In a tight group of librarian/blogger colleagues I keep, a really interesting comment popped up that I can’t stop thinking about. The librarian had been informed that during a presentation she would be giving, it was requested she include “clean reads,” since the community the person asking served was quite conservative and even kissing in a YA would cause a problem.
One look at the top 10 most challenged books in any given year will show an interesting trend: books tend to be challenged for something relating to sexuality. Sure, religion is another big reason but take a look at the reasons behind the top ten for children/YAs (list via the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom):
1) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”
2) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”
3) And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”
4) The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues”
5) It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it child pornography”
6) Saga, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
7) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence
8) The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation”
9) A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard
Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group
10) Drama, by Raina Telgemeier
Reasons: sexually explicit
Emphasis marked above are mine, and they’re worth looking at. Of the ten books here, 12 of the reasons for a book to be challenged involve something relating to sex or sexuality and only 2 are related to violence. There are, of course, citations for offensive language, for drug/alcohol use, and religious offense, as well as the ever-present and completely vague “unsuited for age group,” but stop a second and look at the numbers again.
Twelve times books were cited as being too sexually-forward and only two times were the same books cited as being too violent. I didn’t include the “depictions of bullying” under violence, since that is a vague and undefined explanation.
I’m a big believer in letting teenagers read what they want to when they’re ready to. I’m also a firm believer that honesty, especially as it’s related to depictions of sexuality as it fits into a story, is important; if a scene shouldn’t be “fade to black,” then it shouldn’t be. Teens who are not ready for that will either put the book down or skim passages where they’re made to feel uncomfortable.
The reverse, of course, is important, too: there should be books that don’t feature sexuality — even in the light sense of hugs or touching or kissing — since many teens don’t want that in their books, and there are ways to tell stories where these are not important or vital to a character or his/her journey.
In every library I worked, I made sure to keep lists of books that were for readers who didn’t want something explicit or even something that could potentially “make them blush.” I’m against the phrase “clean reads,” since it suggests that books featuring kisses or touching or sex of any sort — discussions of a character’s sexual identity included — and I found the idea of “Green Light Reads” to be a fair compromise for describing these books. But the longer I think about the terminology, the more I wonder the implications of whatever language we use. “Clean reads” and “books that doesn’t make you blush” convey that the books don’t have sexual under or over tones to them. But those same phrases and descriptions make no mention of violence.
Violence isn’t uncommon in YA, especially after the spate of dystopian novels in the past few years, but it’s something that is, at least in my own reading experience, far less common to see in YA. It’s hard to think that’s because violence is less often a component of adolescence. Except, we live in a world where this is the reality:
— Everytown (@Everytown) February 12, 2016
It’s hard to wrestle with the divergence in what it is that makes teen sexuality so challenging to think about and yet, we hardly blink at the idea of violence. We need books that “don’t make us blush,” yet we don’t put out the same type of rallying cry nor do we have the same sort of patronizing language used against books which are violent.
I do not believe books encourage teenagers to act in any way, but rather, I believe they’re safe spaces in which teens can grapple with big ideas and topics that they may not find elsewhere. But, it’s hard not to look at the way we label books, at the way we challenge topics, and wonder what it says about us as a bigger, broader culture and what implications those things have on the way our world continues to operate.
Why aren’t we more concerned about violence than we are sex?
I’m not sure I have any answers here, nor do I think I have anything powerful or moving to say. Rather, this is something I continue grappling with, especially when it comes to thinking about how we talk about books, how we share books, and how we can ensure teenagers have access to and permission to books meant to give them a place to learn, to grow, to think, and to change.
After I scheduled this post, an article popped up worth including here: in Virginia, they’re considering the option of allowing parents to block their child’s reading of anything sexual in the classroom.
But we do not see the same being begged for in terms of violence.
What is it that makes us so afraid of sex?
Because here’s the thing: I’d rather a teenager enjoy their body for what it was made to do in safe, healthy ways if they like far more than I’d like a teen to take away that same physical opportunity from anyone else with man-made weapons.