By Karen J. Ohlson
Sex and the Young Reader
Four years ago, King Dork was my first clue that “young adult” literature had changed a lot since my middle-school days.
The author of this YA novel, Frank Portman, is an old friend of my husband who led a punk-rock band for a couple of decades. So I bought King Dork at a book-signing party, had it autographed for my son, and started reading it immediately.
This mix of teen-misfit social comedy and alienated-youth monologue à la Catcher in the Rye (a book that Tom, the hero of King Dork, loathes for its cult status among English teachers) had me pretty entertained—until I reached the first blow-job scene.
Call me an overprotective mom, but I wasn’t keen on my eleven-year-old son expecting teen relationships to begin with the girl leaping onto the lap of the boy she’s just met, licking his mouth, and then offering to gratify him orally:
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she said finally in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘giving you some head.’”
Uh…excuse me? Last time I’d checked, YA books were covered in the “Children’s Books” section of the New York Times Book Review. (They still are.) And the official age range for YA, according to the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), has long been twelve to eighteen—an unofficial invitation to strong readers of younger ages as well.
I felt betrayed. For years, I had delighted in discovering children’s books I could enjoy with my kids and recommend to nieces and nephews. Book reviewers, booksellers, and librarians were my trusted guides. After reading King Dork, I wondered if these gatekeepers had abandoned their posts, leaving me adrift with my kids in an embarrassing new world of way-too-adult YA titles.
At this point, I’ve read many more YA books, thanks to the mother-daughter book group I joined with my thirteen-year-old daughter (my son is now fifteen and likes regular adult books). While very few of the titles I’ve read are as explicit as King Dork, I’ve had to come to terms with a new YA in which casual sex and drug use occur in books that win the highest honors—and that I’ve recommended to teenage readers in my life.
Perhaps that means I’m one of the irresponsible gatekeepers now. But hear me out. As a member of the Facebook generation might say: It’s complicated.
What’s OK in the New YA
Lest you get a false impression, I should make this clear: Out of the fifty-some YA books I’ve read in the past four years, I’ve encountered fictional blow jobs in only two: King Dork and John Green’s Looking for Alaska (the 2006 winner of YALSA’s Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature).
Also, I’ve come across only one freaky three-way makeout scene (in Liar, a 2009 title by Justine Larbalestier) and just one seriously-stoned-on-a-regular-basis narrator (Cameron, the Mad Cow Disease victim and modern-day Don Quixote at the center of Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, the 2010 Printz Award winner).
To me, these titles represent the border area of what’s acceptable in today’s YA, rather than the center—and they’re few in number. But it’s not so much the number of truly edgy titles that pushes me out of my comfort zone; it’s the way the mature content is portrayed in these and more mainstream titles.
While the YA category has pushed boundaries (and parental buttons) since its early days, the mature content was treated much less nonchalantly back then. Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) and Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) got a lot of attention for their frank portrayals of teen sexual pressures and the realities of abortion and contraception—and their characters took these issues very seriously.
Maybe too seriously. The Zindel book felt heavy-handed when I reread it recently. The girl who “goes all the way” pays for it in spades, getting dumped by her boyfriend and driven to a hack abortionist by a sleazeball who is now the best she can hope for romantically.
Still, as a parent, I find the more casual treatment of similar subject matter in today’s YA a bit unnerving. For example, the way the blow job in Looking for Alaska is a not-so-significant plot event for the narrator as he watches TV with a new girlfriend to whom he doesn’t feel particularly close:
Just as the Bradys were getting locked in a jail, Lara randomly asked me, ‘Have you ever gotten a blow job?’
‘Um, that’s out of the blue.’”
Sexuality and drug use often occur as a matter of course, or even as background noise, rather than as major focal points of the narrative—both in Printz Award winners and cash cows like the Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar.
Take Off Those Billabong Shorts
—Before They Get Sweaty
The Gossip Girl books are about a Betty- and Veronica-ish duo of rich teenage Manhattanites constantly battling for the affections of Nate, a vapid preppy stoner. Here’s how we first see Nate in Don’t You Forget About Me—through the eyes of one of his gal pals, Blair:
[H]is wavy brown hair streaked with gold, his eyes perfectly matching the green Billabong board shorts hanging low on his hips…. Even though they’d been together 24/7 for the last month, drinking frosty-cold mango margaritas all day and getting hot and sweaty all night, she still couldn’t get enough of him.”
Despite the impressive amount of time the Gossip Girl characters spend drinking, smoking pot, and having sex (with no ill effects to their model-perfect good looks), these activities feel secondary to the soap-opera plots and consumer-porn product mentions:
Blair felt a tinge of sadness as Nate threw her apple green Hervé Chapelier tote over one shoulder and grabbed his own dirty monogrammed canvas L.L. Bean tote.”
(His monogrammed tote is dirty? No wonder she’s sad.)
To older teens, casual sex and drugs in books like these may be no big deal. As the seventeen-year-old daughter of a friend said, when teased about tossing a Gossip Girl book into her gym bag, “No one takes these books seriously, Mom.”
However, when I asked the thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds in our book group how they felt about sex in YA books, they admitted to feeling uncomfortable when the scenes are too graphic or when the relationship turns sexual too soon.
One of them asked, a bit plaintively, “Do authors have to make it so the moment a couple admits they like each other they have sex?”
This question made me wonder whether the YA publishing world has lost sight of its primary audience—especially since adult readership of YA books has risen dramatically. A recent New York Times article, “The Kids’ Books Are All Right”, notes that “nearly one in five 35-to 44-year-olds say they most frequently buy YA books. For themselves.”
Whose YA Is It, Anyway?
If I were reading YA books for myself and not as a parent, I wouldn’t find the mature content to be any big deal, either. As a parent, though, I had to laugh when I read the following response from John Green to the blog post “What to Do About Sexually Explicit Teen Books?”:
I have no problem with a parent reading my book and saying, ‘Nah, I don’t want my child reading this.’ That’s fine. In fact, if I had a 12-year-old, I might not let them read ‘Alaska’ for any number of reasons…. [T]he book is published for kids 14 and up.”
Green goes on to insist that Looking for Alaska has never been shelved in the children’s section of bookstores, and that “the ALA [American Library Association] does not hand it to 12-year-olds or say that it’s appropriate for 12-year-olds.”
I admire John Green’s writing and find much humor and truth in his books, but he’s being disingenuous here. The teen sections of bookstores and libraries are often adjacent to those for children, as was the case in the Barnes & Noble where I purchased one of his books. And a parent hearing that Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award, from an organization defining the age range for YA as starting at age twelve, would not be out of line in assuming the book to be appropriate for twelve-year-olds.
Young teens and tweens still form a large part of the YA readership—ask any parent whose daughter was in fifth or sixth grade when Twilight came out. Designating a YA book as being for “14 and up” in tiny font on the inside front flap (as in King Dork and Going Bovine, although I’ve seen no such designation on the covers of Liar and Looking for Alaska) in no way means that eleven- and twelve-year-olds aren’t going to read it.
But I don’t think the answer is to segregate mature YA books in special areas of bookstores and libraries for older teens only. Some library teen sections look too much like that already—to my daughter’s horror.
The Smokin’ Hot Library Teen Zone
Welcome to the YA section of the main library branch in Oakland, California—an area known as the “Teen Zone.” The Teen Zone is located at the opposite end of the building and up several flights of stairs from the Children’s Room. Neither of my teens wants to spend any time here.
Why? My daughter says, “too many cheesy romances”—a charge she levels at the YA sections of other local branches as well. I think she’s putting it kindly.
Everything about this room screams, “Reading is hip! There’s sex here, and violence, too! Please read something, oh reluctant teen reader!” (In fact, only three of the seventeen teens I count in the room are reading books; the rest are at computer terminals.)
Graphic novels are featured prominently. On the main fiction shelves, many of the books have brightly colored spines with eye-catching titles that combine sex appeal and teen relevance. Here are some that jump out at me as I stroll by one of the shelves: Kiss & Blog, T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., Prom Queen Geeks, and Spanking Shakespeare.
I haven’t read any of these books; they may be excellent. But when you’re surrounded by them, it’s as if a convergence of searchlight beams is identifying you as a TEENAGER who wants to read about SEX and LUUV and GANGS and ZITS and every EMBARRASSING or SENSATIONAL teen-associated subject you can imagine.
No wonder I can’t drag my kids in here. My daughter prefers library branches with less embarrassing YA shelves, preferably integrated with the regular Children’s Room and with more fantasy and adventure titles mixed in.
So how about keeping mature YA titles mixed in with regular ones but adding easy-to-find advisory ratings? (As it turns out, the tiny-type “14 and up” I found on some book covers is more about reading level than spicy content.)
That’s the answer proposed in Tony Buchsbaum’s “Are Your Kids’ Books Rated R?” in January Magazine, where he advocates content ratings for the covers of YA books. Buchsbaum’s argument sounds reasonable, but check out the comments that follow it: 188 of them as of this writing, beginning civilly and escalating into a flame war.
“It Would Fly Off the Shelves”
Many of the comments point out the ethical problems in deciding what content requires a parental warning (sex? drugs? violence? language?) and the slippery slope toward censorship. But the most persuasive come from teens themselves, like thirteen-year-old Emily’s incredulous response:
Do you know what an R rating on the front of a book cover would scream to 10, 11, 12, 13 year olds? It would scream READ ME. It would scream I AM CONTRABAND. It would scream YOUR PARENTS WOULD NOT APPROVE. And, therefore, it would fly off the shelves.”
Or this comment from fifteen-year-old Paige:
I’ve been reading YA since about third grade, and I’m sure more then once I’ve come across things that my parents probably would have wanted me to not know about until an older age. But the truth of the matter is that adults can’t—and shouldn’t—be filtering what we read…. Would you rather have us experience it through a book, or first-hand?”
Touché. I would absolutely rather have my kids read Looking for Alaska, with its believable portrayal of the awkwardness surrounding a blow job (between two teens who don’t know what to say to each other beforehand or afterward, and who soon become estranged), than go through a similar experience themselves.
My Détente with YA
Ultimately, I’ve had to accept that YA is just a market segment (ages twelve and up), not a rating or a guarantee of “appropriate” content. We live in a world where YA books compete for teenagers’ attention with everything from texting and video games to Facebook, YouTube, and the endless outer reaches of the Internet. (Adult content? Where isn’t it?)
As much as I’d like YA publishers and organizations like YALSA to take more responsibility for what they put out there to an audience that clearly contains plenty of tweens and young teens, I’ve had to realize that the mature-content genie is already out of the bottle. Our job as parents is to help kids handle the onslaught with their own best judgment. And YA fiction that lets them experience unwise choices vicariously isn’t a bad thing.
Even if YA sometimes strays outside my comfort zone, I feel grateful my teens are reading at all. They’re finding books that connect with their lives in truthful, thought-provoking, and entertaining ways. I’m also grateful that they and I can find books we all enjoy reading, books that I’m excited to recommend to others. (See my list in this issue of TW, “Ten Teen-Tested Titles.”)
So I’ll continue to let my kids read any YA book they want to—including, in my son’s case four years ago, King Dork. He did, however, have to hear my views on why I found its portrayal of teen relationships troubling. And when he asked if he could use it for his sixth-grade book report—that was a no.
Karen J. Ohlson satisfied her own youthful curiosity about “mature content” by filching sexy adult bestsellers from her parents’ high-up bookshelves—back when some content was thought to be so shocking that the authors identified themselves only by letters (anyone remember The Sensuous Woman by “J”?). She (Karen, not “J”) is the Reviews Editor of Talking Writing.
“Illustrator” is Susan Crane Link’s last stop on a trip to try all jobs across continents and solar systems. Susan started out at NASA (yes, she is a rocket scientist!), then raced through advertising and branding before landing in Hollywood. She currently lives in the Boston area.
Her most recent manuscript, Muffin Top, champions frosting-challenged baked goods in a cupcake-crazy world. Some “samples” appear here. (Susan’s illustrations also accompany “One Mom’s Comeuppance” in this issue.) You’ll find more of Susan’s work at her website and online portfolio.