In light of further reflection on the topic of censorship and teen literature, I decided to compile a list of things that I find offensive in said works. This isn’t a list of things that I think should be banned from the library, but a list of things that I think ought to be considered when one is managing a teen materials collection.
1. On the subject of violence:
I’ve always had a mixed relationship with these materials. What is violent to one reader might be entirely banal to another, particularly if we are not discussing graphic material. [‘Graphic’ will forthwith be used to mean ‘with pictures’, not ‘disturbing’.] I think that realistic violence should be allowed, particularly relating to warfare, gangs, etc. However, I think that materials that glorify violence should be monitored and screened with caution. The current trend with violent hip-hop culture is such an example. The main problem is determining what’s gratuitous.
2. On the subject of sex:
Much as is the case with violence, sex should be portrayed realistically and not gratuitously. Likewise, materials glorifying sex should be evaluated cautiously. Sex does not equal love, but a lot of materials (particularly those aimed at young women) implies that it is or says so outright. Our teens are being lied to on that front.
3. On the subject of drugs:
By drugs, I mean everything except for caffeine — just about everything else is illegal for teenagers anyhow. However, realism is key again. Nonetheless, what is more of a problem relating to drugs is addiction. Addiction and the violence of the illegal drug trade are the underlying themes, not the drugs themselves. I applaud novels that approach the topic of addiction: in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the substance is. Too often, drugs are seen as something only “poor kids” or “bad kids” do. It is also seen as something innocent to experiment with, particularly among teenagers with higher incomes.
4. On the subject of religion:
Sensitive topic for sure, and one that is more related to one’s own family than the items discussed above, but an important one nonetheless. I think that especially in public libraries, this is a topic that brushed under the rug in the interest of being inclusive. I think that as far as fiction is concerned, there should not be a bias for or against religiously-inspired and -marketed literature. As far as non-fiction is concerned, it should reflect the community and also not be hidden or ignored. (Non-fiction might be better off catalogued with adult materials.) Also honourable mention to the occult: in fiction, this is fine, but non-fiction is especially dicey — should a hypothetical book “A Teen Girl’s Guide to Love Spells” be allowed? Would “A Teen Boy’s Guide to Date Rape Drugs” be tolerated?
5. On the subject of sexuality:
Not exactly the same as sex — characters might have a particular sexual orientation, but that does not have to drive the story, for example. I think that the sexuality of a character should not necessarily make the story entirely. People are people. Also, there is not enough material for teens about asexuality, or about main characters who are not interested in sex. This is especially problematic when one considers that teen literature is often read by younger audiences who have the requisite reading skills. There is a lot of social stigma attached to not being interested in sex, not wanting to have it, not liking it, etc. I think a lot of this is because teens who are not interested in sex get labeled as homosexual (which is seen in a negative light), or because of holier-than-thou abstinence-only portrayals in the media. Heterosexual sex is seen as the conformity — not only the ‘heterosexual’ part, but also the ‘sex’: not wanting to have sex is seen as rebellious, unnatural, and subversive, both in popular culture and in teen culture. It’s really all about power.
Should any of these things be banned? No, because then we can’t discuss them. Should these subjects be approached with caution? Absolutely — just because it is not the librarian’s job to parent does not mean we should not care about what young people are reading. We must be conscious of how, as a community institution, our values reflect upon patrons. If we are glorifying the above topics in an attempt to ‘get kids to read’, what does that tell the teens? The library is not the mall — we are not trying to sell things just to make money.
Overall, I think that one has to consider the actual content of the materials, not just what their topic or title is. My aforementioned example of “A Teen Girl’s Guide to Love Spells” — say it’s a how-to book for conducting magic spells. That is remarkably different than a fiction book, or a book about the blindness of being in love, or psychological tricks that people will use to get you to fall in love with them. The other example, “A Teen Boy’s Guide to Date Rape Drugs,” might be a book about certain drugs, but what if it is a recipe book? Yes, one book is magical while the other is scientific, but if they both contain the underlying message that this stuff is harmless and fun…well, we’re back to sex and power.
All right, I have been on this soapbox way longer than I intended. I should go out and enjoy the sunshine!