New Study on Profanity and YA Stirs Media Concern

A new study about YA books is alarming parents to the idea that their teens might be reading books with–gasp!–profanity. I haven’t seen the full study, so you can take all of this with a grain of salt. But based on articles about this study, I have a few reservations about the findings.

First, apparently “teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers. That translates to almost seven instances of profanity per hour spent reading.” Does profanity mean any cursing at all, including “hell” or “damn,” which you can hear pretty regularly on tv? If so, my guess is that language that wouldn’t fly in a movie or tv show is limited to a handful of instances in the average teen novel.

Second, apparently characters who swore more often usually had “higher social status, better looks and more money.” As a general fan of YA, my guess is that these characters aren’t usually the protagonists. Outside of novels like Gossip Girl, more YA tends to focus on the kids who aren’t super rich and popular and beautiful. And the popular teens tend to be the source of more drama and anxiety for the protagonist, suggesting that characters who swear more often are more likely to be cast in negative roles.

Third, I’m curious to see which books this study looked at and how they were evaluated for their content outside of profanity. In my high school, we had to read Catcher in the Rye, which uses a fair amount of cursing. Although Catcher in the Rye still gets flack for its content, it’s widely considered a classic and is included in most middle/high school literature curricula. Can’t contemporary YA novels be held to that kind of standard, where language is part of a larger story and emotional journey?

The lead researcher of the study suggests that children’s and YA books should come with a ratings system. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, responds:

“Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues. ALA’s interpretation on any rating system for books is that it’s censorship.”

I’m very much with Yoke on this one. Obviously parents should take an active part in their child’s reading life, but that should involve reading books alongside their children and having conversations about the content, not slapping labels on book covers. And frankly, sometimes teenagers need to engage with issues on their own and books are a fantastic way to do that.

Also, YA books are intended for teenagers. Let’s classify that as generally PG-13 content. Isn’t a book’s place in the teen section of a bookstore or library enough of a “warning” about the content without having to develop a ratings system?

If anyone has any more details about the study itself and what criteria was used, I’d love to hear about it. Do you feel that YA has too much profanity and should be rated in some way?

Be Fearless in Your Writing

From this interview with Judy Blume:

Q: What do you do to fight censorship?

Well, I’m on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship and I’m talking more and more with newer, younger writers now about there’s no such thing as a safe book.

If you think you can go into a little room and write a book that no one will ever challenge—I don’t care if it’s a picture book—if somebody wants to find something in a book, they will find something in any book.

So, write with passion and write what’s deep inside and kick that censor off your shoulder, just the way you have to kick your critics off your shoulder when you go into that room.  You can’t worry about things.

I guess that’s what I mean by being fearless in your writing.  That doesn’t mean that you’re not trying to write the very best books that you can write because especially when you’re writing for young people, they deserve the very best stories, books, characters.

In fact, the younger they are, the better it should be.

Love all of the above. Make sure to read the rest of the interview for more about Blume’s writing, New Jersey, and the upcoming Tiger Eyes movie.

The Perks of Being a Wallflowe-R

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is a perennial YA favorite. As you’ve probably heard, it’s going to be a movie, starring Harry Potter fav Emma Watson. I think this is a hard book to adapt, since so much of it is internal, but based on the casting I’m very hopeful. Another potentially good sign is that it’s gotten an R rating.

Why should that make me hopeful? Isn’t it bad for teens not to be able to actually see the movie? First of all, teens see R-rated movies all the time. It’s not that hard to get into one or buy/stream it later. Second, it’s not a fluffy book. It covers a lot of mature topics, from sex to drugs to drinking. That’s not all the book is about, but I’m kind of glad to hear that things won’t be watered down. It’s all part of a very real teenage experience. (Okay, my teenage experience wasn’t quite that rock-and-roll, but it exists.)

Are you looking forward to the Perks movie?

Making Readers and Keeping Them

When I changed schools in fifth grade, the principal asked my parents what I liked to do. They said, “She reads a lot,” and the principal smiled and said, “I could tell.” I was the kid who checked out an armful of books from the library and had a rotating stack of them on my nightstand. It wasn’t all great literature (a glance at the Friday Fifteen would tell you that), but it meant I wasn’t fearful of reading in any way. As a result, I was always a little surprised to hear from friends who weren’t big readers as kids. And these aren’t just people who had trouble in school when they were young. They were bright and talented kids who didn’t find reading that appealing.

So I was interested in a couple of recent blog posts about fostering a child’s love for reading, even if the child in question doesn’t naturally gravitate towards books. The first is by David B. Crowley, who talks about how to spark a child’s interest in books. He suggests making reading time special (I love the idea of reading together in the morning, not just before bed), going to the library, and letting a child get interested in reading things that aren’t books (like manuals). Lots of David’s tips were things my parents did, which I think helped maintain my love of books. A few tips I’d add:

  • Don’t be judgmental of a child’s reading. Maybe The Baby-Sitters Club or Goosebumps isn’t exactly A Wrinkle in Time, but you don’t need to read all the classics all the time to be a good reader.
  • Encourage books as gifts. I love giving/getting books as presents, and it helps foster the idea that books are special.
  • Don’t pit books against the television. Granted, my home was pretty lax in terms of TV rules, but most of the time I wasn’t just watching TV anyway. I’d put on cartoons and then grab a volume of Childcraft to browse through. Making TV totally off-limits can make it more appealing, and as a result reading can seem like a chore.

But what happens when you want an older child or teen to read more? At Co.Exist, Michael Coren looks at the Uprise Books Project, which endeavors to get banned or challenged books in the hands of low-income students. Obviously there are a lot of excellent books that have been banned or challenged, including those by Judy Blume, Sherman Alexie, Chris Crutcher, Toni Morrison, and John Steinbeck. But usually these books are touted with the suggested that kids should read them because they’re classics–while really, these are gritty, real stories that have major potential to connect with teen readers. Justin Stanley, founder of Uprise, says:

“Pushing banned/challenged books provides those kids with a shield to use against that pressure. Instead of reading a great work of literature, they’re breaking the rules and discovering what they (parents, adults, the establishment, etc.) don’t want them to know.”

I’m very curious to see how the Uprise Books Project does. A lot of times, reading is pushed as something teens should do because it’s enriching and educational–which it is. But saying that doesn’t exactly grab the average teen reader. I suspect a lot more teens would be interested if they knew these books were about tough, relevant issues and were subversive in some way. At the very least, I think it will get reluctant readers to think differently about what books can be.

Were you always a reader? Have you had success with a reluctant reader?

Ethnic Studies Vanishing in Tuscon Schools

The Tucson Unified School District is losing books on ethnic studies, which even includes Shakespeare’s The Tempest. More importantly:

“In a school district founded by a Mexican-American in which more than 60 percent of the students come from Mexican-American backgrounds, the administration also removed every textbook dealing with Mexican-American history, including “Chicano!: The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement” by Arturo Rosales, which features a biography of longtime Tucson educator Salomon Baldenegro.  Other books removed from the school include “500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures,” by Elizabeth Martinez and the textbook “Critical Race Theory” by scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.”

Banning books is never a good idea. Please stop.