Answer: No.

Long Answer:

I have a dear friend, a hospital pediatrician, who told me her father had explained that “sex is wet and messy.” This kept her from experimenting with same for nearly two years longer than she would have otherwise. This, in of itself, would justify more explicitness. My book (it’s all about me, Me, ME!), Jumper, was on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Banned Books List (1990-1999) because it essentially said, “If one of your parent’s is an active alcoholic bad things may result” (page 2) and “If you run away from home you may become the target of sexual predation” (page 9).

Now let’s try a thought experiment. You have a child. You want them to find out that they could be targeted for rape as a homeless teen by (a) Reading about it in fiction or (b) experiencing it.

Anybody choose B?

The job of writers is, foremost, to entertain, but we have other functions too. We give people experiences about choices and consequences from which they can draw conclusions for their own lives, and they didn’t have to go through that sexual assault or become a drug addict or live in a war ravaged city or kill somebody themselves. But, we also have to sell it–to make it real, to make it believable and sometimes that calls for explicit detail.

Looking back two hundred years, we can see a significant shift in what is explicit and what isn’t. We aren’t tying skirts around the legs of our tables lest the exposed nature of the “limbs” unduly excite the young (but the Victorians did.) Bare midriff’s would give them a heart attack.

And what is too explicit shifts widely between cultures and even between families. It shifts too much to expect school and public libraries to be able to decide (other than on a broad basis) what is and isn’t appropriate for your kids.

That’s your job.

Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow was editor of SCI FICTION, the multi award- winning fiction area of SCIFI.COM for six years, editor of Event Horizon: Science Fiction, and Fantasy for one and a half years, and fiction editor of OMNI and OMNI online for over seventeen years. During her career she has worked with an array of writers including Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Bruce Sterling, Peter Straub, Jonathan Carroll, George R. R. Martin, William Gibson, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, and Cory Doctorow. Her most recent anthologies are The Dark, The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales (with Terri Windling), and the horror anthology Inferno. She’s been co-editing The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for over twenty years. Datlow has won multiple World Fantasy Awards, Bram Stoker Awards, Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, and the International Horror Guild Award, for her editing. She was recently the recipient of the Karl Edward Wagner Award, given by the British Fantasy Society for outstanding contribution to the genre. For more information and lots of photos see

When I was growing up, there was no such animal as young adult fiction. There was fiction for children and there was adult fiction. I moved from Nancy Drew to adult fiction as soon as I knew it existed and was reading Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, John Fowles’ The Magus, and Hesse’s Steppenwolf by the time I was 15. So to me the whole issue is asinine. Let teenagers read what ever they want–they’ll either get it or they’ll be bored with it and won’t continue. Which may seem funny coming from me as I’ve been co-editing young adult anthologies for the past six years. But hey, they sell, so who am I to argue with the market?

Kaza Kingsley
Kaza Kingsley is the author of the bestselling Erec Rex fantasy series. Her books are being published in nine other countries and counting, and one of her books is a Borders Original Voices pick for December 2007.

I think this is an interesting question that reflects on how our whole society is changing. When I look back at what was on television when I was young (before cable TV grew up) it was a totally different world. Any questionable phrase would be “bleeped out,” there was no nudity, no drugs, blood and gore. Kids and teens now have been raised in a world where they can press a button on the family computer when mom walks out of the room and see anything they could imagine.

I really think that what is going on in the YA book world reflects this, somewhat. But at the same time, do we have a responsibility not to add to the mayhem? Should YA writers try to provide a wholesome counterpart to the other media, or is it okay to jump on the bandwagon and go for the ratings/sales in any way possible? How lucrative is it to have a conscience?

When I browse the aisles of teen fiction (not to name authors, of course) it amazes me what is being marketed to girls. Some of it is wonderful, with strong characters, interesting settings. Some is stereotypical, pandering sex, coolness, drugs, and sex and drugs for coolness, etc.

This is one of the reasons why I am so glad to be writing fantasy. When I create my own world, I can put my characters in touchy emotional situations, grave danger, romantic moments, massive highs and give them tough decisions to make without one mention of sex, pregnancy, swearing, smoking, or guzzling vodka. So maybe I have it easy. I think it would be tough to find a realistic fiction book that would stimulate today’s teens that didn’t deal with some of these issues. I suppose it’s how the issues are dealt with that makes the difference.

No, I don’t personally think authors and artists have a mandate to be moralistic, or show kids and teens the world as a perfect, pure place. But I personally hope that others, like me, want to create a world for kids (and adults!) to enter that is a safe respite to escape from some of the garbage that is bombarding us all the time, and hopefully not be adding to it.

Derryl Murphy
Derryl Murphy’s collection Wasps at the Speed of Sound was released in 2005. In 2009 PS Publishing will release Cast a Cold Eye, co-written with William Shunn, a book that actually is YA-friendly. He and his younger boy are currently reading The Hobbit together.

My field of view in this is, by necessity, narrower than it might be. I have two boys, one 9, the other not quite 12, and so much of the YA material I read is fiction that I already have some idea that they can handle. And while I do like to broaden my reading horizons beyond scoping out what the boys like to read, time is pretty limited in this household, what with non-fiction for research and the odd work of fiction I want to read for pleasure. However, I often find the books even before the boys have any idea that they’re out there, and then pass them on in hope that they’ll enjoy them.

Does this mean I have no faith in the boys’ ability to monitor themselves? Not at all. They’ve both surprised me quite a bit in their discernment and ability to test things out on their own, and as they grow, both in age and in taste, their horizons will broaden at their own pace. That pace may be faster than I hope, but with aid from their mother the librarian and their father the author, hopefully their critical thinking faculties will also follow that pace.

And of course, critical thinking probably ends up being the issue, doesn’t it? I’m probably preaching to the choir right now, but I believe that many (most?) people who are well-read, critical thinkers, tend to raise the same. And in a world where sex and violence and language alerts are sometimes needed not just for the programming on TV but for the commercials that accompany those shows, these skills are needed. In the long run, I trust my boys to be able to handle what they read, or to ask my input if they run into something that bothers them. And I trust the (good) authors to tell the stories that need to be told, and to do so in the tone and style that they feel is appropriate to that story.

All that said, I also understand that there are parents who don’t necessarily prepare their kids for all this, or are not aware that they might have to. I’ve sold one YA story so far, and hope to write more. The story, “The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake,” was an homage to childhood fave Thornton W. Burgess, and appeared in Julie Czerneda’s anthology Fantastic Companions. But when I sold the story I realized that, if I were an ordinary reader, I wouldn’t want my own kids reading something by this Derryl Murphy guy and then seeking his collection, which contains material I definitely do not believe is appropriate for them. And so I created a pseudonym, Matt Walker. It’s not a perfect solution, since my name still shows up on the copyright page, but kid, if you’re going to be that persistent, fill your boots.

So, in the end, I guess I take a somewhat libertarian view of things. If authors write stories for a YA audience that happens to shock some adults, so be it. Hopefully the more sensible adults will be heard, but if hysteria rules, in most cases that probably just results in higher sales. Good news for the author, and a sign to publishers that more of this is wanted. There is no line until someone draws one and someone else jumps across it.

Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn used to edit Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, is the President of the International Association of the Fantastic of the Arts, and is about to send McFarland a Manuscript about Children’s and Teen science fiction. She has read around 400 of these books so you don’t have to.

I have no idea what you mean by mature theme. If you mean sex, only Melvin Burgess has had the courage to say “sex is fun, and you should do it for fun, and not insist that this must be lurve”. For the rest, YA sf is a sex free zone but has been heavily contaminated by a form of romance which is embarrassing in its “this is forever” immaturity.

Similarly, if you mean violence, I also have no idea what you mean. Of the books I’ve been reading recently, only Kathrine Duey (Skin Hunger) and Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) have real violence with real pain — and very fine books they are too. The rest are mere cartoons and that’s as traditional as Tom and Jerry.

The one area where YA and children’s sf can be really mature is in getting kids to think through ethical issues: Pratchett, Reeve, McNaughton, Halam, Baxter, Doctorow and Applegate, to name just a few, are outstanding at this and it is never to young to learn about ethics.

Ben Jeapes
Ben Jeapes is the author of His Majesty’s Starship (Scholastic, 1998), The Xenocide Mission (Random House, 2002), The New World Order (Random House, 2004) and the forthcoming Time’s Chariot (Random House, 2008). Of The New World Order, one reviewer exclaimed, “Where was I when they started putting naughty bits into kids’ books?” As the novel in question features a teenage Charles II, Ben feels that every naughty bit was entirely justified. Visit him online at

In principle, young adult sf/f can never be too explicit because if it is then, by definition, it ceases to be young adult. But then the question specifies ‘fiction marketed as “Young Adult”‘, which is a different matter. We’re talking about the stuff that, rightly or wrong, ends up on the teen shelves in the bookshops.

Consider: would Heinlein’s juvenile SF novels have benefited in the slightest if he had added what we would consider ‘normal’ young adult feelings to his young adult characters? Alternatively, would Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have benefited if he had written it all as a thrilling adventure for Will and Lyra but minus the sexuality? In both cases, let’s go for ‘no’.

Yet both take as their starting point the very positive characteristics of young people that make them such a pleasure to know here in the real world – their drive, their optimism, their sense of right and wrong. That is the core of any young adult fiction. From that starting point, Heinlein and Pullman branch out in the different directions that their stories require.

And that is the key question – what does a story need? Stories need, most of all, to be convincing to the reader for the milieu in which they occur. If in the real world a sexual situation would occur then so should it in a story; if not, then not. By ‘situation’ I don’t necessarily mean having sex – even just a boy musing on the benefits of a well fit girl, or vice versa, would come under that heading.

Teenagers know about sex and they know about sexual feelings, even if they haven’t had sex themselves (which is still the case for the majority). Ignoring that fact in a book is just being dishonest. If the needs of a story do get it all the way to a sex scene then teenagers will probably want to Know What It’s Like and will justly feel cheated if a veil is drawn over the whole thing. However, it’s quite possible to get that across couched in terms of what they already know from experience. Linda Newbery’s The Shell House – young adult, though not sf – comes immediately to mind as an excellent example.

The question goes on to ask: ‘is young adult sf/f too explicit?’ The only reason any fiction gets explicit is to turn on the readers; it’s rarely for information purposes. Teenagers don’t need turning on: drop a few hints if you must, and imagination will do the rest. My extensive market research here involved browsing through 20 pages of titles labelled by Amazon as young adult science fiction & fantasy. Of those that I’ve read – about 50% – I would say there is plenty that fulfils the above criteria of basic honesty, to different levels depending on the nature of the story, but none that goes into explicit levels of turn-on detail that would be better suited to a more adult book

Gwenda Bond
Gwenda Bond posts often about books and writing at her blog, Shaken & Stirred. She has written for Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post Book World, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I don’t believe there is a line. For one thing, a large portion of the YA audience is already reading adult books — they’re mature enough to decide what they’re ready to read. Things that don’t speak to individual teen readers will usually be avoided, explicit or not.

The whole notion of something being “too explicit” or “too adult” stems from what I firmly believe are notions about child and young adult-hood that gloss over what that time is actually like. It’s easy for adults to put a glossy sheen on the nature of children, the way they interact with the world, the strength and sometimes even ugliness of their emotions. In other words, I haven’t read anything in YA — SF/F or not — that strikes me as something that teens don’t experience or simply can’t understand. These types of concerns usually come up in regard to sex, and to some extent graphic violence and drugs. (I never hear people complaining that much about fantasy fight scenes though…wonder why?) These are all things that a large number of teenagers either experience or spend a significant amount of time thinking about on a daily basis (especially the sex). To censor this type of content from stories because of an underlying assumption about what is adult and what isn’t is misguided. I don’t see writers putting elements in their stories to be provocative. I see them putting these elements there because they’re necessary to tell the stories in question. That teenagers often respond so strongly to them just proves the point that they’re relevant and needed.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

59 Comments on MIND MELD: Is Young Adult SF/F Too Explicit?

  1. These replies are astonishing in their irresponsibility. Most of these writes talk as if exposing children to filth were a moral crusade.

  2. Won’t someone please think of the children!

    So we (as a US culture) push children to read the classics, or the bible, which are full of death, sex, and war just because they are “classics.” Yet, we want to potentially sanitize young adult fiction?

    The hypocrisy is strong with this one young Master John…

  3. When I grew up, I could read whatever I wanted. I often read books that were not written for children (I remember reading Sherlock Holmes in first grade). I didn’t like books with too much violence (so I avoided them by myself), and I was sometimes a little embarrased by sex (but I accepted it as natural). If something I was reading disturbed me, I would discuss it with my father. No problem!

    With this background, I have to say that I feel uneasy when people try to decide what young people should read.

    On the other hand: what do people mean by YA fiction? If it’s written for young adults (perhaps 13 and up) it might deal with themes that takes into account the whole spectrum of things that adults have to think about. Often what people mean is really fiction for children at the age when they read a lot: 8-12 years old perhaps. Perhaps it’s a good idea to invent a new word for fiction that tries to deal with the world of children of this age? Of course they might also read books that are written for older people.

  4. As wokka comments, the whole point is that young adults are NOT children, and there’s no reason they cannot be trusted to read up to the level with which they’re comfortable.

  5. Sir, to make an illogical argument, all one need do is what you have done, to wit, equate two unalike things, and then accuse the opposition of hypocrisy when he says unalike things are unalike.

    If taken to its logical extreme, we should show our children your porn collection, merely because the classics deal with matters of love and war.

    I do not understand the point of your comment. It seems to be illogical (ad hominem, an informal logical error).

    Reread the answers given by the science fiction writers above, and tell me which ones, if any, support the following propositions: 1. Innocence in children is an admirable thing, worthy of being guarded 2. Writers, as well as the rest of society, have a responsibility, if not to help that guardianship, then at least, not to aid the opposition 3. Therefore writers of books aimed at a juvenile audience ought to avoid explicit descriptions of matters too sexual, too violent, too perverse, or too disgusting for an innocent mind to confront.

    The arguments of the writers fall into several categories. Some say that in the modern generation, there is no innocence. The argument is that there is no reason to protect innocence if the effort is futile. Some say innocence is an unworthy thing, and that is better for young readers to read and contemplate these topics. The argument there is that explicit sex and perversion has an educational value, and that protecting the innocence of children is therefore encourages ignorance. The argument, or, rather, the attitude there is that there is nothing an innocent mind cannot confront, as if children had the same experience and wisdom as callous and tough-minded adults. This is merely a false-to-facts assertion: children and adults are not the same.

    As best I can tell, all that is going on is an error of ambiguity. These arguments are equating two unalike things, such as the educational value of knowing the bitter realities of life, and a pornographic or lurid depiction of the bitter realities of life.

    As best I can tell, all that is going on is the modern mind expects adults to be infantile, and infants to be adult.

    The case is pressed with a self-righteous indignation or scorn of a moral crusade, but in this case, ironically, the moral crusaders are crusading for more and filthier immorality, crap piled higher and deeper for us all to wallow in, and they regard morality as immoral, cleanness as unclean.

  6. If we all agree that anyone age 13 and up is an adult, and can handle adult themes, no matter how lurid or disgusting, then why is there a marketing category for juveniles at all?

    Why does YA exist as a category?

    No one seems to mind that movies are differentiated into PG, PG-13, R, and X. This is a distinction based on age. All the arguments for or against maintaining a category that is PG-13 for books should apply with equal logic for or against maintaining a category that is PG-13 for movies.

  7. The YA category as I understand it is not 13 and up but older–you’re talking about the “tween” category which is 13- 17 or so–to me YA is late teens….and why the categories? Marketing of course. As I pointed out in my post (which you obviously haven’t read)there were no such categories when I was growing up. You moved from “children’s” fiction to “adult” fiction…I don’t see all that many damaged baby boomers out there. (or at least not damaged by the books they read).

  8. Ms. Datlow wrote:

    When I was growing up, there was no such animal as young adult fiction. There was fiction for children and there was adult fiction.

    Your memory does not agree with mine of roughly the same period (I was born in 1956). YA had not yet been defined as marketing category, but the books were there. I recall first reading Heinlein juveniles, Andre Norton, Alan Nourse, James Schmitz, and others in the children’s section of the public library, back when children were not allowed to take out books from the adult fiction shelves. I could recognize likely books by their size and binding — the kind that now mark the YA shelves.

    Because a lot of sf & fantasy was shelved with the children’s books, it was very easy for a young reader to slide from Heinlein juveniles to Heinlein adults without supervision, and to soon be reading Dangerous Visions and The Left Hand of Darkness.

    The big change I see is there is a much larger *non*-sf/fantasy YA segment than there used to be, and that’s the area where there is a ratcheting up of sexually-explicit material.

  9. To make my comment slightly clearer: in the 50s and 60s YA wasn’t a defined, labelled, separately-shelved market segment, but writers like Andre Norton were definitely writing for that market.

  10. Doctor Science,

    I would have considered those children’s books, not young adult –I didn’t read Heinlein or Asimov–I’d already moved on to Ellison and Dangerous Visions by that point.

  11. I understood what you meant–;-) but I never read the juvenile sf.

  12. John, I can appreciate your argument on one level. I’ve children, and I’m probably too protective, but I can tell you that ignorance or sanitization isn’t the way to go. Yes, YA is a marketing category. Publishers want to sell their product, writers want to sell their product. It’s capitalism at its finest.

    I was raised in a Catholic home, I was sent to a Catholic elementary school for eight years … I was made ignorant. It wasn’t anything conscious or conspiratorial. Ignorance and innocence was bliss to my parents’ generation. However, I believe you can only appreciate innocence when you’ve seen the opposite. Steven Gould got it right when he said he would rather have children read about the bad things in the world rather than have them experience it. As long as parents take responsibility and educate their children, pass along their wisdom and knowledge, their children are going to turn out all right.

    Do I guard my children? Yes. Do I keep them from experiencing the world? No. But I do help them filter those experiences, whether they’re between peers at school or what they read or watch in books or on television. It’s the responsibility I assumed when my wife and I had them. I could probably say that my parents got that much right. Their lack of attention, their attempts to hide the real world, showed me how important it is to lead your own children forward as they mature. I was lucky, and I think it’s only right that I eliminate the variable of chance for my own children.

    So … the best YA books are simple lessons, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, if you can look at it that way. Innocence is all well and good, but when it’s dependent on ignorance it creates its own kind of hell.

  13. I’m curious what John considers pervserions. As far as I know, the vast majority of YA novels do not glorify sexual perversions. Many have a cautionary tale, what happens when a teen’s life fails to find balance between family, friends, school, hobbies, romance. What explicit perversion has he found in these books? I’m perplexed.

  14. Calling certain things “too explicit”, as my 19-y.o. points out, is often largely a way of shielding *adults* from thinking about reality. For instance, any movie that accurately reproduced the language heard in a high school hallway would be rated R for language. The lesson the kids take from this is that teenagers’ actual lives are not considered suitable for teenagers, and that they’re on their own because we adults don’t want to know.

  15. LOL This is great! In response to your post T, I would hate to be accused of being unamerican so I most happily fall into the hypocritical pile . . .:D and what a pile it must be. I agree that the Bible has plenty of sex and death to go around and I cannot encourage my kids enough to read it. My execuse here is that, it’s just my upbringing 😀 – for the *most part*, though, it is not as explicite as some of the examples of science fiction I have read.

    But back to the important point – my hypocrisy – you make it sound like a bad thing . . . listen, there are plenty of things that I might have been exposed to, or done, that I do not feel are appropriate for my teenage son or daughter. But as a parent (I know you are also) I have to do what I think is best for their well being and emotional development. At an impressionable age, as young adults are, it easy to get a warped or at least a skewed view of sex if exposed to certain things with no context to place it in.

    I have to say, personally, that if something is going to be classified as Young Adult fiction it should be “sanitized” to a point. Agree or not, but as JCW pointed out there are already ratings for everything now: music, TV, movies . . . And yes, I happily apply the parental controls on my cable box.

    One of the respondents to the question says that these elements are placed in stories because they “are needed”. I can say that some of the best SF and Fantasy that I have read does not have overt or explicite sex in the stories. Does that apply to any and all? Of course not, but I don’t think you can make a blanket statement saying that the only reason that those elements are there is because they are essential to the story. I have read several books, just recently, as a matter of fact (sorry JohnnyD still no reviews) that have had explicite sex in them – some to the point of making me uncomfortable – I still found the books good, but I would never classify them as Young Adult fiction nor would I encourage someone in their teens to read them.

  16. Ellen, does the publishing biz really view tweens as 13-17? Tween is very obviously an artificial, consumer-culture-created construct (he said alliteratively), but since we’re living the years here, I always thought it was more like 10-12.

    Actually, my friend Mr. Wikipedia says it’s 8-12, which also strikes me as nuts.

    John Wright, your scold is remarkably misplaced. When I was 12 and 13, I remember reading The Fog by James Herbert as well as other rather nasty books, but I also read plenty of juvies by Heinlein and Norton and others. As a responsible parent, I take it as my job to deal with what my boys read. It’s not up to the authors, nor is it up to the editors and publishers. Hell, I have problems with the schools making the decision as well. It’s between me and my wife and the boys. And just like movies and TV, I make an effort to figure out what’s right for them. Matter of fact, I get kinda defensive when someone else sticks their nose in.


  17. In my experience as a parent, I would say that the written word is more self-moderating than the visual media. When my daughter picked up books some people might have considered too mature for her, she generally lost interest in them and put them aside. When she attempted the same or similar works a few years later, she stuck with them, because they matched the level of her mental and emotional maturity. I was much more permissive of books with her than with movies even though, as a writer, I like to think that the written word is as powerful as a moving image. However, I believe that young people can be exposed to things they aren’t ready to process in a movie or TV show much faster than they could in a book.

  18. Derryl,

    You may be right about the age groupings–but Terri and my “children’s fairy tale series” are for “middle grades 8-12 year olds –that’s what we were told…so if these are now called “tweens” it’s news to me…

    but for me, it’s still all marketing.

    When kids are ready to read adult material, they’ll find it whether their parents like it or not. And I would hope that parents would be delighted that their kids are reading…anything.

    My parents were much more “strict” with movies than reading material. My mother didn’t want me to watch horror movies because they “scared me too much and I was always a nervous child” –this is what she recently told me when I asked. So I couldn’t see THE FLY (original) as a child and my next door neighbor acted it out. I couldn’t watch The Twilight Zone (original) because it was on too late at night, but my mother told me the stories in great detail the next morning at breakfast.

    And once I was a pre-teen and teen I’d watch all the cheesy horror movies on tv after school while my mother was at work!

  19. I absolutely agree with this write-up. The fact of the matter is, kids are aware of sex and other ‘adult’ issues from a fairly early age these days. Leaving sober, responsible treatment of those issues out of the materials they read is doing them a disservice.

  20. Heather said, “The fact of the matter is, kids are aware of sex and other ‘adult’ issues from a fairly early age these days.”

    By nature, I distrust generalizations. It depends very much on the kid. Where I teach there are a lot of students who are sexually active and boldly conversant on a host of topics I don’t remember anyone talking about when I was in high school. But there are also kids who are not that way. I’m very careful when I show an “R” rated film, for example. For some of the kids, the fact that I am careful is a joke to them. They’ve been watching “R” rated stuff at home since they were eight. For others, though, they’ve never seen one, either because their parents have kept them away from them or they chose to miss them themselves.

    Although I dislike almost all censorship (particularly when someone else is telling me what I can or cannot read), I understand a parent’s right to be alarmed, even the most radicalized parent.

    I send home permission slips. I let parents know what we’re doing. I don’t think it’s always about censorship. It can be about recognizing that there are a wide variety of people in the world, and there’s no particular reason to stomp on folks toes if you don’t have to. It’s not polite.

  21. I shielded my kids from a lot of movies, TV shows and video games when they were younger. When it comes to books, I feel like Dave Barry did when he caught his kid reading de Sade (My God . . . He’s reading!). I don’t bring home copies of Penthouse Letters for the kids but I’ll pretty much encourage them to read anything they want, because they’ll be reading and the exploration of ideas, in my mind, is a great thing.

    I heard or read some very smart person (whose name escapes me) say in an interview last year that kids aren’t going to flock to reading until reading becomes subversive. In some homes, reading about sex and the supernatural is very subversive and I’m sure their upbringing is driving some kids toward reading this kind of stuff. Kids are going to get their hands on what they want, but I think parents should still be free to impose limitations if that’s what they want to do. If parents are legally responsible for their children until those children become eighteen, then parents have to be allowed to parent without the world beating them up. Some people seem to berate prudish parents but every time some kid goes nuts on the news, people cry, “Where were the parents?”

    My problem is at my job: I work in a bookstore and sometimes grandparents ask for recommendations for their thirteen year old grandchild. I know the types of book those kids really want to read, but I can’t bring myself to suggest books to these people who might flip merely upon reading the dustjackets. Kids (Girls most of all) are eating up the stuff about drug addicts and vampires. There are plenty of seemingly sexually oriented books too. Whether or not they’re explicit doesn’t matter for my purposes. They mention sex. Run that one by Grandma.

  22. Why are we expecting others to make judgments for our children? We rely on ratings to help guide what is appropriate or we hope the marketing folks at some publisher will ensure a given book is categorized appropriately. When do parents step up and take ownership of what their kids are exposed to? I know most of the folks here are doing that but every time I read about something like this in gaming or about a book I get the feeling we want somebody else to do a parent’s job.

    I would like to pose this question for those who are upset about the answers from the authors above: Who is responsible for controlling access to a given medium? The publisher/author/filmmaker or the parent who lets their child gain access without any monitoring of their activities?

    Expecting society or the market to show restraint when it comes to material that people may find inappropriate is a flawed expectation. I would also state that what one person finds inappropriate may not be inappropriate to somebody else. I also find it distressing that JCW states this “Most of these writes talk as if exposing children to filth were a moral crusade.” and I guess that is not what I am reading in their responses.

    I would also point out that I have read/listen to a lot of YA fiction. Most of these touch the subjects of love in a very wishy washy sort of way. The most violent among them was Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, but the context there was appropriate. It was a violent time and while the writing is not for older kids – the book is definitely something for aged 15+. I would also suggest folks spend some time at a library or store and see what kids are reading. Some read the YA stuff but most are reading Manga and while the YA books have these topics in words – the Manga puts them into pictures….

  23. I think it is important to remember that this does not have to be an either/or question. There are sf/f books for teens without “adult” or “edgy” content and there will and should continue to be, but I think it is also important for there to be books that reflect the diversity of real experiences among teenagers. I made a rule for myself that with the Modern Faerie Tale books, magic aside, I wouldn’t write about issues that weren’t personal to myself or someone I knew well (yes, that means the Val’s mom/Val’s boyfriend stuff was based on incidents that really happened). As writers, especially writers for teens, we have to tell the truth as we know it, and as adults, we have to know that not every book is going to be the right fit for every kid.

    Secondly, when talking about “edgy” YA sf/f, I think it is important to look at the genre of YA literature as a whole. Mainstream YA has had authors tackling edgy themes for more than two decades. Consider the work of Robert Cormier, for example, whose book TENDERNESS (1998) remains one of the most brutal YA books I’ve ever read. It concerns a teenage serial killer and is told partially from his perspective. Cormier was, by all reports, an intensely moral man and a Catholic, but he still felt as though his work for teens could grapple with tough issues. Consider also the work of Judy Blume in the ’70s and Francesca Lia Block in the late 80s. If sf/f wants to not be considered the literature of escapism, then issues that have become part of the mainstream YA conversation need to be addressed in our genre as well.

  24. I think things are stirred up nicely here. My job is done.

  25. As a teacher and a reader, I am asked frequently by parents of children what books I recommend. I can’t keep up with the variety and sheer volume of books published for children and young adults, nor can I guarantee that a given book will be appropriate for a particular child, as has been so well noted above.

    I don’t think YA sf/f books are too graphic for young adults. I think they are frequently too graphic for the 8 – 12 year olds I know, but the responsibility for putting those books into younger children’s hands rests not with the authors, but with parents, teachers, librarians, and bookshop staff and owners.

    Children are able, usually, to block out what they can’t handle in a story. Sometimes they can’t, but I have vivid memories of re-reading childhood favorites or books I loved as a young teenager and being floored by passages I don’t recall being there when I read the book the first time. I didn’t remember them, because I couldn’t have handled them.

  26. I find it very interesting that at the same a discussion is taking place on appropriate reading for young adults, a 19 year old soldier (a woman as it happens) is being awarded the Silver Star for bravery in combat for her actions in Iraq.

    She is over the age of 18, which means she can vote, which means she is an adult I guess – although if she was still in high school we would likely say she is still a young adult. This does all get rather fuzzy. (And don’t even get me started about how she can protect wounded soldiers with her body but can’t buy a beer.)

    Ellen is right when she says it is all marketing. When I deem a book as YA for my Bookslut column, I generally consider it high school appropriate. Middle Grade is usually middle school (6th – 8th grade). There are books that will appeal across the board (Harry Potter of course) but there are other that I think are more for 15-16 year olds then 12 year olds. Usually this has to do to sexual content.

    Some teenagers are more naive than others and that is true. Also true is that some are far more acquainted with violence than the average 30 year old (see my example above). I think the biggest thing that YA can contribute to its readers is that notion of “coming-of-age”. The only thing all teenagers have in common is a struggle on how to grow into the person they want to be – a struggle to define themselves. That’s why I think the category matters, as it is a place where teenagers can find books that will relate to that common experience.

    But as to mature themes and crossing an unknown line? Twenty or thirty (or more) years ago teengers were being molested by their parish priests, fighting in wars, and experimenting with alcohol at alarming rates. The difference is that there wasn’t a lot of talking about it – let alone writing about it – back then. I don’t think teenagers have changed that much; I think society’s recognition of their reality is what has finally adjusted.

  27. My initial reaction:

    Smut is smut. Art is art. If you’re sure you are creating art… go for it. If not, maybe you should hold the smut. Sometimes less is more.

    After a little thought:

    This is not a subject that can be answered in a world where standards have been banished by the doctrine of tolerance. It doesn’t matter where the standard comes from, whether from a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview, Islaamic tradition, or even the wishy-washy “good person” philosophy that attempts to ameliorate the conscience by proffering the cliche “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone”. The absence of common (or any) standards negate the purpose of discussion – it’s just “shootin’ the breeze” to quote my dear departed Grandfather. Authors will write what they wish to write, editors will add their two cents, and publishers will sell books.

    As for me and my house, I will bequeath morality, standards, awareness, information, discernment, and critical thinking to my progeny. And if there are no good books published in their futures, they will, as I have, turn to the time-tested publications of the past and will, in their turn, find honest and unadulterated delight within those pages.

  28. Discussion of what is “appropriate” in fiction always strike me as odd, but the young adult category probably more so. As Ellen Datlow notes, it’s not aimed at 10 years olds (and I recall J.K. Rowling’s response to a mother who complained her books were too scary for her six year old daughter: “Don’t read it to her.”)

    But, really, the idea that anyone under the age of 18 should be living in some idealized world of innocence would strike anyone prior to 1900 as bizarre. It is only with the rise of the middle class that this concept of innocence as long as possible has entered our culture. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but assuming that everyone under 18 is exactly the same in terms of emotional maturity or ignorance of the greater world outside their basement rec room is just naive. That has nothing at all to do with some so-called lost standards (which, btw, just smacks of arrogance) and everything to do with a mature recognition of who the heck your kid is and not what you would wish otherwise.

  29. Elizabeth Goldgar // March 13, 2008 at 8:35 am //

    You know, it always strikes me as entertaining to watch adults discuss whether or not YA books are “too mature”. Why not ask teenagers? After all, we’re the target audience.

    I think that this question is somewhat misleading, because it conflates “dealing with mature themes” and “too explicit”. “Dealing with mature themes” is a good thing, and the younger books start the better. Sexism, racism, war: those are “mature themes”, if you like, themes that adults have difficulty handling in the real world, and kids trying to understand why reality is so crazy need all the help they can get. “Too explicit” means…actually, I don’t know what it means. Does it mean sex scenes meant purely to titillate? Any sex scenes at all? Depictions of drug use or child abuse? Swear words that I, at least, learned in middle-school hallways? What?

    It wasn’t that long ago that I went through the “YA girls’ fiction” phase. Not the “YA sf/f” phase, I mean the one where I went to the library and, in my naivete, picked up a book purporting to feature an ordinary teenage girl in a realistic life. Frankly, I have yet to encounter in my reading of science fiction and fantasy, both YA and adult, anything attempting to deal, with so many so-called “mature themes”. In my experience, YA sf/f is much, much “cleaner” than realistic YA fiction. If YA fiction has grown more explicit, it certainly isn’t the fault of fantasy and science fiction.

    It may come as a surprise, but most young readers are capable of editing their own reading material to suit their maturity levels. If they come across a book with “explicit” content in it, and they’re bored or disturbed, they put it down and find something else. Once their reaction switches from “meh” to “ooh!”, they’re no longer too young for it.

    Of course, I’m only a teenager. What would I know about YA fiction?

  30. Joe Iriarte // March 13, 2008 at 11:08 am //

    Several people have commented that parents have the responsibility to decide what is appropriate for their children, and not book publishers et. al. Fine, I agree with that. But I haven’t generally read those books before I buy them–unless my kids happen to read an old favorite of mine. I’ll read them as my kids do and discuss with them, but is it unreasonable of me to assume that the publishing categories, like YA, tween, young readers, etc., are meant to communicate something to me about what sort of content I should expect to be inside a book I buy for my children, before I buy it and read it? Isn’t it arguably a breach of trust to include very explicit sexuality or drug use or violence in a book that is marketed as being designed for younger readers?

    I’m actually all for letting kids read what they want, within reason. But I think it’s fair for me to have a sense of what I’m buying for my kids before I do so.

  31. Joe, all you have to do is read the flap copy and perhaps read a few pages of a book at random to see if it’s not “right” for your child.

  32. , I have yet to encounter in my reading of science fiction and fantasy, both YA and adult, anything attempting to deal, with so many so-called “mature themes”. In my experience, YA sf/f is much, much “cleaner” than realistic YA fiction. If YA fiction has grown more explicit, it certainly isn’t the fault of fantasy and science fiction.

    Well said Elizabeth.

  33. If we need any further evidence that not teenagers are the same, we need only read Elizabeth Goldgar’s comment. She actually articulates better than many adults and sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders.

    To Joe: Assuming a handful of simple categories is going to send some kind of meaningful message about content is still, imho, an avoidance of parental responsibility. The categories are guidelines, not definitions. Just like going to the mystery section is guideline–you know it’s a mystery, but there’s a heck of difference between Dennis Lehane and Agatha Christie.

    Inherently, no one knows what’s in a book until one reads it. In this day and age, in particular, it’s practically impossible to buy anything without being able to find a consumer review. Books, especially, get widely reviewed by both professional critics and readers. Bookstore staff know what’s selling and what’s in the books. Claiming ignorance and bafflement, with all due respect, sounds more like posturing than reality. Blaming publishers for vague category distinctions is like blaming the MPAA for rating both a romantic comedy and the latest shoot’em up a PG-13.

    And, fwiw, once my nieces and nephews entered their teen years, my sisters used to read their books before they did until she and they got a sense of what felt right. As Elizabeth notes above, the tweens were more likely to toss stuff before my sisters did.

  34. Joe Iriarte // March 13, 2008 at 9:52 pm //

    Yeah, well, you’re a crappy parent, too, Mark. Thanks for your input. :p

  35. That so many people are getting in a fluster over ‘YA’ fiction amuses me greatly. Not least because when I was a kid, ‘YA’ didn’t really exist, so I moved straight from children’s books to adult books. I was a voracious reader, and lucky enough to have parents who trusted in me enough to let me step up to the next level when I was being more bored than entertained by the children’s books available.

    As a result, from the age of 11 and up I was perhaps exposed to more sex and violence than kids today reading ‘YA’ books are. Doesn’t seem to have harmed me much. Naturally, my recall of those days is hazy, but in general it would probably be fair to say that violence and action was thrilling, while sex bits were found boring and skimmed over. Certainly by the age of 13 I’d read books like the Godfather and the Bourne Identity.

    I think what a lot of people forget is that kids grow up faster than you’d think. When you’re an adult, a year is not terribly much time at all, yet when you’re younger a year is an eternity, more than enough time to outgrow Enid Blyton and want something more. So why not let them step up to ‘YA’? Or, indeed, adult books.

    Elizabeth’s comment is a fine example of the fact that we can trust children to pick their reading far more than some might think.

  36. Joe, your original post started with “Several people have commented that parents have the responsibility to decide what is appropriate for their children, and not book publishers et. al. Fine, I agree with that…” and then your subsequent comments seemed to demonstrate the opposite.

    “is it unreasonable for me to assume…” —- yes, assuming always is.

    “Isn’t it arguably a breach of trust…” — no, there is no trust contract between a parent and publisher.

    Assuming and trusting are allowing someone else to make a decision. I was pointing out the contradiction in your argument. I’ve never regretted a book I’ve passed on to a child or teen. If you have, you judge whether that makes you a crappy parent or not. Either way, the publisher or author is not to blame for the success or failure of the action.

  37. Sometimes I think people forget Judy Bloom’s books from the 70’s (anybody remember Forever…?) or Maya Angelou’s books from the 60’s (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) or a slew of other young adult books that contain explicit material. It’s not new that some people don’t like the content of young adult books. Any time kids are involved, some parents (and I applaud them for at least taking an interest in their kids activities) are going to have a problem with content they object to.

    Of course I think they should back the hell off and recognize that they don’t get to decide what everybody else’s kids can read / watch / etc.

  38. Joe Iriarte // March 15, 2008 at 12:13 pm //

    mark, I’m not contradicting myself. I was allowed to read pretty much whatever I wanted to, and, in general, I think that’s a good parenting approach. I too went from kids’ books to books written for adults at a pretty early stage. I’m not trying to say what other people’s kids ought to be reading. I think sometimes when people disagree with someone a little bit, they tend to unwittingly portray that person’s point of view as being more extreme than it is, because that makes it easier to rebut. And so rather than address my point in your first reply, you gave me parenting lessons. In your second reply, at least, you addressed my comments about the expectations parents have from a book labeled Young Adult.

    My point is simply, is there no middle ground? A lot of kids are mature enough to be reading books written for an adult audience. A lot of kids witness more sexuality, drug use, or violence in their real lives than we adults perhaps can realize. Does that mean that anything should go in books marketed for kids and teens? If so, why have such a category? Why not just have books for little kids and books for adults?

    I haven’t read the book that Kress was commenting on. Maybe it’s handled with incredible subtlety and sensitivity. And maybe it’s terribly important to the plot, and not merely there to titillate. My knee-jerk reaction is that it sounds like a bit much. Even if this example is really more appropriate than Kress’s description makes it sound, though, comments such as those of Kaza Kingsley suggest that there are at least some authors in the YA field who are putting in surprisingly adult elements in their fiction, not to educate, not to accurately reflect teen reality, but, as far as I can guess, to titillate.

    Don’t make more of my comments than I have said. I’m not calling for banning or censorship. But just because we believe that parents should look through what their children are reading, that children are often more mature than we give them credit for, and that authors should have the freedom to pursue their art without interference . . . just because we believe those things doesn’t mean we can’t even criticize people we think make inappropriate choices. Some people seem to mistakenly jump to the conclusion that freedom of speech means that there should also be freedom from any questioning or criticism of that speech. It doesn’t.

  39. Joe I think you have an interesting point up there. It comes down to the purpose for the name. Unfortunately, ‘young adult’ isn’t a system like MPAA ratings to tell parents that this book is free from some type of material. Instead, it’s purely a marketing concept made to try to get that age group to pickup the book in the store. Maybe we need a book rating system, but for now its up to parents to police their own children to the extent they deem necessary.

  40. I’m an adult who finds personal pleasure reading YA.

    Many years ago I experienced a sense of shock in Sean Stewart’s Nobody’s Son when the protagonist worried about “swiving” his betrothed (a princess). Sure, he’d “swived” local girls, but those were quickies with a lot of worries about preganancy, so he was worried about disappointing her.

    After considering that scene, and other references to sexuality in YA lit, I’ve noticed that the sexuality isn’t gratuitous.

    Sex does happen when it’s necessary for the character or story, but with a lighter touch in terms of frequency and detail than in books targeted towards adults.

  41. Hey Joe, okay, that’s fair (our exchange probably is yet another demo of the travails of both sides perhaps hitting the send button too fast).

    Put in this context, sure, targeting a YA book to, say, a 13 or 14 year old that is really more appropriate for for a 16 or 17 year old should be a subject of criticism. In fact, to continue my MPAA analogy, I find it irritating that the PG-13 category is promoted more as a heavy-PG when in reality it tends to lite-R. In the Hollywood world, that is, in fact, purposeful.

    Anecdotally, I would say that level of cynicism happens less often in the YA book world because librarians tend to serve as better gatekeepers than, say, a marketing department (the librarians are on the front lines, so to speak). I think you’re point about the middle ground is valid. Unfortunately, middle ground is inherently muddy, hence the problem.

  42. Joe Iriarte // March 18, 2008 at 9:57 am //

    *nod* Yeah, I think I was too quick to get annoyed. Sorry for that. I get where you are coming from, and I think you get where I’m coming from. It is my experience that both the librarians and the bookstore employees I’ve seen in kids’ sections are knowledgeable and dedicated. When I was a kid, I didn’t take as much advantage of that resource as other kids might, but as a parent I sure do.

    On the other side of the coin, I’m writing a novel that has a young protagonist. I didn’t set out to write a young adult novel . . . I just started writing the story that came to me. But I’m aware that a story with a young protagonist will tend to be categorized as a book for kids regardless of my intentions, and so I have tried to be careful to write a book that would not be inappropriate for kids while still being true to the story I see. I just hope that other writers who write books that will be marketed toward kids, and editors and publishers and booksellers, are doing the same.

  43. L. Jagi Lamplighter // March 21, 2008 at 11:49 am //

    My first response is that I suspect that most of the people responding have no idea what the YA field is like today. Comments such as “there is no sex in YA anyway” are so far off from the reality as to suggest that the reader is only familiar with older books or with a spattering of books that do not represent what is currently out there. (If you are not up to date on YA, I recommend googling Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis. While perhaps an extreme, it gets the point across.)

    Secondly, I note that nearly everyone I see answering questions like this always takes time to qualify how bright and precocious they were, and how bright and precocious their children are. Those of us who are not so lucky as to have children with excellent judgment applaud you, but we wish someone else were acting as the gateway to what is available for teens. Alas for civilization, not all children are like you. Not all children are like your children.

    Thirdly, I read adult books when I was as young as twelve and grappled with all kinds of interesting and mature ideas. Those books were NOTHING like today’s books. They were adult in their ideas, not in their graphicness. YA books today are much more graphic than was even the most interesting and shocking of adult books generally available back then. (There were adult books more graphic back then, but not interesting ones, not ones that also had a good story that made it seem legit.)

    And, finally, one cannot help wondering at the motives of those who wish to shove stark and shocking things down the throats of children and even teens. It is as if we are all rushing to compete in the graphic version of the old Death Race 2000 game – Two points for scandalizing a sixteen year old. Five for shocking a twelve year old. 50 points for traumatizing a nine-year-old who picked up the book by mistake. He who defiles the most innocents wins.

    How admirable! Oh…wait…

  44. We continue to banter about this at work and at home, and I get a bit fired up on the subject since I feel that it is equally easy to find examples at both ends of the spectrum. I appreciate Mrs. Lamplighter pointing us to a title that fits the “inappropriate” label, but I stand by my statement that an educated parent can prevent their children from reading the book. See I am enlightened and can utilize the resources available to determine the content of the book…

    Some call for ratings, and while that is a great idea – I will point out that even ratings systems have huge leeway with respect to what is considered acceptable for audiences. Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire and Live Free and Die Hard both received a PG13 rating and I dare say are radically different movies.

    I would like to also point out that this topic was intended to discuss Science Fiction and Fantasy Young Adult books – not the gamut of stuff that fits in the YA shelves. Can somebody point me to a SF/F YA book that crosses the line? And if so can you tell me what the target audience is? Is the audience 13-15 year olds or is the audience 18 year olds?

  45. symbolic.cave // March 23, 2008 at 12:46 pm //

    As a parent of an 11-year-old good reader, and a high school teacher, I think this is a complex issue. Mine goes to the library afterschool, and has mostly read through the “Young teen” section, and has moved over to the teen section.

    From what I’ve read of the books she’s checked out: Phillip Pullman yes, Ursula Leguin yes, Patricia Wrede, maybe, maybe not Holly Black. The problem is that young readers start with the first book in the series (Sorcery and Cecilia) and then move on from there, so while the character is growing up to an age-appropriate sexuality, the 10 or 11 year old is reading that.

    Ellen’s idea that the people who are reading teen books are actual teenagers is probably not correct, at least in my experience. By high school, most students who read books they aren’t assigned seem to be reading adult fiction. The 9th graders at the high I teach at were reading “The Kite Runner,” which I also had mixed feelings about, given the extremes of violence/sexual violence in that book. I would rather they were being exposed to relationship-based sexuality, than violence. 11th and 12th graders are pretty much assigned the kinds of books that receive prizes like the national book award, or adult books with young protagonists.

    SO, what I would suggest to writers is you should be aware that the young people who are reading “YA” books are more likely to be 12, than 16.

  46. L. Jagi Lamplighter // March 23, 2008 at 8:04 pm //

    > I stand by my statement that an educated parent can prevent their children from reading the book.

    When I was a teen, I checked out ten or twelve books a week. Now, as a parent, I am lucky if I get to read one book a month. One year, when the boys were young, I fit in four novels — out of the entire year I only had time to read four.

    So, when is a parent supposed to have time to read every book a child takes out of the library, much less all the manga?

    Even when adult friends have read Manga, they often forget the inappropriate parts. (Example: A friend recently recommended SANCTUARY to someone — a manga we love — only to reread it and realize that there are many very graphic pictures of yakuza and sex that we all had totally forgotten.)

    I’m not against people writing what they feel they wish to write…I’d just like a different lable for books for the 12-16 range than for the 15 to early twenties range. (I hear that many librarians agree with this. They tell me they have a movement to start a “Teen” catagory below YA.)

  47. “So, when is a parent supposed to have time to read every book a child takes out of the library, much less all the manga?”

    My son checks out 12 books at a time as well, and I don’t have to read them to know what they contain. There are a myriad of resources available including librarians, the internet, and a bunch of excellent review resources out there. Amazon is my friend if I need a synopsis of a book.

    I would also repeat that the concept of ratings are great, but you have to realize that there is some leeway in them. Sure add a TEEN section, and then realize that teens included 13 to 19. That is 6 years and I would say that a 19 year old has some different tastes and maturity than a 13 year old.

  48. Joe Iriarte // March 24, 2008 at 10:34 am //

    Your point is well taken, Tim, but I think Jagi is actually suggesting that the “teen” category only go up to fifteen or sixteen, and that the “young adult” category go up from fifteen or so. So teen would not literally be all teenagers.

  49. Joe, I realized that was what she said, but I still have issues with it. The biggest one is that even 1 year is a significant change for a teenager. There are radical differences even between 16 and 18 year olds. I do understand the concerns here and I have said that there are books my son cannot read yet, but that has more to do with language choices. It is also important for him to read a lot of stuff both fiction and non-fiction. Maybe at some point I will head over to the local high school and see if I can interview some kids about what they are actually reading…

  50. L. Jagi Lamplighter // March 25, 2008 at 1:35 pm //

    >My son checks out 12 books at a time as well, and I don’t have to read them to know what they contain.

    I wonder about this. I have read reviews of several YA books that contain scenes I would rather not read, much less have my kids read — heck, I’ve read reviews written in the magazine that recommends books to librarians — none of the reviews I have seen so much as mentioned the aspects of the book I had trouble with.

    The advantage of a teen category – which, as I said, is an idea I picked up from librarians, who came up with this idea because they’ve been trying to meet the needs of parents who ask them for help — is that it would give just a little more guidance.

    Obviously, a category does not limit anyone from going beyond it. If you think your twelve year old can handle say, keeping this just to SF/Fantasy books: the sodamistic rape scene in JUMPER, or the several rather disturbing aspects of the otherwise excellent book TITHED, there is nothing to keep you, as a parent, from okaying him or her to browse in the YA section.

    But if you are pretty sure that your child is not ready for this yet — and some children aren’t — it would be nice to have a category for books that were a bit more mature but not disturbing.

    Part of this may be where one is coming from. If you are a modern parent, and your children are a lot like you were at that age, you’re probably pretty comfortable with things as they are now.

    I live in a slightly different world. Nearly every child I deal with regularly falls somewhere upon the ‘Spectrum’ of disorders that run from Autism through Aspergers to ADHD. These kids can be bright, even precocious, but they are often emotionally behind their peers — sometimes WAY behind their peers.

    Nor is this a small group any more. The number of children in America considered to be actually autistic is about one million. And that is nothing compared to the number of children who fall into the other portions of the “spectrum.” This means that a significant portion of today’s teens and pre-teens are emotionally well behind where teens were a generation ago. That should be enough kids to warrant creating a new category.

  51. Matthew R. // March 27, 2008 at 5:50 pm //

    (Better late to the party than never arrived, my $.02, inflation adjusted)

    Initially a note regarding John Wright and his posts here.

    I cannot be certain, but perhaps he felt there was not enough in the way of opposing viewpoints in those consulted, or not enough opposition.

    However, the pot is leaving a message for the kettle, regarding color. Having read nearly ever novel Mr. Wright has published, I would like to note that he has little standing to criticize the use of sex for titillation.

    My girlfriend and I were discussing the role of female characters, especially protagonists, in our preferred genres the other night with especial consideration to appropriate use of sexuality as compared to gratuitous involvement. Mr. Wright’s “Chaos” series was an example I used, where use of gratuitous sexual fantasies on the author’s part actually detracted from the story, plot, and my appreciation of the writer’s work. In the opinion the conversation reached, after careful review of the specific scenes, was this: Someone had schoolgirl sex-fantasies and perhaps there was therapeutic value to writing them out, but it was an unworthy addedum to an otherwise excellent series.

    In regard to the care and feeding of the young adult reading habit:

    I was, as many who have posted here, a precocious and voracious reader. Not only of science fiction and fantasy, but mystery and horror. Given that my reading was done under the light supervision of liberal parents during the mid to late eighties, I was exposed to a massive variety of subject matter. I remember the Cornelius Chronicles and the sexuality depicted in them very well. But I was more disturbed by Roald Dahl’s “Skin”. My parents went so far as to petition the public library to break their age standard for me to receive an adult library card at nine years old. Largely, no doubt, that I might pay my own fines. A dozen or more books a week were the norm. I read Heinlein’s works as a body, rather than separated by “juvenile” and “adult”. Certain themes certainly were disturbing, or evocative of reactions both hormonal and intellectual. But they also gave me a far more realistic viewpoint when these situations became a part of my own life. This means I am outside of the general ‘spectrum’ of whom you refer to as the target audience of Young Adult works, as being able to formulate my own thoughts after exposure to concepts rather than relying solely upon the input information.

    I believe we all do “children” a disservice in the assumption that they are incapable of evolution of thought or the separation of written or broadcast works from reality if they are taught analytical and critical thinking. People mention morality, though it is carefully re-worded in many places in this thread to avoid religious connotations. I could here refer to Ender’s Game – the fact that, children are not children until you are an adult. That we fail as a society to instill in ourselves until far later (if at all) the ability to differentiate between a work of fiction or entertainment and the reality of life, who is to blame?

    That all aside, on to my personal take:

    The parents are responsible for censorship if they feel their children should not be exposed to certain situations, realistic or not. A child accompanied by a parent or guardian and allowed permission may enter a rated PG-13 or R movie at any age. Said child can partake of liquor under the supervision of said adult. Said child can consent to sex in many states, with or without parental permission, and may enter long term relationships involving sex or even marriage either inside or outside of the parental relationship. Where I was raised, most teenaged males were the ‘owner’ of rifles and trucks. These things all present far greater hazard to the soul and life of both that ‘child’ and others than the idea that sex, drug abuse, sexual assault, or ‘perversion’ occurs. These teenagers were not 17 or 18, these teenagers were 13 or 14.

    Children beneath the ‘teenage’ years, 12 and lower, are a different situation. However, face the facts: Harry Potter was a problem not because of ‘adult content’ but because of ‘magic’. Phillip Pullman’s books had little criticism for sex, but drew great ire over their atheistic bent.

    Parenting should involve an actual understanding of the emotional and intellectual age of the children. While the complexities of modern life may create serious difficulties, these are not irreducible. I have found it is more often an adult’s discomfort with tackling these issues and concepts that is the barrier than the lack of understanding or ability to comprehend, even if not fully, on the part of the children.

    The author’s responsibility is to present a story. “Offstaging” certain things may well be in the best interest of an author wishing to write for the younger end of the Young Adults spectrum, defined personally as below 14 years of age. An author, as well as his or her editors, agents, and publishers, can determine what age group might be interested in a work. Or, an author might agree to write works for a specific age group. T

    he addition of a sex scene, relationship, or violent incident should be determined by the story and perhaps the thoughts behind the story. Could you accurately write a faerie story involving a young man in current day Iraq without speaking of violence, death, torture, rape, and other abuse? Would it be fair to do so? Was it right of the Brothers Grimm to remove so much of the darkness from their stories, to make them palatable to the adults? Was the recent movie, Pan’s Labyrinth, solely suitable for audiences over 18?

    I think that the ‘right and wrong’ of explicit depiction is a moot point. Ask instead if something truly harmful and degrading is being glorified. Should young adults be shown ‘compensated dating’ as a wonderful alternative path? Should young men be painted glowing pictures of the life of a high-school dropout turned into a meth dealer and pimp, with all the pain and darkness whitewashed away?

  52. L. Jagi Lamplighter // March 28, 2008 at 6:51 pm //

    Just realized that the above post looks as if I were disagreeing with your assessment of the Orphans of Chaos series. That was not my intent. You are entirely right about it. I definitely agree!

    In John’s defense, sort of, he wrote that series before he developed his current view. He was really embarrassed when he found out young teens were reading them. I think that did a lot to reinforced his views on the subject.

    As to the rest of your post, I am mainly in agreement, too — especially since you mention “Over 14”. I think that by fifteen kids are pretty well able to fend for themselves. It’s the 11 to 14 year olds that I am worried about. If another age division of the shelves would make it easier for librarians to help parents guide their children of this age, I’m all for it. (Nothing to stop parents from allowing precocious 12 year olds to range through the older shelves if they feel they are ready.)

  53. L. Jagi Lamplighter // March 28, 2008 at 7:59 pm //

    My posting fu is weak:

    The ‘previous post’ to which I referred but somehow lost read: Orphans of Chaos is not a YA book, nor was it published as YA.

  54. As both a teenager and a writer, I’ll have to say that no, YA novels–although I rarely read them–aren’t explicit.

    What I should ask is if they SHOULD be explicit.

    Teenagers are, as I’ve seen, the most stupid generation of our society. We want to believe that we’re raising the future leaders of our country, but how are we raising future leaders when we are neglecting the fact that teenagers NO NOTHING.

    Do teenagers know about sex?

    Do teenagers know about rape?

    Do teenagers know about child abuse?

    DO they? Do they REALLY know about it?

    No, and you know why they don’t know about it? It’s because the adult society has an idiotic view that thinks they have to shield their children from every little thing they think is bad.

    How do you know your child isn’t out having sex? How do you know if your child is using protection during that sex or not? Do your children know that you can contract HIV AIDs through sex, much less kissing?

    Do they?

    I seriously doubt it. Children these days don’t know ANYTHING because they are TOO SHELTERED. Back in the older days, children knew about sex when they were in diapers because they saw animals having sex in their backyard. Their parents didn’t say, ‘Oh, he just likes her,’ or something along that line.

    The above is just one fine example.

    Should YA books be censored?


    Is life censored?


    I don’t understand why people think a book should be censored when you let your children listen to rap music, let them hang out with others who are a bad influence and who let them run around with their pants around their ankles.

    ~ Kody Boye

  55. Sarah G. // March 29, 2008 at 2:03 am //

    Let me first say that I very much appreciate and agree with the points raised by the other two teenagers above (and forgive me if there were more whom I missed!).

    I am seventeen years old. I write.

    My background is likely different from most of yours. You see, my parents are both immigrants. They don’t read novels written in English. What little control they had over my reading material quickly disappeared as I learned the route to the local library (within walking distance). I think I turned out decently.

    When I was very small, my father, who is proficient enough in English to read synopses and Newbery lists, bought me books. My mother would bring me to the library and ask the children’s librarian to recommend books; she would also let me wander the shelves, and pick out what I wanted. She decided whether to let me check it out based on the illustration on the cover (it was usually a yes). My father would sometimes read the back cover when he got home. That was all the monitoring I got. That was elementary school.

    I read books such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Richard Wright’s Black Boy as early as the fifth grade. I found them interesting; they gave me things to think about. I was aware that the things I encountered was somehow “adult.” I did not need to have the concept of sex explained to me – besides, I was not quite sure how to translate it.

    Were my parents aware that I was reading about “adult” themes? Certainly. (They gave me an omnibus The Art of War and 36 Stratagems when I was eleven. One of the Stratagems amounted to “have your daughter sleep with the opposing general/king to manipulate him.”) Did they particularly mind? Evidently not. These are the same parents who don’t want me to have a boyfriend until I turn eighteen. These are the parents who raised me to believe in abstinence until marriage. Yet they let me read about sex and drugs and violence, at my own discretion, at age eleven. They knew that raising me well meant raising me to have good judgment (see abstinence, above) rather than sheltering me from reality. Et vous?

    Of course, given that English is not their native tongue, they knew that if they tried too hard to stop me, I’m enough of a bibliophile to get around it anyhow. Believe me, all you parents out there, even if your English is flawless, so long as you have bookworm kids, they’ll get around it too.

    Pax vobiscum,


  56. Sarah G. // March 29, 2008 at 2:12 pm //

    *I was aware that the things I encountered were somehow “adult.” (5th paragraph)

  57. “Having read nearly ever novel Mr. Wright has published, I would like to note that he has little standing to criticize the use of sex for titillation.”

    This is John Wright. Matthew is making two simple errors in logic here. The first is ad Hominem. The second is straw-man argument.

    I used to tend bar. I did not serve hard liquor to children. I did not serve hard liquor to seventeen-and-a-half-year-olds, even those who might have been able to drink responsibly. What I did was this: I served grown-up drinks to grown-ups.

    Now, back when I was a bartender, if I had heard one of my fellow bartenders saying “Should hard drinks be sold as soft drinks? The short answer is no!” or if I heard one of my fellow bartenders saying, “I used to get drunk every weekend when I was 14! Never did me a bit of harm!” I would have sharply disagreed.

    It would not be an act of heroism, bold defiance of taboo, to label a bottle of Kentucky whiskey “soft drink”. That would be false advertising.

    If a teetotaler stated that there was no difference between beer and root beer, we could bring into question his standing to make the statement. Likewise, if a bartender wanted to sell to kids because he craved the extra income, we could question his motives.

    But when a bartender says, “Don’t serve beer to kids” it does not remove his “standing” to testify to point out that he serves beer to grown-ups.

    So Matthew has it exactly backward.

    Someone who has written kid-friendly material, whose nice and fluffy books contain nothing explicit nor shocking, might that someone disqualified from having an opinion about the issue under discussion. He writes root beer. His books could be mis-labeled without harm.

    But someone who writes a book he would never put into the hands of a fourteen-year-old, he has a right to speak out, and an obligation.

    ORPHANS OF CHAOS was not written for children. My work steps over the line. It is not fit for children to read. I know it. Matthew knows it.

    Are my fellow authors who deem themselves heroes of literary liberation unwilling to know the when their work steps over the line? Do they know it?

  58. ....Seriously? // May 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm //

    “You want them to find out that they could be targeted for rape as a homeless teen by (a) Reading about it in fiction or (b) experiencing it.”

    …or you can c) be the responsible parent/guardian you’re supposed to be to your kids and TALK to them about it.

    Seriously? So the only way a kid/teen can learn the dangers of society is by reading about it in fiction or experiencing it for themselves?

    Right. So parents can just throw the good ol’ one-on-one convos with their kids out the window. Who needs to communicate with their kids when you have YA fiction?

    As if our society needed to get anymore disconnected.

    (Oh, and forget warning your kids about the dangers of touching the hot stove–they can only either read about it in their books or get burned and learn from the experience!)

    Small-minded, anybody?

  59. I did a study in college on whether content of TV and films actually influenced teenagers as many groups claimed and actually found the influences from media are very significant. And I know books influence me so I’m going to stretch out and say I think books have impact too. I take very seriously my responsibility as an author for everything I write and how it might affect readers and I think every author should. Hiding behind freedom of speech is as silly as it is illogical. You have a responsibility for what you put out there in the world. The fact that you may not care is a different matter. At the same time, I think while parents used to be the gatekeepers, that is not the case anymore. So when Librarians or teachers play that role, they shouldn’t be lambasted for trying to be sure kids get nurtured and protected. Certainly far too many in the media/arts have shown no interest in doing that. I do think things go too far with language, sex and sometimes violence. I think it’s not essential to the story all too often but just an author’s desire to rebel against cultural mores or moral police. And I think using such things should be carefully thought through with consideration for the audience intended. I’m sure a lot of the authors above disagree with me but so be it. 

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