Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Meandering Monday (6)

Last week, if you were on Twitter, you may have seen my tweet about how apparently "damn" (also, "damnable" since it includes the word "damn") is a curse word and people are appalled at its use, particularly in YA Literature. This was because a blogger friend directed me to a blog centered on screening books for pre-teens and teens from a Christian perspective and issuing a rating of the book based on just the appearance of swearing, sexual content, violence, etc. rather than HOW those things were utilized in the book. That's the part that is really important- HOW those things are used to tell the story. Is it there for the right reasons, or the wrong ones?

Yes, swearing can get a bit much in YA books, as I said two weeks ago, and can be lazy, but if a writer is really good, they can include swearing effectively without it seeming like it's there for shock value. Teenagers swear, parents- get over it. Just because you never hear it happen around you doesn't mean that they never do it. High schools are a COMPLETELY different world. YA books reflect that reality and can do it very well.

One of the books reviewed on this site (I skimmed through all their posts and found books that I had read or had heard good things about) is This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen. I have yet to read this book but I know that TONS of people name it as their favorite Dessen novel. In the review, this was said: "I was glad that Remy was changing her life, I only wish that instead of that meaning saving sex till she is “in love” it was saving it until she is married." This book was not recommended because of the casual take on swearing, sex, smoking and alcohol. Casual in the sense that it happens and is not stopped or used as a heavy-handed moral lessen. As all YA authors know, teens do not take kindly to didactic stories. I can't even imagine what these people would think of Ellen Hopkins' books.

I was amazed at how many AWESOME books were given a 1 rating, like Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart ("The casual attitude towards drugs, alcohol and sex is not a good example for teens of any ages. The snarky, quirky, manipulative manner of Frankie is not something any teen should aspire to be."), kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata (too bleak), Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (too violent, though the prequels were given good ratings), and Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (swearing, negative attitude, drugs, sex; not recommended at all- very vehement rejection of book).

In regards to Mockingjay, the "too violent" remark was funny to me because while I haven't yet read them (I know, bad blogger!), I know what kind of books they are. Even if the war and violence weren't shown in the first two books, stakes have to be amped up and the situation the characters are in already is extremely horrible. This was never going to be a walk in the park. The Harry Potter books get darker as they go on too- these characters are growing up because of what they're going through (though with Harry, he was growing up age-wise too; Katniss, I believe, didn't age much, if at all through the trilogy though I could be very wrong). Their world is not pretty and those authors pulled no punches.

Other books like Paper Towns and Jellicoe Road are given extremely vehement rejections. The reviewers find little, if any, positives in these books and wonder why they were given awards. Perhaps their realism is too much for these reviewers? None of them seem to live in the real world, but instead in some Christian-centric orb that surrounds their neighborhood or whatever.

What makes the site even weirder is when the reviews say good things about the writing and the characterization and the sort of technical aspects of the novel, but can't recommend the book because of the horrible, sinful, scandalous things happening inside. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare was one such book- characters saying "Sex before marriage is A-OK!", the two gay characters, swearing (Lord's name in vain a lot), drinking, and drugs are mentioned as being in the book. The reviewer found the book appealing, but couldn't recommend it due to all those negative things I mentioned above.

It's the same sort of thing, but reversed, for the book My Brother Sam is Dead by James Collier, which is a fictional book about the American Revolution. Obviously, many bad things happen here- it is after all taking place in a war. It's a gritty book and was given a 1 rating by this book, yet the book was recommended for its accurate portrayal of the Revolution and that time period. The same, for some reason, cannot be said for today's contemporary YA literature, unless it's God-oriented. Realism is used against these novels, but applauded in historical fiction. How does either of these scenarios make sense?

I hate that these kind of people have this kind of pull over not only their own children's' lives but also the lives of other people's children. Luckily, this particular blog only has 45 followers, and commenting seems to be rare nowdays. But there are probably plenty of other blogs out there doing the exact same thing but more popular at it, like Common Sense Media, which has no common sense whatsoever. It's just so stupid. I mean, after having seen that the word "damn" is still a swear word, I had this image of a 25 year old with a sheltered childhood at work with a colleague who just said the word "damn" and Sheltered Childhood Guy goes "Ooooh! You said a bad word!" with their hand covering their mouth LIKE A CHILD. That guy? He's gonna get his ass kicked, or at least will be ridiculed at work forever.

What do parents think this does to their children? It doesn't save them from it because they'll see it eventually at college or when they're out on their own after college, if they don't see it before then. It harms them. Keeping them protected is one thing, but I think it makes more sense to talk about ALL these issues with your kid or teen in a rational, thoughtful manner instead of pretending it doesn't exist. YA books can help spark the discussion for a multitude of issues; this is why we need realistic, well-written YA books because those are the best ways to learn about an issue, I think.

OK, this is HUGELY long and I didn't mean for it to get this way, but there's still a few things that didn't really fit in the overall essay of sorts, so here they are:

There was a review of Marked by P.C. and Kristin Cast, where this question was asked: "How could a mother and daughter write a book with such bad language and sexual content?" Um, because both are adults who live in the real world? They have a good, healthy relationship where they talk about hard topics? Because bad language and sexual content happen in regular teens' lives these days? Go ahead, pick one- they all work.

This was said of the first Georgia Nicolson book- "Not only can I not recommend this book, but I would like to go so far as to encourage parents to keep this and all Georgia Nicolson books out of the reach of children!" HAHAHAHAHA! Isn't that funny? Anyway, they also didn't like it because Georgia is disrespectful of her parents and authority figures and that's a big no-no. Even when the authority figures are EXTREMELY STUPID AND DESERVE TO BE DISRESPECTED.

Hush Hush was given a 1 rating because "this book might have the capacity to draw in young teen readers to the world of the occult, and using elements of scripture makes it even more offensive." Apparently, these Christian parents think teens are stupid. Maybe theirs are, because of being sheltered, but actual teen readers in the real world are not going to be drawn into the world of the occult because of a book about a fallen angel. Also, your scripture isn't as perfect as you're making it; obviously, this fallen angel research and stuff is coming from somewhere and that would be from the Bible. They aren't making up stuff, just extrapolating from what's already there.

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass was given this funny little note under sexual content- "None – It was nice to read a book where a boy and a girl could be just friends with no romantic involvement." Um, maybe it's because they JUST TURNED 11?! Why would they be interested in each other in that way at that age?

Finally, a book I absolutely adore, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, which was given a 1 rating due to Lord's name in vain, some cussing, and sexual innuendos as well as attitudes to premarital sex. "God reverences his name above all names, and I cringe when I hear or read it used in a profane manner." The reviewer found the objectionable stuff unnecessary to the story even though it is REALISTIC. People take God's name in vain- get over it.

OK, this is probably not the best way to end this post with a "get over it!" but ah well. Put your thoughts in the comments- they are screened but only so spam doesn't get through. Every legitimate comment will be put through.


  1. This is a great post, James! I can totally see why you needed to get this off your chest. You are so right about the context of swearing and other such content. I think context is always important when discussing books that are challenged/banned.

    Thanks for the awesome post!

  2. I have never understood this. My mom has always let me read whatever I wanted - as long as I could handle it. And she trusted me to know what I could or couldn't handle. I think it made me far more independant and willing to read outside my comfort zone than if she hadn't. (For example, I read Jane Eyre in 5th grade. Not exactly MG stuff, no? :P)

  3. BC - you're on fire - great post!

    The fact that books can have the power to scare narrow-minded people is pretty depressing. One of the teachers who comes into my library works for a Christian school and she had some parents complain that their child was reading an un-Christian book - it was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!!!!

  4. Wow... How narrow minded are these people?
    I'm a Christian, so I get where this reviewer is coming from (sort of...) but as you said, these things happen. Swearing, alcohol, drugs, sex - they're facts of life and sheltering your kids from them doesn't help. This person is way off the rails and needs to check out the real world once in a while.

    Yes, from this reviewer's perspective these things may not be desirable book content, but when you go around giving books that are clearly winners with the rest of the population trashy ratings, wouldn't you realize that maybe you're in the wrong?

  5. I think what is sad is that while these families are trying to raise their children within their values system (which is fine) they aren't teaching their children how to apply their values to the real world. My mother talked about these topics in relations to our faith/family values and expected me to be able to carry that with me into the real world. You can read a story, and know that you personally would have made different choices, but still enjoy it/ be touched by it. Hiding what might be seen as a sad reality does not mean it's not there.

  6. First of all, I'd like to thank you for your blog, which I began to follow not long ago.
    I especially apreciated the openness of that article.
    It was a very interesting read, especially because I'm french, and sometimes we don't quite get the point of people such as the reviewer you mentioned.

    In terms of literature, I think we're really open-minded in France, although the YA genre is quite new there (book sellers just begin to use that term actually!). Some people say we're a pessimistic people, I'd rather say we tend to be pragmatic, that's why violence, sex, drugs (and so on) not quite shock the french reader, even the young one.

    Those things are part of our lives, why hide them under some varnish of principles? It won't make the reader more mature I think.

  7. -Claps- Thank you
    this was wonderful except the link was broken but thats is easy to fix

    hopefully more people will respond with their own entries on this topic or even just replies I can't wait to see what people think

  8. You know, I sometimes think some authors use curse words just for shock value, but you know what? I can tell when they do, and I have a huge problem when that's the case because Teens (and most adults) don't really talk like that.

    But I do curse a lot, so I'm completely okay when characters in stories curse in a way that make sense, when it doesn't feel fake.

    Now, my parents were always very loose with the censorship in my house, and yeah sometimes I wish they had been more watchful(like when the 7th Day Adventist school I went to made us read the Apocalypse when I was 11, I would have loved for someone to censor the hell out of that one, its so not apt for kids). But - save for a panic attack or two (thank you Apocalypse) - I don't think it did me any harm.

    I learned to think for myself, I learned to decide what I like and what I didn't like and to respect and accept all types of point of views, even if I didn't always agree.

    On the other hand, I am a big believer of "Age appropriate stuff", but not as if I think books for kids or teenagers should be dumb-ed down or anything like that, more like that I often quote Meg Cabot in saying that if you're asking if you old-enough to read something, you probably aren't old enough. I think there is far more common sense in that, than in counting out how many times someone thinks about sex, or says a curse word, and then saying it's not a recommendable book because some said damn 10 times instead of just 1.

  9. This is a great post! Yes, there may be some YA authors who go a little too far with swearing and other such content, but sometimes that is just part of the character's personality, and honestly, those things are just part of life.
    If young adults aren't exposed to it by reading, they will be exposed to it by watching TV, talking to a friend, or whatever the case may be.
    It all comes down to it being the parent's responsibility to talk to their teens about what is out there and teach them right from wrong.

    Daniele Lanzarotta
    Author of YA novels

  10. Great post, James. I really agree with everything you said. Yes, there are some books that involve a LOT of swearing/sex/alcohol/drugs/whatever that may not be a appropriate for all readers but seriously, the ones that you mentioned are not those books. This Lullaby is NOT a "dirty" book by any means. People need to realize that teens swear, have sex, do drugs, fall in love, and all that stuff. But they also need to realize that we aren't stupid. Just because we read about a character in a book having sex doesn't mean WE'RE going to run off and have sex.

    It's much better to have a discussion with your child than it is to shelter them.

  11. There are a few issues here.

    People have different tolerance levels for language. If someone is offended by "damn," then that's their prerogative. They're also entitled to seek out books that don't use language that offends them. They're just not entitled to keep anyone else (other than their own minor children) from reading books that do contain that language.

    I have to wonder, though, why anyone would review books that contain language that offends them, point out the merits of those books, and then refuse to give a good rating to any book that contains any language they find offensive. If that spoils the whole book for them, why not put the book down after the first curse word and move on to something else? Why plow through material that they claim to find offensive, over and over again? Whom does that serve?

    They have a right to review the books using such sensitive criteria if that's what they want to do, but it just seems like a big waste of time and energy.

  12. My parents have always allowed me to read whatever I wanted. When I picked up This Lullaby years and years ago, I can honestly say that it was the first "young adult" book that I had ever read, and I loved it. The reason I loved it? Because it was REAL. It showed a real teenager facing real problems and I just loved the story. And just because I enjoyed reading about Remy and her life, that did not in any way make me more likely to make the same choices.

    The same could be said for any of the books you named that were given bad ratings. They are all realistic portrayals of teenagers, and real teenagers have flaws. Sex, drugs, swearing, etc... it exists in the world and even if a person reads novels that deny the existence of these things, it doesn't mean that they don't exist. I believe that it's much better to be exposed to these topics, because then a teenager will be able to make an educated choice about the type of person they want to be.

    Also, even though these topics are represented in these novels, I don't believe that they are in any way trying to convince readers to follow the same path as the characters. They are stories meant to entertain and enlighten. All of the novels listed are wonderful and inspiring for teen readers, and just because they show swearing, sex, drugs, etc, does not make them any less worthy to be read.

    And, my last point: if you find the material offensive, don't read it! There are plenty of christian novels, or novels that are light and fluffy and contain very little offensive material. If those types of books are your cup of tea, then go for it! Nobody is forcing you to read novels that may be offensive. Just like nobody is forcing me to read Christian novels. We all have the choice to read what we desire (and I truly feel bad for those children whose parents censor their reading, although that is the parent's choice) and if we don't like what is available, there is always something more. There are so many books in the world: just because some books aren't to your liking, doesn't mean that there aren't others that you will enjoy.


  13. Spot on. Even from a supposedly Christian point of view, one would think that it would be more harmful to ignore reality than to experience it. This doesn't happen because these people are Christians, it happens because they are idiots.