How do adults read books for teens?
This is one of the questions that Liz Burns explores in a post she wrote last week over at Tea Cozy. I talked about this a little bit in a piece I wrote up on Tumblr last week, too, in light of how important it is to respect teenagers.
How do readers sometimes react when they read books for teens?
This is one of the things that Carrie Mesrobian ponders in an excellent post over at Teen Librarian Tool box. More than that, she delves into separating fiction from artist and how depiction of an action isn’t condoning that action. The next day, she and the ladies of YA Highway kicked off a hash tag discussion on Twitter, #SensibleYA, which generated a good piece over at Bustle worth reading.
Both of these questions and the respective responses are worth thinking about when you work with teenagers, and they’re as important if you work with teenagers and are responsible for helping guide their reading in some capacity or other. Whether you buy books for a library, work with teens in writing workshops, teach teens in the classroom, write novels, or otherwise connect teens with books and words, it’s valuable to regularly step back and reflect upon not just what you’re doing but how and why you’re doing it. It’s really easy to put your adult mindset and experiences and expectations on those teenagers and what it is they’re doing and experiencing and forget that they’re teenagers — not miniature adults.
Last week, on one of the librarian listservs, a librarian emailed asking two things: whether anyone had read Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence and/or any other YA books with a proliferation of sex in them and whether anyone had a good argument for changing her mind about recommending those books to teens. Woven into the email was the uncomfortableness with which the librarian felt about reading and recommending books like those.
Stepping back from the fact that Mesrobian’s title doesn’t feature very much sex — there’s a lot more talking about it than doing it on page — it was interesting to watch what people had to say about this. Many responses said they’d read the title, and then a separate string of responses noted that there were a number of great YA novels featuring positive and empowering sexual experiences.
What was never answered, though, was the second part of the question and perhaps the part of the question that was most important: how to talk about and recommend these books to teen readers.
When we’re put into the position as adults to be responsible for working with teenagers, there are times we’re going to be uncomfortable with what we’re asked to do or talk about. The thing is, when you work with adults, you’re put into a lot of uncomfortable positions, too, but it seems much less world-changing than it does when faced with teens. For some reason, it’s easier to guide adults who are asking about health-related topics toward resources than it is to guide teens who are asking similar questions. I think part of this has to do with feeling more like a peer than an advocate/guardian, and I think part of it is that sometimes, we’re plain scared to talk with teenagers about really heavy stuff.
Maybe it’s that we’re being protective. Maybe it’s that we’re worried about what the parents may do or say or think if they knew you gave that teen a book or talked with them about a topic that’s tougher to broach. Maybe it’s that sometimes it’s what Liz and Carrie got at in their posts: we are too invested in our own adult worlds and beliefs about the adult world that we forget being a teenager can be damn hard in and of itself.
Sometimes, too, it’s just that it can be uncomfortable to talk to a teenager about big things. If we aren’t comfortable with it, whether consciously or unconsciously, then there’s no way we can be comfortable talking about it with someone who can be really influenced by what we say or suggest (that opens up more about influence, too, which I also believe plays a role in our comfort levels — how much of a role do we REALLY play in the lives and futures of teens is the kind of question that’s easily tangled in your head, even if you have a clear picture of what your mission is in working with or for teens).
But back to the question: how? HOW do you talk about these sorts of books with teen readers? Whether your reading skews toward preferring tough topics or avoids it all together, being aware of what books are out there and what content they may or may not contain is important to doing a job of being an advocate for readers and for books themselves.
We read reviews of books in order to make purchase selections in the library, and many readers who work with teens read reviews of books because they enjoy reading reviews — it gives perspective and depth to what a book is about and can save time and energy in the event that book won’t be read. I don’t read a lot of speculative fiction personally, but I certainly read a lot of reviews, both in trade journals and around the blogging world, because I need to have an idea what the books are about in order to not only buy them, but to best match them with future readers. The same mentality goes and should go for books which are on these “tougher” topics.
What are “tougher” topics? It’s going to depend on each person, but I suspect there are a few everyone would agree on: sex, drugs, drinking, and, trailing way off in the distance, violence.
In many ways, we find talking about and thinking about books about murder easier than we do talking about or thinking about books tackling sex. Dead bodies are easier, for some reason, than ones that are alive and active. It’s easier to stand in front of a room of teenagers and talk about a serial killer or a murder mystery than it is to talk about a book about sex and the consequences therein. It’s part hook — it’s just easier TO talk about a serial killer than it is to talk about a teen figuring out lines of comfort in sexual situations — but it’s also part culture and fear.
Some of that fear can and should be broached. You should push yourself to talk about books that make you as a reader uncomfortable talking about. It’s how you grow professionally, but even more than that, it’s how you show yourself an advocate for teens and for reading. If you have the guts and courage to stand in front of a classroom and talk about Mesrobian’s book — hitting that yes, there’s sex and yes, there’s violence but at heart, it’s about a boy learning about consequences related to making decisions — you show teens that you’re not only mature, but that you’re willing to discuss heavier topics.
While it may not seem like you’re saying that, since you’re not using those words, in many ways it’s by not saying those words you’re sending the message. Plus, teenagers are going to clamor for a book that may have sex in it, period. You could skip the talk all together and just read the title of the book for Mesrobian’s and have more willing takers than copies of the title.
Saying “sex” in front of teens shouldn’t be a challenge. It’s not about being gratuitous. It’s about laying things out as they are and owning that. Teens who are ready for it will be ready for it; those who aren’t ready for it will tune you out.
A good book talk isn’t about the gritty details. It’s about the big picture and about selling the book on that. If the book is about sex, that should come up. If sex is but a detail within the book, it doesn’t need to be brought up, unless you need to address that there are topics within the book best suited for older readers (and not as a means of censorship nor barring readers — rather, as a means of covering yourself if confronted about a scene or two in the book which could make more sensitive readers unhappy to discover). Good book talks are a fine dance between giving just enough information to entice a reader and leaving out the big reveals and revelations so that reader can discover them on his or her own.
That said, perhaps the truth is a lot of these “tougher” books aren’t best suited for traditional book talking. Maybe it’s worthwhile to remember that a lot of these books that can be uncomfortable to talk about are perfect candidates for not just displays, but for shelf talkers, for book lists, and for other means of passive reader’s advisory.
Build lists of books together that handle tough topics, being mindful of the language used to present them. These aren’t “issue” books — “issue” and “problem” books went out of vogue decades ago. These are books that tackle tough or sensitive or mature or real life topics instead.
Use the words.
If you’re writing a book list about teens who have substance abuse problems, use those words. If you’re writing a description for Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now, don’t tiptoe around the fact Sutter has a substance abuse problem. If you’re writing a description for a book where the character is sexually abused or raped, note that there is sexual violence in the book. If noting any of these things is going to be a spoiler on the book itself (and many times it can be), then do a good job of being descriptive and thoughtful in creating an introduction to a book list on a topic and listing the titles beneath it well enough that it’s clear the books tackle hard topics and don’t do so meekly.
Pool together book displays when appropriate and there’s a bigger tie-in possible. Although I think doing displays on tougher topics is worthwhile any time, in many ways, it’s easier to justify and advocate for them when there’s a larger way to marry those books into something else. As I noted last week, February is teen dating violence month — you have ample opportunity to not just put out a display of books on the topic, but you have opportunities to also present information for local and national/international resources on the topic. An awesome example is this display by Danielle Fortin for sexual assault awareness month in April, which combined books on the topic with resources for teens who may need them.
Use the words.
Make shelf talkers for those tougher books in your collection and don’t shy away from calling them what they are. Teens are excellent self-censors and will know whether that book is for them or not if they’re able to read what it’s about. Likewise, offering shelf talkers and displays that use the words for situations that may arise within the book is a safety net for the parents, too: if they are browsing with their teens for books, there’s not going to be a surprise. And the more you feature a combination of books that do include tougher topics, the more it becomes clear these are topics that exist in the books because they also exist in teen lives.
Which isn’t, of course, to say you only feature those books on shelf talkers or on displays. You incorporate them with other books, showcasing the breadth and range of titles out there.
Advocating for teens means allowing yourself discomfort. It’s unavoidable, even for those who don’t shy away from much. The trick is not showing that discomfort unless doing so is advantageous — and sometimes it can be. Perhaps there are times acknowledging your discomfort during a reading experience can be what sells the title. Did reading Sex & Violence make you uncomfortable? Unpack that in a one-on-one reader’s advisory interaction with a teen if it seems like that book might be a good fit for him or her. That not only sells the book to the reader, but it also shows the reader you’re not a robot. Even though you’re an adult, you, too, find things uncomfortable or funny or weird or strange (any of those words you could attribute to that book or the content within in — use those words and use the words “sex” and “violence” and “consequences,” too).
Respect books geared toward a teen readership. Respect that the teen years are a range of experiences, maturities, needs, and wants. Respect that often those books reflect that, either by taking on hard subjects in an unflinching manner or by showcasing stories meant for those who are 17 or 18 and seeking heavy literary works or by going the opposite and providing light hearted reads, books that are meant simply to be funny or are meant for those 12 and 13 year old readers just entering some of the hardest, most frustrating, and most confusing years of their lives as they’re coming into their own.
What it comes down to is being honest and being thoughtful with that honesty. Use the right words. Don’t shy away from using them and don’t shy away from discussing them. What you may find yourself wincing at within a teen book may be the very thing a teen needs to read or the very thing that also makes a teen wince. The more you work with books tackling tough topics and the more you put those things out there in an accessible, honest manner, the easier it becomes to incorporate them into reader’s advisory, into recommendations, into book talks, and the easier it becomes to understand not just the books, but the teens who are seeking them out.
The easier it becomes, too, to be a better ally for those teens because you begin seeing them as teens.