Friday, March 23, 2012

"Questionable Content" in YA Novels

Shocked            Sex, rape, swearing, alcohol, death, suicide, drugs...There's no way to deny that the YA section contains all these and other graphic subjects. We're definitely not in the Children's room anymore! To save time and words, I'm going to refer to these subjects as "content." Every book varies in amount and intensity of content. This depends on whether the author aimed for older teens or younger teens, graphic images or light-heartedness.
No one can dispute that YA books have "content," but neither can they name a meaningful book that is free of it. In fact, if books were rid of "content," then I'm convinced they would be quite boring. How would To Kill a Mockingbird be without the death of the negro field hand Tom Robinson? It would lose its meaning. Or Hamlet without murder? Or Huckleberry Finn without racism? Teens read these classics, too.
So having "content" is not the real issue. The real issues are "why" and "how much."
Let's start with the "why":
It's important to look at the content in context. Authors present many of the questionable elements in ways that cause readers to question and think. For example, the YA book Speak was once lampooned for sexual content. The complaints were wrong: a freshman girl was raped in the book. The story is about the girl's recovery. There was a good reason for the so-called "questionable content.
Another factor to consider? If a teen is a certain age, they'll have heard about these subjects already. In fact, they'll know a lot about it if they go to public school. Books are a controlled environment to learn from. Usually teen books deal with all these issues because real teens have to deal with them. Teens at school get invited to a party. Or they want relationship advice. Or a friend dies. These things happen. Books talk about these things. Is it any wonder they're appealing?
Moving on to the "how much":
This part is very subjective. My tastes tend towards less violent novels with minimal swearing. In fact, despite all the awards won by John Green's books, I can't drag myself through the haze of profanity, drugs and drinking.
Picking books is actually very similar to picking movies or music.
                                  Tips for Picking Books with Little Content:
1.) With names like "Gossip Girl," or the very--erm--revealing cover pictures, it's usually not too hard to avoid the books that don't suit your tastes. So, take the titles and covers into consideration.

2.) Often, if you open to the first page of a book and read it, it will tell you what you need to know about content. Once, I checked out a book about dragons. I settled down to read it and found the first page littered with profanity. I gave up on it pretty quickly.

3.) Certain authors are known for ramping up their "content" for "teen appeal." These are the kind I usually avoid. If one book had too much for your taste, read the synopsis and first page of one other. If it's similar, don't read his or her books anymore.

4.) Usually, I try to finish every book I start, even if I don't like it. I think this is important because the author makes their real point at the end. If, after finishing, I still hate it, I just don't read another by that author. This system has worked well for me.

5.) Another idea for parents is to read books with their teens. This opens up a door to talk about the hard stuff.

      I hope this post eases some of your worries!
GIF Attribution:
By GRPH3B18 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Not only do YA books appeal to teens, I think these books also provide thoughtful context rather than hearsay for complex subjects. Teens talking about what they think they know concerning sex, drugs, relationships, etc., isn’t necessarily thought-provoking; it more often leads to fear, false beliefs, and uninformed behavior, in my opinion. Books take these subjects and create a full narrative and place for intentional inquiry - totally important. Way better than silence and taboos, right? I think so, anyway.

    You don’t like John Green? Nooooo! I mean, you have a complete right to your opinion, OF COURSE, but I love his books. Quite a bit. Have you read one all the way through? I find them specifically to be good with your number 4 method. Maybe start with something like his story in Let It Snow. Tiny bit of swearing, but much... cuter? Softer? I’m at a loss for the right word, but you know what I mean! I’ll loan it to you, I think you’d really like all three stories in that book. :D Also, you MUST watch some VlogBrothers! No swearing at all, and so awesome! You’ll be a nerdfighter in no time.

    Anywaaaaaay, awesome article! Very cool. One tiny tiny thing: content means anything, not just more adult type subjects (“something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing, or any of various arts”). So when you say “books with little content” I read “books with little meaning” or “really short books”. It’s just a tad confusing.

    Sorry for the longest comment ever! YA seems to get me talking! :D

    1. Hey Sonora!
      I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I'm bummed that "content" was confusing! I shortened "Questionable Content" to "Content" to shave some words off this gigantic post! Next time I'll have to find a better way.
      Thanks for the comment!
      It's so true--since adults are writing the books, they've often had some experience with the subjects in discussion. And, since they're writing about it, they've thought long and hard about the message they want to send.
      I've tried two of John Green's books: "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines". I tried...and...I couldn't haha. I know, I'm bad, I haven't finished either of them. The library has "Let it Snow," and I've been eyeing it. I'll give it a read and let you know how it goes. It looks shorter (heh). Hm, vlogbrothers...nerdfighter...sounds good! Checking now!