While reading is often sold as a gateway to other worlds, great books act as a mirror to the reader. In his prologue to How to Read and Why, scholar Harold Bloom writes:
It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly upon themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interests… Ultimately we read—as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree—in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. (2000, pp. 21, 22)
In short, reading helps us know ourselves. The Harry Potter series has not caught fire because Harry is a wizard so much that he is a victim from birth facing an overwhelming world of pain and cruelty, yet somehow scraping by to the next book. He is us.
But so is Melinda, the protagonist of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a novel about date rape. Ostracized by her friends as they enter high school, she endures her pain alone, unsure of what to do. It is a painful journey of isolation and shame, but one that both boys and girls with no history of sexual abuse can identify with to some degree. In her classic book on teaching reading and writing to early adolescents, In the Middle, Nancie Atwell writes:
Much of the sentiment expressed in contemporary adolescent fiction mirrors and celebrates what Tom Newkirk terms the emerging power—that sense of independence and self—of the adolescent mind. As adults can turn to fiction for portrayals of the universalities of our condition, so our students can find their perspectives reflected and explored in a body of fiction of their own, books that can help then grow up and books that can help them love books. (1998, p. 36)
While books about abuse, drugs, sexual identity, violence, depression, and suicide are relevant to adolescents, it is necessary to recognize that not all children reach early adolescence at the same time. In addition, children are coming from differing perspectives that determine their readiness for such topics. Atwell caught this when she used words such as “emerging” and “grow up.” For some, Melinda may not be us, yet.
WHY THERE ARE CONCERNS
Feminist and anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin writes, “In most of Western Europe, England, and the United States, more often than not… writing has been most consistently viewed as an act warranting prosecution when the writing is construed to be obscene.” (1993, p. 256) She argues that writing transforms the idea of obscenity into an obscene act. Using Dworkin’s argument, the inappropriate young adult novel is obscene because it takes those ideas and experiences that exist in the young adolescent world—sex, drugs, homosexuality, self-abuse, etc.—and makes them real on the page. The hard, black and white depiction of these contentious issues, and not the issues themselves, are what bothers some adults in the community. These novels force communities to face the fact that teens are seeing themselves in stories that contain actions and themes adults wish to believe their children are not facing. For communities, it is easier to get rid of the book than deal with the issue itself.
The reaction of the reality of adolescence put onto the page has been to limit access to these materials. From 1990 to 2000, the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA) reported 6,364 challenges to books, seventy-one percent in school libraries. Of those, 1,607 were challenges to “sexual explicit” material, 1,427 to material using “offensive language”, and 1,256 to material “unsuited to age group.” Other reasons for challenges included promoting the occult, violence, promoting homosexuality or a religious viewpoint. While content is clearly a concern, the age of the reader is of an even greater concern. Of the ten most frequently challenged authors of 2005 reported to the ALA, eight are young adult authors. This includes Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, and Lois Lowry. A ninth author, J.D. Salinger, wrote The Catcher in the Rye, an adult book often assigned in high school classes. Of the most frequently challenged books of 2005, eight are directed at adolescents, while Catcher in the Rye is the ninth. The tenth, the Captain Underpants series, is for early readers. Toni Morrison, an author also assigned in high school classes, is the only adult oriented author besides Salinger on either list. The concern is clearly with authors and books read by adolescents. (Challenged Books, 2006)
Challenges, the ALA points out, are not necessarily censorship, but attempts to deny access by a specific group to a specific book. This can take the form of having special shelves for mature books, placing them behind the counter, or removing them from the collection completely. “Censorship,” Dworkin argues, has, “nothing to do with striking down ideas as such; it had to do with acts.” (1993, p. 254) In limiting access to young adult novels, adults believe they are not stopping ideas, but only the act. So, in removing books containing swearing they are not telling people not to swear (censorship), but controling a child’s exposure to foul language. There are two issues at work here, which vary by degree. First, Dworkin could be speaking for many parents when she argues that the themes can be addressed without sexually explicit scenes and offensive language. The problem with this argument is that it is the situations adolescents face, not the books they read, that children most need help with. In addressing the symptom and not the disease communities are not helping unhealthy teens. Adults need to look at why children want to read these books, and address those issues.
Second, some adults believe that the books themselves give students age inappropriate ideas. By limiting access, they argue, they are stopping the act before it is even an idea. This idea has been explored by many philosophers, linguists, and critics. Ludwig Wittgenstein states, “The limits of my language mean the limits to my world.” In his essay “Politics and the English Langauge” George Orwell writes, “I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable.” The underlying theory of Newspeak, the language developed by the totalitarian regime in his book 1984, is that if something cannot be said, then it cannot be thought; control of language becomes control of ideas. This passes from the region of adult concern to that of censorship because it limits ideas. Even with the intent of keeping children safe from troubling ideas, it is not only a misguided stance, but also an anti-intellectual one that will lead us back to days of intolerance and limited democracy. (Newspeak, 2006)
Because they are not yet adults, in appearance and maturity, many adults still see young adolescence as the children they recently were. In addition, every adult has a desire for his or her child to be happy. Faced with issues that are mature, and realizing that their children may be facing them, many adults reasonably fall into the role of protector. This is their role, but too often adults do not recognize that adolescence is a transition period. Their concerns are often reasonable, but if this time of change is not recognized—if adults act with a knee-jerk reaction—it can be taken to a ridiculous extreme. For example, a Florida school board challenged The Diary of Anne Frank because it was considered “a real downer.” While the issues adolescents face can be harrowing to hear about, and young adult literature moves it from idea to act, limiting access to books only promotes ignorance while doing nothing to address the issues adults most fear children having to deal with.
WHAT AGE IS THE RIGHT AGE
In looking for an objective system of rating appropriateness, it soon became clear that there is none. Chris Varney (personal communication, July 25, 2006), a librarian of twenty-three years at Hinesburg Community School, writes:
I am unaware of any official measurement. It has always been a judgment call. That’s why there’s always been trouble with this issue. It’s a great question for the book reviewers to answer. They are the ones who put grade levels recommended on the reviews. The same book can get a grade 6-8 from one reviewer and grades 9-11 from another reviewer. It’s really a judgment made by the reviewer. Essentially, my understanding is that graphic sex, drugs, swearing is always put at high school level and above- but there are many levels of ‘graphic’.
Another guide is the book jacket, which has no standard rubric on which to judge. While various organizations affix grade or age designations, they are based on a combination of reading level and social norm.
For example, in a pamphlet title Books for Grades 7 and 8 supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, Speak and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War are both recommended (2005). However, Speak is about a girl traumatized by date rape, while The Chocolate War is often at the top of the ALA Most Challenged lists for reasons included language, violence, and sexual themes. Both are emotionally brutal reads, but also technically sophisticated, requiring a more advanced reading level. At the same time Goats, a story by Brock Cole that is suitable for sixth grade due to reading level and subject matter, is recommended for grades 8-10 by School Library Journal because at one point the two protagonists are naked and there is a very brief description (Goats, 2006). School Library Journal lists Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence, a collection of stories about adolescents wrestling with issues of homosexuality, some of which are quite sexual in nature or have adult themes, as appropriate for 7th grade and up (Am I Blue?, 2006). The standard is clearly subjective.
In looking at an adolescent’s psychological development, there is no clear guideline for when a child is ready for a particular topic. Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is a founding theory. His fifth state, Identify Versus Confusion, which is identified as happening at ages twelve to eighteen, would be an appropriate age to tackle the more mature issues facing a young adolescent. The stage is described as, “adolescents experience new sexual feelings, and not quite knowing how to respond, they’re frequently confused. They are concerned with what others think of them…” (Eggen, 1997, p. 79) This does not happen on the day a child turns twelve, though, nor is everyone ready for all topics at the same time.
Similarly, studies on cognitive and moral thought show dramatic changes at about the same time. While pre-adolescents (children of eleven or twelve) do demonstrate logical thought, they “tend to reason in this matter only about objects with which they have direct experience, and only about events or situations in the present.” Adolescents can reason about purely abstract events. L. Kohlberg’s theories on moral reasoning also occur at this time. By age nine or ten, many individuals start to move towards what he terms the Conventional Level, shifting their basis for evaluating their own and others behavior. In short, by age thirteen most children have begun a dramatic cognitive and moral leap forward in their development. (Baron, 1989, pp. 259-261)
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is an excellent example of how ratings can vary for the same book, in the same year, depending upon the reader. It was the 1999 National Book Award Finalist, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Horn Book Fanfare Title, and several other distinctions, and was on numerous “best” lists for young adults. It is a popular book with literary merit. When it comes to age, though, things are unclear. Both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review list it as for children ages twelve and up (sixth grade), while Library Journal and School Library Journal recommend it for eighth grade and up (usually late thirteen, fourteen years old). (Speak, 2006) Even with one title the appropriateness of it is up for debate.
Unlike books, other media outlets have industry-wide standardized ratings. The oldest formal media rating system is offered by the Motion Picture Association of America, which rates movies. Recognizing that PG, or Parental Guidance Suggested, was too broad, it acknowledged the change to adolescent with a PG-13 label in the early 1980s. In PG-13, or Parents Strongly Cautioned, “rough or persistent violence is absent; sexually-oriented nudity is generally absent; some scenes of drug use may be seen; one use of the harsher sexually derived words may be heard.” Television ratings further recognize cognitive changes, with warnings at ages seven and fourteen. In addition, each age has warnings as to why it is so rated. So, TV-14 contains:
…some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended. This program contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong coarse language (L), or intensely suggestive dialogue (D).
Both industries have decided that fourteen is where these themes can be appropriately presented to adolescents. This age not only fits into Erikson’s fifth stage and general theories of cognitive and moral development, but gives it a year or two for late-bloomers to catch up. (Entertainment Rating Systems, 2006)
Still, fourteen may be too old for some teens if literature is to help them make sense of the world. In the Time magazine article “The Battle Over Gay Teens”, author John Cloud cites a Pennsylvania State University study that found that the mean age at which lesbians first have sexual contact with other girls is sixteen, while it is fourteen for gay boys. In addition, Cloud refers to the book The New Gay Teenager, which cites several studies showing that the average lesbian desires girls at age twelve, while it is ten for gay boys. (Cloud, 2005) If the average gay boy is desiring the same sex at age ten, and, on average, having sexual contact at age fourteen, gender issues need to be addressed by some adolescents earlier than thirteen. According to the 1995 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 34% of sexual active gay students had sexual intercourse prior to age twelve. (2006) Perhaps School Library Journal got it right when it recommended Am I Blue? for seventh grade and up.
It should be noted that the physical changes of adolescence are occurring sooner, often before a student enters seventh grade. In addition, the media is exposing children to mature images at a younger and younger age; while television shows are rated, most children watch television without parental controls. In addition, commercials are not rated, nor are magazines. From television shows, video games, movies, magazines and other media children are getting mature messages with little of the context, depth, or opportunity for discussion provided by reading literature in school. Literature may provide one of the best and safest ways for adolescents to face issues in a safe environment, before they have to face them for real.
WHY LITERATURE HELPS
While adults are fine with children pretending to be a pirate from Treasure Island, they are understandably less enthusiastic about relating to fifteen-year-old drug addict Alice from Go Ask Alice. Young adult novels can be dark and depressing because adolescence is often dark and depressing. Yet, exploration and the mistakes that go with it are essential if children are going to grow into normal, well-adjusted adults. B. Joyce Stallworth is an Associate Dean in the College of Education at the University of Alabama. She writes, “Such books offer tweens the opportunity to learn vicariously, in safe classroom communities, about situations they may face as they make the transition into high school.” (2006) Through literature adolescents safely learn from the problems faced and decisions made by others.
It is essential that adolescents do encounter these problems if they are to develop into healthy, happy adults. In looking at the four positions of identity development offered by Erikson during this stage, Paul Eggen and Don Kauchak write, “With identity diffusion and identity foreclosure—less healthy positions—adolescents fail to wrestle with choices that will have important consequences for them throughout life.” (1997, p. 80) Similarly, cognitive and moral development is helped through practice. Schools offer not only a safe place to explore, but can guide students through the process, from choosing appropriate books to making sense of the choices of its characters and helping create the link to the reader’s life. Indeed, a gay adolescent says in Time, “I think there are very few age appropriate gay activities for a 14-15 year old… It’s Internet, gay porn, gay chats.” (2005). If adolescents are not allowed to explore their identity in a safe environment, they will do so wherever they can, often in unsafe places.
The lessons learned are often too realistic for adults, but that is essential if it is to be effective in offering a vicarious learning experience. Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen wrote that, “Young people will have a better chance to be happy if they have realistic expectations and if they know both the bad and the good about the society in which they live.” (Stallworth, 2006). Not every ending needs to be as dark as The Chocolate War to be realistic, and most young adult novels have a happy ending that leans a bit towards facile. Still, young adolescents are keenly aware of characters that are too perfect. Offensive language, vices, and gross-out humor is often used in otherwise juvenile stories to lend an air of authenticity to an otherwise harmless tale.
Failure to learn these lessons can be disastrous. Regarding gay youth, Dr. Jack Drescher of the American Psychiatric Association notes that “nearly all mental-health professionals agree that trying to reject one’s homosexual impulses will usually be fruitless and depressing—and can lead to suicide.” (Cloud, 2005) The 1995 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports a variety of destructive behaviors among gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) youth. Indeed, 38% of GLB students attempted suicide, compared to 9% of other students. Sixty percent of GLB students have binged on alcohol in the last thirty days, compared to 31% of other students, while 63% have used marijuana, 57% inhalants to get high, 73% have smoked cigarettes, and 32% used cocaine compared to 27%, 26%, 36% and 3% of other students, respectively. With regard to sex, 56% of sexual active GLB students have used drugs or alcohol before their last sexual experience, and 27% were or have gotten someone pregnant. This is compared to the 29% and 10% of other students, respectively. In addition, 25% have vomited or taken laxatives to control weight, compared to 5% of other students. (2006) Gay adolescents are clearly in need of guidance in a safe, reflective environment.
The vicarious experience found by reading a young adult novel is also an important tool in building empathy in adolescents. In her introduction to Am I Blue?, an anthology of coming out stories she edited, author Marion Dane Bauer writes:
A good friend of mine once said, “I have never met a bigot who was a reader as a child,” and it is something I believe as well. The power of fiction is that it gives us, as readers, the opportunity to move inside another human being, to look out through that person’s eyes, hear with her ears, think with his thoughts, feel with her feelings. It is the only form of art which can accomplish that feat so deeply, so completely. And thus it is the perfect bridge for helping us come to know the other—the other inside as well as outside ourselves. (1994, p. x)
Indeed, according to the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 61% of gay teens were in a fight during the past 12 months, 34% were threatened with a weapon, and 18% skipped school because of feeling unsafe, as compared to the 36%, 5% and 4% of other students, respectively. (2006) Lack of empathy is hurting our youth. The prejudice against being a gay youth is only one possible issue among many that an adolescent might face, but the experiences of one segment is often universal. Boys can identify with many of the issues facing Melinda, the protagonist who is date-raped in Speak, for example, and through classroom discussion and activities build empathy for their female peers and be more thoughtful in their social activities. By reading about minorities, women, boys, gay, handicapped, or other teens students are ready to bring an aware viewpoint to new situations they might face as adults.
The value of literature in helping young adolescents explore their life is unquestioned, but what material is appropriate is more subjective. Stallworth cautions, “…it’s important to choose titles that are developmentally appropriate and that fit curricular objectives.” (2006) Just as literature can help students explore issues they are confused about, it can also open them to new worlds. This is a mixed blessing. The power of the media on adolescence is well documented, and literature is no exception. Mature themes are not the only concerns adults have, as the ALA reports that 842 challenges of material were about material with “an occult theme or promoting occult or Satan”, while 419 for promoting a religious viewpoint. Parents are uneasy about how books with mature themes might influence their children, especially if they are not developmentally ready to wrestle, mentally or emotionally, with difficult topics.
HOW TO DO IT
First, adults need to make decisions about what constitutes literature, as opposed to superfluous prose. While adults for a host of reasons, including violence, language, a dark ending, and for being anti-religion and anti-authority, challenged Cormier’s The Chocolate War, nothing in it is gratuitous in its exploration of the cruelty and bullying found in many schools. On the other hand, Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series has little literary value, while its depictions of sex, drugs and affluent lifestyle is meant simply to titillate. A good book works on many levels, and offers its readers new things with each reading. Bloom writes, “The strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure… There is a reader’s Sublime, and it seems the only secular transcendence we can ever attain.” (2000, p. 29) By demanding that students read deeper literature we are demanding that books fulfill their purpose of mirroring life and empowering students.
While the standard of what constitutes literature may learn towards the subjective, the discussion itself is important as it forces all parties to delve into arts’ role in reflecting life. In writing about creating reading groups that include both students and parents, teacher Jane M. Vossler uses three main criteria: quality, plot and conflict. She writes of these three:
Quality: Seek books with well-developed characters and inspired, excellent writing.
Plot: Look for intriguing story lines that will interest both adults and students.
Conflict: Look for books with “meat” to generate discussion and perhaps some disagreement. (2002, p. 134)
This can raise the deeper question for the community; does the literature reflect the teen’s experience, and how can teens be helped overall through these difficult issues. More important, it forces those students who are going to read the literature to move beyond mere reading and engage with the struggle presented. Because each community is faced with different issues and holds different values, each should develop a method of advising students, parents, teachers and administrators as to the appropriateness of a book for classroom use. While it may be difficult for all books to be reviewed by all interested parties, it could offer guidance to teachers and administrators about what titles are both engaging and appropriate.
Second, student choice is a good way to ensure that the different levels of development and maturity are being respected. Atwell’s program is one of reading and writing workshops where students make choices. She writes, “If we want students to grow to appreciate literature, we need to give them a say in decisions about the literature they will read.” (1998, p. 36) Students can also choose what not to read. Independent reading, literature circles and sustained silent reading (SSR) are all techniques being embraced by the middle school for these reasons. Through book talks, reading cafes, and other lessons students can gauge their interest and comfort by hearing from teachers, librarians, and peers as to what a book is about. In the end, though, adults need to recognize that even if adolescents are not yet adults, they are no longer children. Communities need to trust teens, and address the issues in the books, not the books themselves.
Students have a responsibility, too. They need to be self-aware. If a topic is making them uncomfortable, they need to advocate for themselves, from speaking up to simply putting the book down. When a library designates a book as “mature”, or a teacher warns a group that a story may contain an upsetting topic, it is the child’s responsibility to monitor their own comfort level and make choices. At the same time, students need to advocate when their needs are not being met. For example, a student making difficult choices about friendship should be encouraged to seek out books that answer their questions.
Finally, keep parents in the loop. While students need to be self-aware, this skill is still developing. While parents may be unaware of the issues facing their young adolescent, they are often aware of those issues of which their child is particularly sensitive. In addition, there may be additional background of which only the parent is aware. For example, a student who was sexually assaulted as a child may be too close to the themes tackled in Speak, hurting the child’s development more than helping them. Notification of class reading lists, or parent permission slips, allow the entire community to support student growth.
The cartoonist Walt Kelly once wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Not only are we young adult books, but young adult books reflect us and our communities. Topics, issues and themes that we find disturbing as adults are even more frightening because the adolescents in our communities are facing them face-to-face. If they are come into adulthood as well adjusted, empathetic, self-knowing citizens we have to help them face these issues in a safe and intellectually rigorous environment. Literature plays an important role in this.
Of course, we must be aware that not all adolescents are the same. While some may be struggling with issues of body image, sexuality, or abuse, others may be exploring positive roles and activities that should be encouraged. In addition, not all middle school students have reached adolescence, and introducing subjects before they are intellectually and emotionally ready may be as confusing as not tackling them when they are. Similarly, not all books are the same, and the use of multi-dimensional, well-written literature, not titillating topic-centered tripe, is essential for stories to serve as a tool for reflection. The best course it to put students and their needs at the center of any use of literature, listen to them, and support their search for the truth in themselves and the world around them. Only then can we address the enemy within all of us and inspire adolescents to be heroes of our own lives.
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