books aren’t always nice


There’s a controversy raging in the literary world (the only kind of conflict I don’t avoid) about how dark and foul Young Adult literature is getting. This woman started it. Since the article went live, the writer has been thrown under the bus driven by the “no censorship!” crowd (quelle horreur!). But here’s the deal: She’s right.

One of the books mentioned in the article is the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I raced through them a few months ago. The novels are fast-paced (maybe too fast-paced at times), original, and compelling. I loved them. But I’m a 25-year-old woman, not a 15-year-old girl. I mean, you know what these books are about, right? Each year, 24 teenagers are selected to participate in Panem’s “Hunger Games,” which is basically a fight to the death turned spectator sport. The very premise is appalling (and yes, intriguing). While I was reading the series, I had to take breaks to get the images of all the gruesome deaths (of children!) out of my head. The themes of oppression, genocide, and political dictatorship also make these books difficult to read. And on the very last page of the very last book (spoiler alert!) it’s implied that the two main (teenage) characters have sex. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am the most prudish person in our Modern Age, but I can’t be the only person who has a problem with gratuitous teenage unmarried sex.

Are these “bad” books? I don’t think so. Would I give them to a 16-year-old? Maybe, if I had the chance to talk with him or her about the themes and judge their response. Would I give it to a 13-year-old? Not a chance. Some things, no matter how well-presented or how true-to-(someone’s)-life, just shouldn’t be consumed by children.

The author of the article makes her case this way: By f—ing gatekeepers (the letter-writing editor spelled it out), she meant those who think it’s appropriate to guide what young people read. In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!” Her dissenters argue parents shouldn’t shelter their kids from the true-to-life reality portrayed in YA novels.

I agree with the author. My argument isn’t about censorship, it’s about discernment. When I was a teenager, my parents hardly ever limited my exposure to media, whether books, movies, TV, or Internet. But, crucially, they taught me discernment and the ability to evaluate material for its worth beyond entertainment value. That’s one of the roles of a parent, along with providing shelter and introducing the classics like Star Trek: The Next Generation. Discernment for and as a teen is absolutely necessary because discernment as an adult is absolutely necessary. There’s still ugly, filthy, grotesque, obscene adult novels out there that may represent someone’s reality, but that doesn’t mean it should be read or that I want it in my head.

Does this mean I never let anything bad infringe on lily-white pure mind? Goodness, no. I make mistakes. Jonathan Franzen’s much-lauded Freedom is a great example. That book was so filthy. I mean dripping with nastiness. The filth swallowed up all other redeeming qualities of the book. I regret reading it and wish I would have had the smarts to drop out at page 100. The state of my mind during and after reading that book was convicting and a reminder to not be ashamed to say something isn’t good enough to put in my head. I don’t care what the critics say or how magically the book was written (and it was written magically), it wasn’t worth it.

Should yucky books be banned? No. But all media (books, TV, movies) should go through a filter of whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, and lovely. We can’t hide from the ugly reality of life, but we certainly shouldn’t spoon feed it to ourselves either.




  1. Lan

    ok, i read this last night and i had to really think about it. as a kid, i was allowed to read & watch ANYTHING. i was reading adult books, like VC Andrews, Danielle Steele & whatever war books my father was reading. i’m glad i wasn’t prohibited from reading anything, had i been, i would’ve snuck it.

    i read the Hunger Games this year, over a long weekend and i enjoyed it. in fact, in this last year i’ve read more YA novels than any other genre, even cookbooks. i *thought* of gifting the series to a friend’s 14 y/o stepdaughter recently and decided to get her Judy Blume coming-of-age books instead. i’m not her parent, i’ll let my friend decide if she can read it.

    i guess i’m just trying to say that i am against all forms of banning books but i do understand and am willing to compromise with regards to filtering on certain levels. i can’t imagine what it’s like to be a parent or how to determine what a child can/should read/be exposed to.

    PS. what did you think of the whole controversy of when Mark Twain’s Hunkleberry Finn books were re-printed with the change of the N-work to “negro” instead?

  2. joannalinberg

    Lan, I love it when people talk books with me! Yay! Good thoughts. I’m sure my thoughts on this (and pretty much everything else) will be so different when I have kids. I’m against banning books, too. I think readers should be allowed to determine for themselves what’s appropriate and what’s not. But the key, I think, is actually making that determination or, as a parent or cool adult (like you obviously are to your friend’s stepdaughter) offering a little bit of guidance about how to digest difficult material.

    p.s. I love that you give books as gifts.

    p.p.s. I’m against the change in Mark Twain’s book! I think changing it is throwing away the chance to talk about the context of the novel and to talk about how we respond to the language now. I realize that might seem to oppose my argument in this post about filtering/not filtering, but I think if Huck Finn is read to an appropriate age group, the filtering has been done.

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