Castle Librarian

Young Adult vs. Adult Books

In Reading on October 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I’ve just read:

Why Teens Should Read Adult Fiction by Brian McGreevy (and the comments).

and Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood by Alexie Sherman

The age old “age appropriateness” discussion regarding what adolescents should read is a paradox. We want to believe that reading/books can be a force for good, but we don’t want to think that reading/books can be a force for bad. We want to have free choice when it comes to our own reading, but we think that other people’s reading should be carefully controlled. Who knows what they may do!

Big assumptions are made. “Young adults want to read about characters their own age.” “Young adults want to read about the kinds of things they are experiencing in their own lives.” “Reading is good, watching TV and playing video games is bad.” “Every parent wants their child to be a reader.”

None of these assumptions were true in my own life. As a young adult, I read mainly adult fiction – science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. I didn’t feel like I could only relate to a character if he/she was my age. I didn’t read the YA novels of the 70’s and 80’s, whatever they were. I can’t even tell you which authors were popular back then. I did not want to read about “teen issues.” I had no interest in reading about social awkwardness, bullying, puberty, or whatever. I wanted to travel to other planets, other times, or other countries. Watching TV, I did a lot of that (although I lived in a pre-video game time) and in so doing watched many wonderful old black and white movies gaining a respect for the artform. Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Audie Murphy, Howard Keel, Yul Brenner, Bette Davis, Sandra Dee, Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, and many more enriched my appreciation of life and art. As an adult, I’ve played a few video games and – guess what? – there is a great deal of critical thinking involved. As for every parent wanting their child to be a reader, my mother actually told me that I read too much. I think that, for me, becoming a librarian is actually an act of parental defiance.

There needs to be a balance between controlling access to books and self-censorship. As a school librarian in a conservative community, I know that there are books I cannot, in good conscience, put on the shelves. (Please note that I do not live and work in America, so the rights to freedom of speech, the press, etc., do not necessarily apply here. Also, those who use my library are of a single cultural group and expect their culture to be respected.) However, it is not possible for a lone librarian to read every book in the collection from beginning to end and decide whether it is appropriate for every potential reader. Therefore, we have to do what we can and leave the rest to self-censorship of the reader. I remember books I put down without finishing because I could not relate to the main characters actions/morality. It wasn’t that the descriptions were too graphic for me, but that I could not care about someone who would do that act and therefore did not want to waste my time continuing to read that particular book. I cut my losses and moved onto something better.

However, not all teens self-censor. Some are drawn to the scandalous or titillating. The key is in having a moral foundation already in place before hitting puberty. The responsibility for that lies with parents, not teachers or librarians. Some parents are too laissez faire and children form their own version of morality or pick it up outside the family. Some parents are too intentional in their moral instruction and drive their children toward the titillation factor. I think that most fall in the middle, giving their children a clear framework of what is right and what is wrong without being too restrictive. I hope.

I remember being uncomfortable when my fourth grade teacher read Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead to the class. There is a controversial scene where Julie who has been married to an older boy (who is somewhat mentally challenged) and he tries to force himself on her. She foils the attempt by hitting him on the head and running away. As a 9 year old, it bothered me, not because I understood anything about sex or rape, but because Julie was 12 years old and he was older. I considered her to be a child and him to be an adult and I believed that adults should take care of children, not harm them. Am I scarred for life for having had that book read to me? No. Did I relate to Julie and understand why she might run off into the frozen tundra wilderness and try to survive on her own? Absolutely, the adults in her life were not taking care of her. Did it plant a seed of self-reliance in the back of my head? Quite possibly.

Every reader is unique. We cannot know what the reaction of any reader to any particular book might be. Even the reader might not know what their reaction is. I can only articulate my reaction to Julie of the Wolves because I have mulled it over as an adult. At the age of nine, I could not have told you why I didn’t like that part of the book. If one reader is uncomfortable with a particular book, does that mean no one should read it? Of course not.

But, the censorship debate will continue. Parents will continue to be up in arms when they see what little Johnny has brought home from the library. They will continue to bar their children from reading Harry Potter because it contains magic. They will continue to complain that Roald Dahl books are too dark for their tender child. There will also be parents who strategically place books where their children will discover them and choose to read the books of their own accord without being told. Or, as in my case, the parents will be blissfully ignorant of the content of the books being read and leave the child to explore the world of other places, people, and planets in peace.

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