The world is causing me to shred rope this morning. With my teeth.
I am cranky and have decided to share my crank with you my gentle and not-at-all cranky readers. I know that I’ve written this rant in different forms already. I fully expect to write it again. Here goes:
Ever since I because a YA writer I have been hearing certain people accusing me and my colleagues of writing books solely for the sake of being as dark/bleak/shocking/perverted/[insert your own personal bugbear in adjectival form here]. “Why did you have to put x into your book?” is a question that almost all of us seem to hear at one time or another.
It drives me nuts.
YA writers who write about anything that isn’t considered to be squeaky clean or uses language stronger than, “Oh, bother!” get this a lot. We’re often accused of writing “dark,” “edgy,” “controversial” books in order to increase our sales.
Newsflash: the inclusion of swearing and sex and drugs and the other things that render YA books less than squeaky often, nay, usually, has the opposite effect. Book clubs won’t pick them up, Wal-mart and Target won’t stock them, nor will many school libraries, and lots of conservative parents won’t let their teens buy them.
Sure, you can point to teen books that have sex and swearing and drugs that sell; but there are just as many that don’t. It is not the automatic sales shot in the arm that so many people are convinced of.
I have never written anything for the sake of being “dark” or “edgy” or anything else. The YA writers I know think long and hard about including anything “controversial” because nine times out of ten it will reduce their sales, not increase them.
Valiant by Holly Black is often accused of being deliberately shocking; it’s her worst-selling book.
Of all the YA books I’ve read, Valiant is the closest to my teenage experiences. I recognised so much in that book. I found it moving, honest, beautiful, scary, dark and brilliant. It made me weep in sadness and, by the end of the book, in joy. I’ve read it four times so far and each time it has gotten better.
I’ve been wondering what it is about the book that bothers people. Perhaps they don’t like it because they didn’t recognise anything from their teenage experiences, therefore the book seems to them deliberately and inexplicably dark. They grew up safe and happy behind their white picket fence and weren’t interested in reading about teens that didn’t. But my friend Diana Peterfreund disagrees because she had a white-picket upbringing and she adores Valiant.1
Maybe the Valiant haters recognised too much and that made them uncomfortable?
I should point out that these are all adult complaints about the book: The teens who don’t like Valiant are mostly annoyed because it isn’t a direct sequel to Tithe.
All the adult complaints I’ve heard about books like Valiant and Looking for Alaska seem to stem from discomfort with the reality of some teen lives. Have they forgotten how traumatic teenage years can be? Have they forgotten that many teenagers swear, that they not only think about sex, but some of them have it, some of them drink and take drugs? I’ve met and talked with enough teens over the past three years2 to know that many of them are extremely grateful to have their experiences reflected back at them in the books we write—whether those experience are dark or light or a mixture (which is most people’s experience). Once I would have argued against problem novels because I personally don’t like them. But I’ve heard too many teachers and librarians tell me tales of students finding comfort and guidance in a book about child abuse, or a teen with alcoholic parents, or anorexia or whatever.
Recognising yourself in a book—in any work of art—is extremely powerful. It’s one of the ways we learn we’re not alone.
Some teenagers grow up in very dark places. Some of them go through dark, scary times. Some teens have friends and relatives who’ve overdosed, been murdered, raped, tortured, deported, gaoled, executed. Teen lives are as varied and scary and wonderful as adults’ lives. Those stories deserve to be told just as much as the story of Anne of Green Gables.
Some of us cope with the dark times by re-reading Anne of Green Gables. Some of us cope by reading stories that touch on our own horrible experiences or that are even worse.
Valiant, however, is not a problem novel. It’s a fairy tale with the requisite fairy tale ending. It affirms that even in the darkest of times a fairy tale ending is possible. I love it; I would have loved it even more as a teen.
I know that writing for teens is a huge responsibility. I take that responsibility seriously, which is why I believe it’s my duty to write books as honestly as I can.3 Whether it be the froth and bubble of How To Ditch Your Fairy or the darkness of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Pretending that teens aren’t people with as wide a range of desires and aspirations as any adult is dishonest.
Okay, I feel slightly less cranky now. Slightly . . .
I think the complainers are one rather small step from the banners. They’re not complaining because of genuine concern (though I’m sure they think and say so). Instead, I think they’re trying to project their idea of perfect values into the books.
I think it would be interesting to give all of Them what they want for a generation. The chaos that resulted would certainly teach the world a lesson… if it survived.
YA is a growing category, and there will be some growing pains. The current generation of teens is extremely media savvy. If you dumb stuff down or wash away the realism, they’ll see it immediately and reject the censorship. I’ve met a lot of ignorant teens from the current generation, but even they tend to be more intelligent than what I remember when I was a teen. (ignorant = uneducated, without knowledge; intelligent = able to process knowledge).
Write for the brightest, cut out or whitewash only what you have to to make sure it can get published, and remember that teens are simply adults-in-training.
It strikes me that there are two (interlocking) things going on here:
(1) “The children” currently serve as the group constituted to justify the restriction of all our liberties (and women’s freedoms in particular) in order to protect and defend their innocence. To the degree that more “difficult” YA novels both suggest that many children are not innocent and allow other children to partake of their experience, they undermine this particular rhetoric.
(2) To the extent that “difficult” YA novels might be said to reflect an underlying reality, they point towards an embarrassing breakdown in our social network. Americans have such a passionate investment in the notion that we all start out on an equal playing field and thus are all fully responsible for where we end up in life. How can that be sustained in the face of stories of the dark, scary places and times that teenagers have to go through without the kind of support and care that the rhetoric in (1) suggests they are entitled to?
I guess The Great Gilly Hopkins is a problem novel, but, God, as a kid it was the Gillys and the Meg Murrys and the Harriet M. Welsches–the angry girls wrestling with their fates, not the princesses waiting behind their picket fences–that I most needed to hear about.
It seems that so many writers, especially for teenagers, have lost their “day eyes”. The books then are just as false as the Leave It To Beaver stereotype of Dick-and-Jane goodness, where the authors seem to have gouged out their “night eyes” in order not to affright the kiddies (or, more likely, their parents)
I think a fairer question than “why did you have to put in X?” is “why did you leave out Y?” Where’s the rest of the story? The rest of the world? And if you chose to narrow your focus down to just this bit, well, why? Especially if the “why” is real question, wanting a real answer (usually interestiing) rather than just a reflexive opportunity to condemn.
In any event, if you’re not writing a documentary; it not a mirror; it’s trompe-d’oeil. What you choose to paint, and how you choose to paint it, is in the end a choice. One hopes it’s made with care…
 Why, oh why, isn’t The Glassblowers Children as popular in the anglosphere as it is in Sweden? This is such a useful story! And so well told. Brief summation: A raven had two eyes, a day eye that saw only good, and a night eye that saw only evil. When he lost one (his night eye) he was no longer wise…
I agree with everything you’ve said here except the implication that the Anne of Green Gables books are all sweetness and light — because they’ve actually got quite a lot of gloom, sorrow and despair in them (esp. the later ones), and the presence thereof was one of the reasons I re-read them so frequently as a teen.
Writing for young adults is not the same as writing for little kids; but even little kids need books that tackle difficult subjects (the death of a parent, the death of a pet, being very sick, having to go into hospital, surviving parents’ divorce and remarriage…). The books that spoke to me most strongly during my horrible early-teen years had a lot of bad stuff in them: sex and accidental pregnancy, unhappy love affairs and unrequited love, child abuse, violence, death galore, SIDS, war and destruction and the Holocaust and orphans surviving in the ruins. Anything that made me weep buckets, I’d read over and over. Some of what I read is highly recommendable, while some of it (I’m thinking particularly of a certain series of YA books about teens with terminal illnesses of various kinds) was formulaic trash, but I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who would never have dreamed of censoring my reading.*
I also liked to read frothy stuff, granted. But teens, just like grown-ups, need all kinds of stuff to read, and they need to be allowed to use books and reading (and writing!) for all the many purposes adults use them for. Being an adolescent is horrible enough without dictatorial adults telling you you can only read happy things. Sheesh.
*Not all my friends were so lucky; one was marched out of My Life as a Dog by the ear following the penis-in-bottle scene, while another’s mum confiscated her copy of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 because it mentioned breasts.
You are awesome.
Valiant is Holly Black’s worst-selling book? Well, I personnally think it’s her best book! Haven’t read Spiderwick yet though. Shh.
I feel like a lot of adults, particularly those who don’t read a lot or who, at least, don’t know much about the industry, are sort of perverted as to what sells and what doesn’t sell. Apparently, like you said, sensational and controversial books sell better. Well, that may be true sometimes, but I definitely think the book has to come at the right time. A book that’s amazingly popular may not have been if it’d been published ten years earlier.
I’ve heard way too many adults snobbing books, or music, or whatever, simply because it’s successful. I know that’s not quite the same issue, but you got me thinking about it. “Oh, yeah, that’s just some commercial crap.” Sure.
Oh, what a good post. I gotta link, even though I already did one today.
I have been looking for a replacement copy of “The Glassblowers Children” for YEARS. (And “Elvis, Elvis!”)
I don’t have much to add to the previous comments — I’m just constantly amused and seriously disturbed and frightened by, say, the Amazon comments from adults I see that seem to assume that 14-year-olds are five, or that keeping all knowledge of unpleasantness from them is actually doing them a service.
(Ahhh. The Glassblower’s Children. I see what you did there.)
people who grumble about issues in books are SILLY!
silly silly silly
why on earth they think they can dictate what I read is beyond ME!
the weird thing about being a minor.
Fortunatly I had a really great mom who encouraged me to read anything and everything (well except horror books that I had to steal from my brother).
oh and i’m technically an adult now… so that helps too…
but uhm… fight the power justine!
Thank you Justine! Thank you for writing this!
I’ve honestly never read any of your novels, but, I just read Uglies, and was talking to a friend of mine (we’re 17, by the way), and he hasn’t read it yet, and, when talking about Uglies, I said “I kept waiting for the sex scene.” And he seemed shocked. Not because he can’t handle a sex scene, but because he seemed surprised I would suggest that sex scenes have a place in YA. (As an aside, I’m not disappointed there wasn’t a sex scene. I mean, its not like Tally was at the Smoke for that long, but, if she had been there for a more significant amount of time, I would expect that either it would have happened or a concise explanation of why it hadn’t happened would show up eventually.) When he asked if sex scenes are appropriate in YA, we had the following conversation:
Me: You’re 17. Your girlfriend is 16. Tally’s age.
Me: And how far have you two gone?
Him: Not all the way.
Me: Exactly. If there was a book about a relationship similar to yours, wouldn’t a scene that involved some sort of sexual activity be important? Even if the book was intended for people between 13 and 18?
My point: Teens have sex! Gasp! In books about teens that involve relationships, if they’re the type of characters that would go all the way after a couple of months, they should go all the way! Or whatever!
This point can be translated to drugs, alcohol, or any other “edgy” thing you may put in your books.
In many ways, Valiant is my favorite of Holly’s books (I’m sure this won’t last as she is constantly inventing new and brilliant stories). Despite the fantastical elements, Valiant has resonated for me as a cautionary tale about love. The people suffer. Not the ‘author twirling mustache as he writes painful scenes’ approach but a very realistic, ‘I am alone, despite all these people around me’ sentiment. Ravus feels that way. So does Val. It causes them to act out, lash out, hide away, seek comfort, sometimes all at once. It’s a rich book, full of raw emotions.
Did you guys hear about the controversy behind The Higher Power of Lucky? They wanted to ban it because Lucky wants to know what a scrotum is. After I read it that really irked me. Lucky is just a curious kid, and it’s really only mentioned twice: the beginning, and the end, where she asks what a scrotum is. And it is explained in the best way imaginable. When I told my aunt about this book she thought it was a cute and had me read it to my cousins for her.
Sometimes I wonder if the people complaining about these books even have children, and if they do, how good is their relationship with them? I bet that they really don’t understand their kids. Because, seriously, the parents who actually care want their children to read these ‘dark and shocking’ stories, so that they know life isn’t all peaches and cream, because it isn’t. Life can be very dirty and gritty and hard and, most of all, SHOCKING! Just like all these books people are complaining about. Life doesn’t always end happy so why ban books that imitate life in one form or another?
UK children’s publisher Random House just did a survey of parents (under 2000 respondents, mmm, how representative) and concluded that British kids are going to hell in a handbasket because they are drinking and having sex so young. UK newspaper dutifully contacts children’s author Jaqueline Wilson for a comment; she says she thinks it’s sad kids are growing up too fast; newspaper then criticises her for writing novels about kids who drink and have sex…
From the Independent:
‘Fiercely strict parents, ugly divorces, terminal illness, and various kinds of abuse are all common themes in Dame Jacqueline’s work. Given such gritty content, is there not a whiff of hypocrisy about her outrage?
“I wish I could write novels in which children didn’t have to confront these issues”, said Dame Jacqueline, who has sold more than 25 million copies.
“But my role as a writer is to hold out a metaphorical hand to these children, and to reflect the difficulties they face in an imaginative way….”
I agree with so many of the comments that have already been made, and I’ll just add that it seems to me that there will always be people uncomfortable with teenagers showing any kind of maturing or independence – ie, sex, drugs, disobeying authority, etc. And in my experience, they tend to be people scared of the world in general. Scared their child will go a different path than they did, or more often, than they want their child to go.
A few years ago I suggested a friend let her eleven and thirteen year old daughters watch Bend it Like Beckham. After she watched it she got really angry at me for suggesting she show her daughters a movie about a girl who disobeys and lies to her parents and flouts their moral code. (She also incidently advocated for installing spyware on her family computer to spy on her kids’ online activities). My response was astonishment that a movie showing a strong independent and pretty-morally centered young woman would be viewed so negatively.
It’s just one example of my experience that people who are uncomfortable reading about/watching movies about teenage sexual or chemical experimentation are also uncomfortable with teenagers.
i get what you mean about the swearing. there was this kid who sat behind me in german class and he said a cuss word every other word. i got really annoting. and all of my friends say cuss words on a dialy basis.
if it is a book about tenns it needs to have things in it that teens say and do. you don’t want a teen book where the characters say “oh, how are you my dear old chum.” or “oh, my!i am so weary!” and stuff like that that that tenns don’t say! i am a teen so i know!! 😉
“Pretending that teens aren’t people with as wide a range of desires and aspirations as any adult is dishonest.”
Thank you! We’re treated like children and expected, in opposite moments, expected to act like an adult, and a child with no knowledge of the world as it is.
My best friend and I both have divorced parents. My mother barely gets out of bed when i wake her, and Maria’s gotta take care of her younger sister. We both have moments where we forget, because we’re expected to be responsible adults, that we’re only 15. It’s ridiculous to expect that we as teens don’t know what the world is like, merely because we’re not adults.
Oh, one more comment I forgot to make. With regard to the comment about the Higher Power of Lucky…
That whole hoopla about librarians threatening to ban the book because it included the word scrotum was somewhat not so much based in reality.
The original article claimed that the book was being banned or that librarians were threatening to ban it because of the use of the word scrotum. That is not accurate.
The author based her story on an online discussion of a handful of media specialists regarding whether the book should be recommended for use in the classroom. Specifically, one librarian wrote something like “I’m not sure I’d recommend it be read out loud to one of the 4th grade classes.” But all of the librarians discussing it already had it in their collections.
In following up on the story, an AP writer discovered that no one was actually advocating for banning or actually banning the book. In fact, the librarians he contacted from the same online discussion list all had it in their collections.
Now, I am not advocating for (or supporting) that the word was even a concern – it is the anatomically correct word, would they have preferred a slang term? – or that educators should refrain from using the book because of it, etc…
What I am saying is that no one was discussing banning the book until after the article said it was being banned, and I am not actually aware that anyone ever really banned it.
There certainly was controversy after the article was printed, but the article’s original controversy was not based in reality. It’s a shame the New York Times never printed a correction to that ridiculous story.
You can read a little more here, although maybe out of deference to the Times it doesn’t clear up all the exaggerations and ridiculousness:
I totally agree with you. It is so aggravating to listen to people who seem to think teenagers lives are these happy times filled with no care in the world. So why would they want to read such books?
Yeah, sure. I admittedly am not a huge fan of Valiant. But not for the reason given by adults. I love both Tithe and Ironside very much and this comes from the gritty realism. Holly writes so vividly and I love that. But I know some people who would be shocked at the amount of swearing and drinking in it. I think they keep their heads in a whole in the ground too much. Her stories to me are some of the most real I have read. I feel so much like I’m actually there.
I’m not a big fan of swearing, but I’m also not so naive to think that teens don’t cuss. And I think sometimes adults/parents don’t want to think that their kids do. They seriously need to get over themselves and pay attention.
“Why did you have to put x into your book?” is a question that almost all of us seem to hear at one time or another.
It drives me nuts.
It drives me nuts, too, especially because no one ever asks this about an adult book. I started off writing for adults, and it was only when I switched to writing for kids that all the “should yous” and “why did yous” started showing up.
It especially drives me nuts because a sixteen year old really isn’t a child. They’re not that different from an eighteen year old, all told. But there’s this notion that if you’re even a year or two under eighteen, you need to be protected from everything. It makes no logical sense.
(In, say, books for seven year olds, the issue is maybe a little more complicated, though even there, not as much more complicated as some folks seem to think. Seven year olds live in the wide world too, after all, but that’s a whole other issue.)
Well, just so people know.
I love both Valiant and Looking For Alaska. Think they’re both great books, and have copies of both of them in my bedroom.
I think it (Valiant) has a lot to do with the fact that people are most comfortable with predictable stories. A sequel should pick up where the previous one left off. What she did was innovative and slightly experimental. It was risky, and she reaped the benefits and the damages there.
I liked the story, though I didn’t understand why it was loosely titled a sequel until I got to the end. I think a lot of people were upset they didn’t see Roiben and Kaye immediately, and intimately. The new characters still had a remarkable depth to them, and I loved her solution to the iron problem.
There’s some interesting research in linguistics and psychology showing that as people age they actually tend to speak more about the future, and more positively in general (they use more ‘good’ emotion words like ‘happy’ and ‘excited’ and fewer negative emotion words like ‘sad’ or ‘tired’). The stereotype that the young are full of hope while the elderly bear more than their share of despair isn’t bourne out.
Which makes sense, if you look past the stereotypes. The older we get, the better able we are to think about the long term, to realize that the things we might have thought, as teens, would break us, are in fact survivable (in many cases because those things have come to pass, and we’ve survived). We know ourselves, so we know how far to push ourselves, what we need in order to recover, how to replenish our resources. Adults often have more obligations – mortgages, family, career – but with those obligations also comes power and control that teens and children don’t have.
When we’re younger, we’re still figuring out how the world works, and how we work within it. We push ourselves too far and break. Far more people have control and influence over us, and sometimes that influence is abused. Everything is more immediate. I know when I was in grade school a week felt like FOREVER. In high school six months felt like a very long time. In college it was a year. Now a year feels like nothing. I feel like the younger one is, the more space tragedy and pain can take up. All the habits and adjustments that let people weather hard times are still being built, and often smashed, when we’re young.
I think it’s a travesty that people don’t want kids reading ‘edgy’ literature. And *swears*? Jesus, I went to a good grade school, and I still knew every swear word in the book by fifth grade. Are people aware of how young some people are when they lose their virginity these days? Even those seeking to reverse that trend need to admit that limiting books with sexual activity in them is not what they should be spending their time on – books are just easy targets, ways for people to feel like they’re accomplishing something. I was a dark kid – if I’d had to survive on empty Mary Sunshine pablum I would have quit reading. Seeing things from the world around me in the books I read helped me come to grips with them, to think about what they were in relation to me. Without that, I would have been much worse off.
From a 14 yr old whose father won’t let her read Looking for Alaska until she’s 16 (and possibly older) and thought that Valiant went “a bit too far” (actually, it rocked)- Justine, I freaking love you.
I amy have used the term ‘ban’ a little too losely. And I didn’t mean the librarians were trying to ‘ban’ it, more like certain people who have way too much time on their hands and rather than do anything productive, like, say, actually read one of these ‘controversial’ books they would rather complain about it without really knowing what the book is about.
And thank you for then link, I didn’t know about that one.
I also loved Valiant. My latest theory is that adults want to think that it’s the books, movies, TV and bad companions that give kids dark, edgy ideas because then they (the adults) could control teenagers’ behavior by controlling what and whom they see. Wrong! Newsflash: the kids can’t be controlled and as you so rightly point out, Justine, unfortunately many of them have survived situations as horrendous as any problem novel. When I heard that Looking for Alaska was being considered pornographic, I thought “Well, then, we need a lot more pornography out there.”
Yeah, I would have to say that my biggest complaint about Valiant was that I was expecting a direct sequel to Tithe and didn’t get it. But Ironside makes it all better, so YAY!!!
It really seems like sometimes adults don’t understand teenagers at all. They seem to have forgotten the years before they were 20 completely. I’m 21, and yes, that’s an adult…but I LOVE YA. In fact, when I’m shopping for books, that’s directly what I go for. No one would ever find me in the adult sci-fi or fantasy…just because I don’t think they’re as well-written as YA. YA authors are forced to write at a higher standard because teenagers are just pickier, I think. And thank goodness for that. Then I wouldn’t have anything to read otherwise.
Thank you so much for posting this, Justine! You are saying everything I think when I see lists of banned books. I was looking at a poster the other day of books that had been censored, and Mark Twain was on it for goodness sakes! There were books on that poster that dealt with difficult and sometimes mature issues, but that is not a good reason for censorship. And when you read some of the stuff that’s out there not being censored and then look at stuff that is, I wonder where the logic is at all. The poster said ‘Censorship is Blindness’. I could not agree more.
Everyone else has already said what I’d be saying in my second paragraph!