Let me start this post with a warning. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. Please do not start fighting or attacking people in the comments. We can all be adults and have a conversation to see how we can help with these issues.
This post will mostly be about young adult books, but can be pretty much any book. I’ll be including adult and middle grade topics. This will also get long because I ramble. Know ahead of time that I don’t always explain things as well as I should. I may not get my point across in the right way. This happens with me a lot. I am NOT condoning or supporting any illegal behaviors. I just want to see if we can find ways to show things happening in a way that’s not harmful. A book can be realistic without it having to be non-fiction. AGAIN, I am NOT saying any of these illegal activities are ok or good.
My anxiety is racing as I write this post since I never want to upset anyone. I really hope I handled it ok. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, but I’ve been terrified to write it all out and publish it. This is a lot of me thinking out loud and I apologize if I have something bad mentioned. I’m definitely not saying any of my thoughts are correct. They are opinions and mostly questions on what we can do differently. I’ve tried to make it very clear that I don’t condone the acts themselves, but that I want to see how far is too far in YA before it needs to go up to NA or adult fiction which tends to get away with a lot more controversial subjects. How can books reach the correct audience? I’m also sorry if I repeat myself a lot. I’ve added to this post throughout the week. I have no idea how many times I’ve edited it. And I’m still second guessing myself and worry about how I’m coming off.
I do my best to avoid twitter drama and negative goodreads reviews. We all know there are some people who just start shit to start shit. I find this harmful for the community, but I know there is nothing to be done about it. I do believe there are better ways to handle things than attacking books and authors though. We are now getting to the point that books are getting tons of 1 star ratings from people who haven’t read them and they’re rating based on what others say. We’ve seen a book get pulled recently because of reasons that I still don’t quite understand (I am neither black nor Chinese, so I can’t fully understand the history). Some books bounce back, but others do not. Some books do need to be rewritten. You can still write a small warning on goodreads without rating a book, too. That is perfectly ok. Mention that you didn’t read it and why. But the star thing bothers me and quite a few others I’ve talked to. Also, this should go without saying, but don’t tag authors in negative reviews or send them the links. It has to be hard enough putting yourself out there and they are human beings. They make mistakes. We as reviewers make mistakes. No one should be personally shamed or attacked for this.
Is this encouraging more books to be banned? Do people really think that everyone feels the same way when reading a book? Do people not realize that their voice is different than another person’s? I’ll use bi-sexual as an example. I’ve read reviews bashing a book saying how the bi-sexual character didn’t represent them, but then I’ve read reviews by bi-sexual reviewers who said the book and character represented them perfectly. Is one right and one wrong? I don’t think so. I think we need to understand that it’s almost impossible to represent everyone. I’ve seen own voice authors attacked for having jokes that a teenager may say. That is most likely something that happened to them and it’s a way to portray it accurately for them from their school years. Not that it’s ok. But because it’s common. I always find it odd when an own voices author gets attacked for not portraying themselves/their own voice characters the “right” way. Now if it is wrong and doesn’t represent anyone the right way (and is harmful), then there is a bigger problem (sensitivity readers, beta readers, publishers, I’m looking at you). Authors should always find people to read these books to see if they portray things accurately if it’s a topic they’re not personally familiar with (own voices). If they can’t, they shouldn’t write it. Make the character something you are familiar with.
Now let’s get to topics. I know there are readers that want to escape with books. They don’t want heavy subjects and that is ok. Never feel like you need to read something that doesn’t make you happy if that’s what you’re looking for in books. But other readers do want the heavy hitting, gritty books. I’ve recently seen reviewers stating that drugs and alcohol shouldn’t be in YA books because it’s illegal. Yes, it is, and we all know that. But it’s also realistic. I never went to a single party in high school where there wasn’t alcohol. Were we stupid? Yes. Were we reckless? Yes. But it also happens all over. I was lucky that drugs weren’t super popular in my school at the time. I went to high school in the early to mid 90’s. The stoners were a select group. They were called “the stoners” and they often times just hung out together. Think about the movie Clueless. We see so much in this movie that happens even though it’s wrong. Clueless has bullying, drugs, alcohol, teenage sex, and a relationship with a 16 year old and her college age ex step brother. But it’s also a favorite movie of mine. Now, drugs are all over and it’s horrible. I see teenagers dying from drug overdoes. We live in an area with all small towns. My daughter has probably seen more young people she knows die from drug overdoes than our family members from old age. How can we address these issues if we pretend they don’t happen? Or if we mention them too lightly?
Let’s look at some controversial topics for YA:
teens having sex
teens having sexual relationships that are illegal (consent ages)
sexual assault/rape (this includes statutory rape)
drug and sex parties
teacher/student relationships professor/student relationships
people in power sleeping with someone below them (more of an adult topic, but could be 16+)
shooting of unarmed black teens/racial profiling
the amount of gore in YA horror
I know there are more I’m forgetting right now.
How do we include these topics in books without harming people? Can it be something as simple as an author including warnings on the synopsis, their websites, and on the book itself? I already feel that this is needed. It’s why reviewers have warnings in their reviews. That way people can avoid those books. Is it enough?
Another thing for publishers: post an accurate synopsis with warnings. Potential readers should not be surprised because the book is not what it portrays. No one should be surprised and hurt while reading a book.
As readers, we need to choose books we want to read. Don’t read a book because it has some heavy topics you hate reading about just to complain. Don’t feel pressured to review a book because it’s popular. It’s ok to tell a publisher or author no. Definitely put warnings out there. But do it in a way to address the topic without attacking an author. They do need to tell their stories. What if they are writing about something that happened to them or someone they know? Should they not be able to tell their story? Should they have to admit it’s about them? I don’t think so. I feel like that is forcing someone to admit something they’re not ready to admit. That’s not ok either.
Authors: approach these topics the right way. They can be realistic, but you need to let the readers know that they are not ok. Either your character needs to realize it or you need to put it in an author’s note with the warnings. Young readers need to learn and not everyone has a good family life or someone to talk to. If you’re not showing the behavior is bad, you’re not doing a good job and it will make the teens reading it think these things are cool. All because an author must think they’re cool by the way they wrote the books (or tv shows and movies).
If a book is YA, I think sex is ok. Teenagers have sex. Don’t go into details. If you have a relationship that is unhealthy or illegal, state that it’s wrong. Don’t act like it’s ok. Yes, that teen girl feels like she’s in love. But she needs to understand that she’s being controlled and abused. Try your best to make it a sex positive book. Make your character 18 if you can. I know in some cases, they have to be younger for the story to work. This isn’t a trigger issue, but authors, please stop making losing your virginity amazing. It almost always sucks. It’s awkward. It hurts. It’s not all beautiful. Again, don’t get explicit in a YA book. And don’t shame characters because they’ve had sex. If someone does it in your book, make sure they’re corrected and called out on it. It’s not ok at all. Sex and figuring out your sexuality should never make a teenager feel bad. There’s enough slut shaming in high school as it is. Make sure teens know it’s ok and maybe try to include info on safe sex. I think that’s skipped over a lot in books. Just like periods. I see very few books that ever mention girls having their periods. I’m impressed by the ones that did and how they handled it.
For MG, I’m seeing people complaining that lgbtqiap+ shouldn’t be addressed because that age group isn’t supposed to be thinking about sex. But attraction and sex are not the same thing. Many kids know who they are attracted to at an early age. They need to know that they’re not alone and that it’s ok. They may be trying to figure out who they are at this time. And yes, there are middle school kids having sex. But I think this is too much for mg and should be left for ya and above.
Should we start rating books the way we rate movies? Should YA be split up into two categories by age and topic? Do you think that would be helpful? Should middle grade also be split up? I see a lot of very mature books and then others that could be read by a kid in grade school.
Also, as readers, we need to pay attention to time periods for books and where they take place. As a reader from the US, I know nothing about international laws or customs. I do know the drinking and consent ages are lower in most other countries. So don’t attack a book for that. Also the decades matter. Some things were so freaking common in the 60’s and 70’s that are not openly common now. That time period was the time of peace, sex, love, drugs, protesting, and rock and roll. Ask your parents or grandparents for stories from that time period. It’s actually one of my favorite time periods to read about. It’s so different than things are now. Some great movies to check out are Almost Famous, The 60’s, and The 70’s. Expect a lot of drug use from people of all ages though. Also, people hitchhiked a lot and got into trouble that way. There were quite a few active serial killers and cults/farms. They preyed on the young. Luckily now, I think it’s illegal to hitchhike in the US. At least I hope so. Why did we ever think that was a good idea? Also, know that if a book took place 100+ years ago, things were way different. Wives were property. People of color and women didn’t have rights. Slavery was a real thing. Girls were married off at 14, often times to older men. Some families got paid for the marriage. There were a lot of forced marriages. These things are all disgusting, but accurate for that specific time period. If it bothers you to read about these things, please don’t. No one should be hurt by a book they’re reading. Authors, try to keep ages closer when possible. I know you want to portray a time period how it was, but be careful about hurting people. Never make a book that makes this feel romantic. It has to be very far back in the past for this to be ok in my opinion. Along these lines, please don’t write all relationships as romantic. I haven’t looked at one for awhile, but there have been some studies that show around 50% of high school students said they were verbally or physically abused in a relationship. That alone makes me sad. You don’t need to make the relationship that bad unless that’s the focus of your book. But we need to get away from the Disney princess, fall in love and stay together forever, mindset. We’re talking teens here. They do break up. It’s not all happily ever after. That’s great for some books, but not all books.
Can we have historically accurate books without harming people reading them? Even now, the world is really messed up. But the past was a freaking mess. I personally like my books to be historically accurate, but I know others do not because of the harmful things that happened in the past. If I’m reading a book that takes place in the 90’s, I want to read about grunge, tight rolled jeans, big hair, etc. If I’m reading a book that takes place in the 60’s, I want to read about peace, protests, rebelling (and yes, the sex, drugs, and rock and roll). Is there a way to do this in a non harmful way?
I understand that this can be hard to accomplish in many books. If you remove a lot of the negatives from the time period, there will be people that complain that you’re erasing history. If you add it, others will say it’s harmful. Is there a happy medium? I’m not talking in fantasy books either, which I think can take more liberties since most are creating a fictional place. But more for contemporary and historical fiction.
Another question: Should heavy topics be in fantasy? Fantasy is where I escape. I personally don’t mind heavy topics in fantasy, but how do you feel about it? Would you prefer those things to stay in the gritty contemporaries?
If you look back, you’ll find so many problematic books, movies, and tv shows. But should they be banned? I don’t think so. I do think we need to look at why YA books are attacked in ways that TV shows or movies are not though. We see teen sex in pretty much every show now. We see drugs and alcohol. Some shows have done episodes about school shootings, sexual assault, suicide, etc. Are the TV ratings enough? It’s not just shows now either. I can go back and think about stuff I watched growing up. Beverly Hills 90210 had heavy topics at times. Sixteen Candles is a favorite, but the relationship was illegal (depending on what state it was in, 16 and 18). Clueless was mentioned above. That 70’s Show. Lots of drugs, drinking, and sex. And while these all have funny things, they did portray things the way they were. Dirty Dancing covered some pretty heavy and illegal things. Honestly, I can probably name very few things I watched as a teen that didn’t have this type of stuff in it. I do know that TV shows have the ratings and why they are rated the way they are. Should books have this, too? I also think tv producers need to be more careful with the books they adapt and make sure they are portrayed the right way. Don’t romanticize things that are harmful. Stalking is not romantic, but should still be addressed in books. Suicides are not romantic. Toxic, abusive relationships are not romantic. Do not act like they are. Change the plot if you need to, or chose another book to adapt. These things can happen, but it’s your job to make sure everyone watching knows these are bad things. And always include ways for teens to get help if they need it.
I hate calling out books by name, but I think I can mention some books that people would ban because of the content. But should they be banned or should they exist? Should we be censoring things? I know I hated censored music growing up, especially rap. I remember buying an album once and when I got home, it was all censored. I was pissed. Can it be toxic? Definitely. But does that mean an artist can’t tell their story in their own way?
Heroine: This book is so heavy. But it felt real. How can we address addiction with teens (which is the age they usually start experimenting) without having a way to reach them? Authors/Publishers, warn people before they read. But this book was an excellent way to open up discussion with teens. While they are not in this book, pharm parties are a real thing. Kids think a prescription drug is ok. They need to understand the truth. I thought this book was excellent, but it was also hard to read at times. Sadly, it felt very accurate.
Lolita (and books like it): First, yes, this is super gross. But does it happen? Yes. Teach your kids about sexual consent. Learn the laws in your state or country (US states are all over the place). Explain how older men take advantage of young teens. Give them signs to watch for. Keep an eye on who they are hanging around with. *Disclaimer, I haven’t read this book, but thought it was a good example that covers a lot of other books.* Remember that so many teenage girls that run away get into prostitution. Was that why they ran? No. But especially decades ago girls ran away to Hollywood to break into acting. Once they were there, they realized how hard that was and they had no money. The lucky ones were able to go back home. But others ran from a bad situation and they unfortunately tend to repeat it. Prostitution was a big one, but some girls will look for a “man” to “take care of them”. They don’t understand that it’s not love. Some get into pornography. This is all wrong. This is all gross. But it happens and can be talked about if it’s done in the right way. But how do we figure out a way to show these things safely without hurting others? Does this have to be for readers 16 and up?
Older books that we look back at and see how racist they were. They can still be read and we can learn from them. Use them to teach kids how disgusting racism is. Then hand them some books written more recently by black authors. There are a lot with heavy topics including racism and profiling. The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, Long Way Down, etc. WHITE WRITERS: DO NOT WRITE THESE. No matter how much you think you know, we’ll never fully understand slavery and the problems people of color still face. Also, as readers, we need to understand that there are cultural differences, too. Try not to judge too harshly if you read something that seems off or bad to you, but is common elsewhere (pre-arranged marriages are a good example). Teachers, don’t make a student read something that could hurt them. Sadly, so many “classics” are harmful to people. Also, not a trigger thing, but if you’re teaching classics, try choosing some books written by female authors, too. I’m pretty sure all the ones I had to read for school were written by men.
Romeo and Juliet: Where do I start with this one? We had to read and watch it my freshmen year in high school. First, the ages of the kids. Yes, they were kids. I know, I mentioned the time period. It was normal to be married that young back then. So teachers need to address that right away. Make sure they know that’s NOT ok now. Love at first sight? I won’t even get into that. Learn the difference between love and lust. And then the suicides. I sure as hell hope things like this aren’t happening, but I wouldn’t doubt that they do. Use it to open discussions or choose a different book. Don’t necessarily ban the books, but don’t make them required reading either.
Books with teenage pregnancy and abortion. These things need to be addressed. I went to a small school. There were around 100 kids in my class. 4 girls got pregnant and had babies our sophomore year. I know more people than I’d like to admit that had abortions. Writers need to find a safe way to address these things. And parents need to learn to talk to their young children (11 or 12 since I’ve now personally know two kids that had babies in middle school) about safe sex. I took this a lot farther with my daughter than just the typical speech. I talked about the feelings. I’m not sure about boys, but most girls feel this intense love once they have sex with someone. It’s scary. I wasn’t prepared for it. If I was, maybe I would have understood and gotten out of my relationship sooner. But I was so in love. I screwed up a lot and moved out at 17. I thought I wanted to have a baby with my boyfriend when I was 16. I thought we would be together forever. Then when I did get pregnant at 19, I freaked and realized I wasn’t ready. Luckily most of us learn from our mistakes. But if we can open communication more, maybe the future generations won’t keep repeating our mistakes and patterns.
Tradition: Sexual assaults are way too common in private high schools and colleges. Learn from books like this and talk to your children or friends about it. Make sure they know how to stay safe (don’t walk alone, don’t separate at parties, etc). Open up discussion using books like this as an example. I found some of my English 101 papers (I took it at 17 as a senior) and saw that I wrote two important papers. One was on teenage abortions. Another was on sexual assaults on women at college. How did I know about these topics and research them? Magazine articles (Seventeen, Teen, etc) and books. We didn’t have the luxury of using the internet back then, so the library was my friend. I wrote these in 1994. It’s sad that we still have to discuss these same topics in 2019.
If you are a teacher or boss reading this, stop sleeping with students and employees lower than you. I know that it was sadly common many decades ago for a woman to sleep her way up to a higher position. Why? Because women were not and are still not treated as equals. But this is so unhealthy. You are in place of power. Do not abuse it. Do not make a student think they can only get a good grade if they return your affections. Again, that is an abuse of power. In high school, many kids are under 18. In either case, it would be against school policy. And it’s icky. And it’s wrong. (Yes, I know people personally who had relationships like this.)
What this gets down to is this: How can we make things less harmful while still covering these scary and often times illegal topics? Warnings on all books? Something in the synopsis (publishers)? More sensitivity readers? Ratings? Moving the heaviest ones up to NA. Teens will still read them, but they won’t be as easy to get if their school library or if their parents buy the books? I know I don’t want to stop people from telling their stories. Whether they’re real or made up. Is there really anything we can do?
Another disclaimer: I don’t get triggered by anything. Animals dying and young children being abused are the hardest for me. But I can still read just about anything. I know that others cannot and we need to find a medium ground to keep things honest without people getting hurt. I am also 41, so I’ve seen a lot of shit in my life. I’ve heard my parents and grandparents stories. Some of these things might not be common now, but they were when I was growing up. I can read pretty much anything. Heavy topics get to me, but I can read them. I’m a true crime addict, so that’s probably why. Also, my mom let me read adult books at 12, so I’m used to things that weren’t in traditional ya books (I don’t think we really had YA when I was a teen).
Personally, I want to read all the stories. But I don’t want anyone else to be hurt by a story. I want to see topic warnings not just inside the book, but also ON the actual book. That way someone doesn’t buy it not knowing. I also want it in the synopsis and I want the synopsis to be an accurate portrayal of a book. Don’t tell a reader about this fantasy story and then have it be an inappropriate romance. Let the readers know everything ahead of time without giving away spoilers. I think we can maybe addresses ages for YA or moving some books up to NA. We need a whole section in bookstores and libraries for these books. And authors, please keep writing diversity into books of all ages. Just portray it accurately. If you’re not own voices, maybe hold off or find someone to help you write those parts. Tell your stories. I know I want to hear them.
I’m reading a YA arc right now that addresses things well. It takes place in the 90’s. When someone uses the words “slut or bitch”, a character says that it’s not ok and they she only says those things with her friend in a joking way. My BFF’s and I use bitch, but out of love and in a fun way. Never in a mean way to each other. But not that using those words as an insult is ok. Girls are mean and they can be portrayed that way in books. But I personally love how its addressed in this one. I know the topics are going to get heavier soon and I’m curious to see how those will be addressed, too. I’m only 20% in.
I am a huge fan of flawed characters in books. Morally gray at times. It feels real. These perfect kids in their perfect families don’t feel real. They’re fun to read, but I think we need both. One as an escape and to feel happy. The other if you want your book to feel realistic and that portrays teens in the right way. Most teens are assholes. I’m sorry, but they are. I was. I wasn’t mean to people, but I did talk about people with my friends. I said things I shouldn’t have said. And I was probably one of the nicer ones. I hope one day kids stop basing popularity on looks (and people who are often times horrible) and base it on personality. Maybe some schools do now. Mine was more focused on looks first. If you were a cute or pretty girl, you were safe from bullying. There would always be a few jealous people that would insult those girls, but most were well liked by everyone. We need to do better teaching our kids that the outside isn’t what counts. It’s what is on the inside. Books can help with this.
None of this pertains to authors who put controversial things in their books to get attention. Or just to have it and it has nothing to do with the book. Those people need to step back and look at how harmful this is. Also, this doesn’t pertain to correct rep except in what I mentioned early on. There are certain things that are wrong for everyone of that rep and it needs to be corrected. Again, beta readers and sensitivity readers need to point these out asap. If they don’t, the publishers need to do better and correct it before the book gets published. If as an author, you’re unsure if you’re getting the rep right, either talk with others or see if you can change part of your book. While I don’t agree with banning and censoring, I also don’t think it’s ok to write a book with rep that you know nothing about. It is your job as an author to tell you story in an accurate and in a way that isn’t harmful. You won’t please everyone. It’s damn near impossible. But try harder. Learn from other’s mistakes.
Again, I don’t want to hurt anyone. And I don’t want to see anyone being disrespectful in the comments. Do not attack each other. Do not start attacking authors by name. Everyone is allowed their opinion. Let’s try to work together as a community and see how we can fix this common problem.
What are your thoughts? Do you think books should be censored or banned? Do you think heavy topics are ok if the readers are warned ahead of time? Will this help keep readers from feeling hurt or just grossed out (pretty little liars is a good example of grossed out and I hate that I liked it anyway)? Do you have any ideas that I haven’t mentioned above? Do you think we can work together as a community and get things changed without making an author afraid to share their art? I do not agree with attacking an author. Address issues privately and in a respectful way. If an author tries to hurt someone on purpose, that’s a whole different topic. I’m talking in a way that they didn’t intend.
And thank you ahead of time for being respectful to each other. These are not easy topics to discuss without people fighting. I don’t think there is a single person who thinks the things mentioned are ok at all in any situation. But I also think that most of us can agree that all these things happen. For me, it’s a how can we have it in a safe way. For others, they don’t want to see any of these topics at all.
I hope no one felt hurt reading this post. I made sure to post warnings right away. I just wanted to address these since it doesn’t go away if we just ignore it. Maybe we can help? Maybe that should be our job as reviewers?
One more thing. What age do you consider to be young adult? There is the word adult in there. I notice most books consider it 14 and up. I consider it to be 16-22 or so. Is there a set age for books?
I think that is it. Now I’m going to sit here shaking for days while people read this. Some may end up hating me. I may be talked about behind my back. But if we don’t address these issues, things will never change. There has to be a right way and wrong way to deal with issues. And again, I am NOT condoning any illegal activity. I did plenty of these stupid things as a teen and into my early twenties and I can see now how dumb I was. I’m always open to talking about them if I need to. Thank you if you made it this far. And I’m so sorry again if I upset anyone. That was not my intention for this post. I didn’t post it to start crap or make people angry. I started it with good intentions to see if there is anything we, as readers/reviewers can do. And I know quite a few bloggers are writing books. I hope that some of this may help them. I’d rather see it in a thoughtful way instead of posts just full of attacks. Conversations and communication is so important if you want anything to change. But these need to be respectful. I try very hard now not to judge people. Anyone, including authors. It’s hard at times, but I always want to see the best in people. I hope there are less people out there intentionally hurting people by their writing.