Brent Hartinger (brentsbrain) wrote,
Brent Hartinger

What to do About Sexually Explicit Teen Books?

A poster on my AS IF! anti-censorship blog has posted some thoughts that I think get to the heart of the issue in the censorship of children's book. I thought they deserved to be highlighted in their own post:
You guys being authors, I have great respect for you. Let me ask you some questions. First, I am specifically not addressing the issue of homosexuality. To me, that is up to the people themselves, and books containing homosexual characters or themes should not be separated solely because of such characters or themes. So let's set that aside for now.

My problem is with sexually inappropriate books for children. Whether they involve homosexual or heterosexual or animal-human sexual activity to me is irrelevant -- the problem to me is the sexual content being inappropriate for children.

Look for example at "Looking For Alaska" by John Green. That book gets awarded the ALA's top honor for "young adult" books, the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award. The "academy awards" as YALSA head Pam Spencer Holley puts it. I read the entire book. It is very well written and entertaining. But on the issue of appropriateness for children, the book contains what I consider to be hard core sexuality. A boy pulls out his penis, she puts it in her mouth, and on and on.

Now "young adults" being defined by the ALA to be as young as 12, i.e., not even teenagers, let alone not even adults, are finding that the best book of 2006 for 12 year olds as recommended by the ALA is a book containing hard core sexual activity. The fact that the ALA awarded the book as its top YA book of 2006 means the book will be read widely thanks to local librarians and school librarians following the ALA's lead.

I'll set aside for now why librarians get to decide what's the best book for children instead of authors like yourselves who actually write the books.

Now let's all assume for the sake of argument that a book about detailed oral sex experiences is inappropriate for 12 year olds.

The question becomes could such a book be taken out of the children's section and placed into the adult section. That's the nut.

The ALA says no, it's not a librarian's decision. As Judith Krug said, it's real life issues so kids should read about real life issues to become an educated electorate.

I'm not sure how you authors would approach this since I narrowed down the hypothetical to winnow out extraneous issues.

But, in your responses, please discuss what you think the answer should be. Then, read US v. ALA and also Board of Education v. Pico, two US Supreme Court cases I believe to be relevant, and describe if reading those cases makes you change your answer in any significant way and why.

I thank you for your interest in this matter and I look forward to your responses
And my response:, I think you raise some interesting points. But do keep in mind that all "young adult literature" is not necessarily ALL for ages "12 and up." How could it? The difference between a 12 year-old and an 18 year-old is HUGE.

The genre actually divides roughly into three categories: lower YA (10-14), mid-range YA (12-16), and upper YA (14 or 15 and up). LOOKING FOR ALASKA is definitely upper YA, as are most of the Printz selections. That means they're typically "age-appropriate" for high school students. (For the record, LFA is about as sexually explicit as teen books ever get, IMHO.)

Also keep in mind: the "children's" section of a library also includes a "teen" section. So the only way LFA is going to be read or seen by anyone younger than a teen is if that kid is in the "teen" section (much the way a kid could also be in the "adult" section).

Would some parents not want their teens reading LFA? Absolutely. That's why it's essential that parents be involved in their teenager's lives, aware of the books they're reading.

I know that sounds like a cop-out, putting the responsibility on parents. It's a LIBRARY, right? The "teen" section, but still. Parents don't want to have to constantly monitor everything that their teenager is doing at every second. And they want to think that a library is a "safe" space for them, especially in terms of age-appropriate materials.

But what's the alternative? Are librarians supposed to decide for everyone what books are and are not appropriate for which kids for the whole community? To some degree, they do do this in the books they buy, but only in very broad terms. They have to leave the individual decisions to...well, individuals and individual families. That's because parents are all going to choose differently, based on their values, their interests, their kids' interests, the maturity of their kids, etc. etc. If librarians were take it upon themselves to censor certain teen books and topics from their collections, they wouldn't be doing what it is they exist to do, which is serve the ENTIRE community. (They would also be stigmatizing certain topics and members of the community, gay folks most definitely, which, as I've blogged before, I think it absolutely criminal.)

Think about how wildly different the values in any given community are. There are people who wouldn't want their children exposed to any book that criticizes the president, for example, or America, or Christianity. Should their values rule? What about the vegetarian who thinks it's immoral to shoot an animal and doesn't want his children exposed to that? Should these values by the deciding ones?

These are extreme examples, obviously, much the way LOOKING FOR ALASKA is an extreme example, in terms of sexuality.

(And we can't put the issue of homosexuality completely aside. There ARE lot of people, maybe even majorities in some communities, who think that children's and teen books with gay themes should be segregated, or not purchased at all. So should their values rule?)

There's also the fact that teens themselves are a diverse lot, and so are teen books. It would be ridiculous to restrict a "teen" collection so that the youngest teenager could read every book in the collection.

I think the only way to settle this clash of ideas and values, age groups and maturity levels is for librarians to stock the books that are sold and marketed as "teen" books in the "teen" section, and then leave it up to individuals and individual families to decide which of those books they want to read.

In the end, are some kids going to encounter books that some parents might not want them seeing? Perhaps. But that is the cost of ensuring that the library can meet the needs of as many people in the community as possible. In short, they're erring on the side of, well, freedom and liberty.

I know this is a complicated issue, with shades of grey. But I do think that these are important things to remember.

Anyway, thanks for contributing, I'm happy to hear others' thoughts!

It's all cool,

Brent Hartinger

P.S. As an author, I would be perfectly happy to decide which books kids get to read. I pick mine! ;-)

Grand & Humble
The Order of the Poison Oak (now in paperback!)
The Last Chance Texaco
Geography Club
Explore "Brent's Brain"
See my anti-censorship blog, "AS IF! News"

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