Boundaries: How far is too far in teen fiction?

Published on: 12 Gorffennaf 2011

From the film Clockwork Orange directed by Stanley Kubrick.jpgLast week I went to an event organised by the Children's Book Circle in response to a now notorious article written by Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal on 4 June'.

Meghan claimed that 'contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity', which caused an uproar in the international publishing community.

Author Bali Rai, librarian Joy Court, executive editor for fiction at Puffin Books, Shannon Park, and managing director of Scholastic Book Clubs, Julie Randles discussed whether there were any boundaries in teen fiction in the UK today.

The general response from the panel was there should be no boundaries in teen fiction, especially for over 14-year-olds, as long as there is a clear moral framework and there are consequences for actions. If a young person reads a book about a certain subject - drugs/sex/self harm for example - will they be more inclined to experiment with it? Junk is a book which would completely discourage a young person to take drugs. It was generally agreed that reading is a safe and private place where young people can experiment and experience things outside their own reality.

It was felt that a lot of the books mentioned in the article had not yet and maybe would not be published in the UK for a good reason. All spoke of the high quality of books available to young people today in the UK. Reading for pleasure means free choice and teens will seek out adult books if they can't find what they want in the teen section.

How to treat the teenage reader

All agreed that it's important that teens are reading - not so much what they are reading, and spoke about the importance of treating teens with the same respect you would have for adults and their reading choices. They need to be trusted to make their own choices. Don't use silly words instead of swearing and don't be hypocritical or patronising.

Teens aren't afraid - and like to read for different reasons - for compassion and other experiences, they like to compare their lives with others and to have their views challenged.

Does anything go? Are there any taboo topics?

Teens are interested in the 'big issues' and although most topics are covered in teen fiction, as wide ranging as suicide, incest, self harm and child killers, Bali felt that certain subjects such as domestic violence are taboo which is a shame.

The importance of gatekeeping

Gatekeepers are there to guide readers but they can't control who reads what. They should be concerned about the quality of the books and not so concerned about the content, language, etc as long as it's in context and there is a consequence to actions/moral framework.

Swearing was acceptable in books for children aged 11+ as long as it was in context and not there for the sake of it. Both Joy Court and Julie Randles spoke about the importance of reading books before hand - you can't judge a book by its cover and it's important to read every book in a series.

A matter of life and death

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In the wake of debate and controversy in the media about books for teenagers exploring difficult topics such as terminal illness or suicide, we recommend some books that deal frankly with issues of life and death.

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