Friday, 8 July 2011

Reading is Safe ...... by Miriam Halahmy

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!


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?


  1. Great post, Miriam! Thanks so much for sharing that. It echoes what I've always believed and yet, in the past, argued with so many about. The reality is out there, in every other place from real life, the media, games, movies, stuff on the net - for too long writers have been dissuaded from facing the real issues as though fiction is somehow immune and needs to portray an "unreality" or a sanitised version of life - which does neither writer nor reader any credit. Kudos to the panel.

  2. Fabulous post, Miriam. I wish I had been there to listen to it. I think the YA books for today are so relevant to what the teenagers feel and go through. I wish they had been around when I was younger.

  3. I am with Viv on this one. I wish there had been books that dealt with how I felt as a teen. It is all fluffy blue skies.
    I have to censor some of he boosk for Year 7 due to the content but if there parents are willing to send in a note to let them read it then away to go.
    I try to discuss certain things with my 10yo and feel she is very mature in her attitude as to what she is comfortable reading. If there is something I do not feel she is ready for I explain why. How do I knwo this - because I actually read them myself.
    Perhaps Ms Gurdon should do the same

  4. I was allowed to read what I wanted because, like the Muslim girl who was quoted, my parents felt reading was 'safe'. I'm so glad they thought that. My parents were so strict we were rarely allowed out, so reading was the way we learnt about life. I think it's so important that there is teen/YA fiction available today that is real and contemporary and relevant to those age groups, plus all the other genres too. Choice is everything.

  5. This sounds as if it was a very interesting evening. The trouble, if it arises, is from MUCH YOUNGER KIDS reading YA fiction. In my experience, it's kids as young as 8 or 9 who make for the YA shelves in the libraries. The REAL 16/17/18 year olds are already presumably reading adult books and thus MISSING a lot of stuff they'd enjoy enormously. 14+ does seem to be the line where most things are okay, but you do have to be aware that much younger readers are likely to be reading these books. If the book is too difficult or worrying, they will probably drop it. I also have my worries about some ADULT books lately, I have to admit. Not that I'm for censorship or anything, but I have recently put aside two thrillers that were too much even for my hardened and ancient stomach to take!

  6. It was interesting though Adele that people talked about the books they read as children, because of the lack of books in earlier days and Dennis Wheatley was a clear favourite - I was reading that stuff at 12 - totally unsuitable. And I agree about the kind of stuff even adults find on their shelves today. Boundaries should not only be discussed in relation to children and teens.

  7. Thanks for posting this Miriam, it's encouraging that the majority of people are in favour of honesty in YA fiction, so long as its done responsibly of course. It does seem ridiculous to be so sensitive about what books young adults are allowed to read, given the content of much of the television and games they are exposed to.

    One of the great things about books is that they often take time to explore different perspectives and examine characters motivation and the consequences of actions in a way that games and films don't. Life throws up a lot of challenges and stories can provide a different perspective and even help us cope. As was pointed out on the night, I think readers are quite good at self censorship and will stop reading if they don't like what is on the page, whereas on a screen it's sometimes harder to walk away, or too late by the time you realise what is happening.

    Some of the best writing around is to be found on the teen and YA shelves, it would be a great shame if these books stopped being published due to a climate of misplaced over-protectiveness.