24 September 2012
As part of the annual Open Book Festival I was invited to participate in a panel about censorship in teen publishing. I was joined by Scottish young adult author Keith Gray (Ostrich Boys, Next) The Book Lounge’s Verushka Louw and librarian Lona Gericke.
Most of the panel admitted to growing up on a diet of Stephen King, which although full of adult content, still appealed for its thrilling narrative and teenage protagonists. Back then there wasn’t a lot of books to choose from that were aimed specifically at the teen market. In fact, the term, young adult fiction probably didn’t exist. As a young reluctant reader, Keith believes the blame fell largely on his school for not telling him that books weren’t just hard work, but there for entertainment as well.
Since then young adult literature has grown into a world phenomenon. Trilogies like the Twilight series and The Hunger Games have become multi-million dollar industries.
As Verushka pointed out, young adult authors tell it how it is, but this in itself has earned the genre a fair bit of controversy. Some believe young adult fiction is becoming too dark and deals with adult content that isn’t suitable for younger readers. They think young adult fiction encourages bad behavior. Others believe that authors writing for the young adult market have an ethical responsibility to their readers and should write books that tackle issues and themes relevant to the age, and are therefore suitable for school prescription. It’s a raging debate that is still ongoing.
The panel shared their own thoughts about this hot topic. Here are some of the points that were raised.
Verushka: Isn’t it great that at a time of mass warfare, parents still fear the simple piece of paper? Books are powerful.
Keith: Since young adult fiction has grown as a genre and is aimed at the youth, it’s obviously attracted the scrutiny of parents. People are looking at these books more closely.
Keith: Writing for teens is difficult. Teenagers haven’t made up their minds about who they want to be. They are at the tipping point in their lives. They love their parents but they don’t want to be them. I find that mindset fascinating.
Sally: Books are a safe medium for kids to make sense of their lives. Books are a mirror of life. They teach you things like strength through adversity, handling peer pressure and having empathy for other people. You can’t shelter teens from life. You would think that providing them with books that tackle these issues would give them a bit of an advantage.
Verushka: Kids are not going to be inspired to go out an experiment with drugs or sex.
Sally: You can’t always win. Harry Potter was banned in some US states between 2001 and 2003 because they promoted witchcraft which is just ridiculous.
Lona: Every teenager is an individual. I have great compassion for young readers, especially when their parents want to choice their books for them. Kids need the freedom to decide for themselves.
Keith: Entertainment is important. The market is becoming more and segregated. As a writer I shouldn’t have to only write with morals in mind.
Veruska: The relationship between parent and reader is important. As a teenager I wished I could talk to my parents about what I was reading.
Keith: If governments are willing to ban books then they are definitely a danger in some way or form. Personally, I don’t agree with censorship of books for this age group. I think anyone should be able to read whatever they want. The best moment of reading is when the words melt away and you’re just completely immersed in the novel.
Lona: You have to be realistic about the different needs out there. Librarians can’t be censors. You have to be open minded.
Keith: Adults don’t always read to become better people, so why should their children? Some young adult books are written in such a way that they are more accessible to younger readers. Others break down big ideas.
Lona: Most great stories are written simply.
Sally: There’s been a lot of controversy around books like Divergent and The Hunger Games that are seen as being too violent. For me, the biggest take home message from these books is the strong female characters that show young girls how to retain their dignity during difficult situations.
Verushka: The young adult books I enjoy the most stress the importance of friendship.
Keith: You don’t grow up in front of your parents. You grow up in front of your friends. When I started writing it was believed that there was a formula to writing young adult fiction. You basically had to take out the parents so the kids could have an adventure. Friendship can oftenbe a stronger bond than family.
Sally: Parents are so afraid of anything bad influencing their children. Literature is something they can’t control, so they immediately try to. The world is a terrifying place. Why say that it’s not?
Keith: You can’t always be as honest as you like. If writers had to put down what really goes on in a teenage boy’s mind, the book would be unpublishable.
Lona: I hate giving book lists. Choosing a book is an individual thing. I will recommend a book if I enjoyed it. The market is so small that publishers rely on schools to buy books. Publishers are limited by the market.
Verushka: Kids are great at self-censorship. If they don’t like what they’re reading, they’ll stop. You have to trust that they will make the right decisions.
Verushka closed the session by reading the Rights of Readers, which was a fitting end to the talk.
1. The right not to read.
2. The right to skip.
3. The right not to finish a book.
4. The right to read it again.
5. The right to read anything.
6. The right to mistake a book for real life.
7. The right to read anywhere.
8. The right to dip in.
9. The right to read out loud.
10. The right to be quiet.
Thanks to everyone who attended the panel on such a cold and wet Sunday morning, and thanks to Frankie, Verushka and Meryn for including a subject so close to my heart in the festival programme. Lastly, many thanks to @LindsayCal who livetweeted the session on behalf of Bookslive.