Here’s the scene: A high school gymnasium set with a hundred display tables. Behind each table sits an author or two. Stacks of books litter the tables. At one table sits an author clutching a Sharpie, awaiting the next chance to autograph one of the books she has written. It’s been a good day, there have been some sales, the authors to her right and left have been interesting to talk to. A woman approaches her table.
Woman: Hello. I’m looking for a book for my daughter. She’s 13 and she loves fantasy. Your books are fantasy, right?
Author: Yes. In my books….(She proceeds with her one minute plot synopsis designed to entice the potential reader.)
Woman: That sounds just like the kind of book she would like.
(Author fights the urge to take off the cap of the Sharpie.)
Woman: One question, though. Are your books appropriate for a 13 year old?
Author: There’s no language, drugs, drinking or sex.
Author: I should tell you that the mother is killed in the first 30 pages, and there are lots of battle scenes.
Woman: That’s fine. (She reaches for her wallet.)
This is a scene that’s happened to me countless times. Okay, maybe not countless. I’m not a NY Times Bestselling author after all! But it’s happened enough. And there are two things that really bother me about this familiar interaction.
Number One, I am bothered by the attitude toward violence. When the woman asks if the book is “appropriate” that’s really code for sex, substances and language, probably in that order. Never is she worried if the book might be too violent for her child. When I say “the mother is killed,” it never gets a response. And notice, I don’t say that the mother dies. She is killed. Implication of violence.
“That’s fine” is the answer I almost always get.
Given what’s been going on in the world today, you would think that there would be some outcry against the violence, but it doesn’t even register. The book I’m working on now has no violence. I’d like to think that’s a selling point, but if I have any kind of sex or language in it, I’m sunk.
Which brings me to Number Two: the knee jerk aversion to sex in books for teens. Many teens decide during high school to start having sex. According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, almost half of all high school seniors in 2013 reported being sexually active, as compared to to 20% of ninth grade students. (http://recapp.etr.org/recapp/index.cfm?fuseaction=pages.StatisticsDetail&PageID=555) So lots of teens are making decisions about sex during their teen years. On one level, it would simply be bizarre to ignore this aspect of their lives when writing about teens. On another and far more important level, I worry about who is talking to these kids about sex? For too many parents, it seems to be a taboo subject. What percentage of those sexually active twelfth graders are making the decision to have sex without any input from adults?
For some kids, me included, my best information about sex came from books, not from my parents. And I was discerning enough to recognize the bad sexual encounter from the good one. Books didn’t send me to sex. They taught me about it. And I’m not talking about Our Bodies, Ourselves. I’m talking about books like Forever and many others by Judy Blume, the author best known when I was a kid for taking on the controversial issues. And thank goodness someone did or would I have never known how Anne and Gilbert, Katy and Ned, Laura and Almanzo did once they professed their love for each other!
I wonder what would happen if we were in a world where “appropriate” was a question about violence rather than what is often an expression of love. It seems like we have it backwards.