Boundaries : How far is too far in Teen fiction? This was the title of a panel hosted by the Children's Book Circle at the Puffin Offices in the Strand this week. The theme was a response to the controversy caused by Wall Street Journalist, Meghan Cox Gurdon who wrote, 'Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity.' Hmm, so what should we write?
On the panel (from left to right) were Joy Court who runs the schools library service in Coventry, Bali Rai, author, Julie Randles from Scholastic Book Clubs and Fairs and Shannon Park, Executive Editor, Puffin. So here are the author and the gatekeepers, what did they think about the content of contemporary edgy, gritty, realistic, teenage fiction? How far is too far? What is not acceptable?
As far as Bali Rai is concerned, there are no limits over the age of 14 and there did seem to be a consensus that 14 marked a watershed beyond which anything goes. Teens know their own limits and will stop reading if they are not comfortable or curious about the content. But under 14 the gatekeepers certainly felt that language and sexual content needed to be controlled.
And what about the parents? Be careful about making assumptions here. Joy Court quoted a young Muslim girl from a strict background who insisted on the shortlisting of a very controversial book for the Coventry Inspiration Book Awards. Her mum apparently lets her read whatever she chooses because, "reading is safe."
Discussion focused on how unsafe/violent many computer games are, let alone TV content ( yes - before the watershed). In the pub afterwards the discussion focused on a Radio 4 programme about the rape of children, broadcast at 3.00pm - during the school run home! Reading is a million times safer, isn't it?
Quoting Gemma Malley, Joy Court pointed out, "Teenagers are not afraid." This is the time in their lives when they are prepared to engage with really big issues. We should treat our audience with honesty - that is what teenagers want. And I would certainly endorse this after 30 years teaching teenagers in London schools. Joy stated that we read to inhabit other lives and learn valuable lessons about life. Reading is in fact a much more positive experience that watching films on TV.
Bali Rai asked, "Are we creating a fear of YA fiction in parents and schools?" His new book Honour Killing is making a huge impact in the British Asian community and opening doors for discussion about this difficult issue amongst teenagers all over the country. This is a very controversial area that was little known about until only a few years ago. Books can open the door for teenagers to engage in such issues. Shannon Park backed this up by saying, "There has never been a time when YA books have been more relevant." In relation to the book, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, dealing with teenage suicide, Shannon quoted a teenager who told Asher, "I may not have been here if I had not read your book." What a powerful endorsement of reading!
WHAT ELSE THE PANEL SAID :
Kids love to read books that make them cry.
Teenagers are not one entity.
We need to show equal respect to all young adults.
It doesn't matter what they are reading as long as they read.
I am overwhelmed by the richness of the diet we offer young people here in the UK.
Reading is private so if you stop reading a book, no-one knows. You won't be teased in the playground.
For teens the most important thing is being able to choose what they want to read.
Where would you set the boundaries for teen fiction?