On Content in Young Adult Literature

On Content in Young Adult Literature


Figure 1. A nicer way of saying 'shut up'

Figure 1. Shhhhh. Until everyone is a life-long reader, the ‘content’ discussion needs to be tabled. 


Last week MPR invited me to talk about YA fiction. So I went and talked a bit about YA fiction. And my own book. But the thrust of the discussion was about ‘content’ and listeners were invited to call in with their concerns about what sort of things were portrayed in books for today’s teenagers.

Author Anne Ursu, after listening to this discussion, wrote a great piece pushing back on this issue, suggesting this kind of approach does nothing but frighten people. I posted this before, but it’s worth a re-read.

What’s occurred to me a week later is that this isn’t the problem, the content of books.

The problem is that there aren’t enough readers. Would that we lived in a world where there were so many kids and young adults reading that the ‘content’ of the books was really affecting their behavior!

(I don’t think this would happen, anyway, but let’s play along for the sake of the whole Reefer Madness! tone involved.)

Furthermore, this is not what I do. I don’t write how-to guides. You want information for teenagers that tells them about making good decisions? Great. It’s called a pamphlet and they keep them in the Guidance Counselor’s office. Or in the nonfiction section of the library. Don’t ask fiction-writers to serve up instruction manuals, please.

The real problem isn’t that YA books are dark or smutty; the real problem is that most people don’t read for pleasure. This whole notion of whether the kids can handle the content of books is a tempest in a teapot. We’re not talking about a big population of kids when we talk about kids who are avid readers; I’d wager also that kids who are readers tend to have parents who are conscientious about other facets of their upbringing as well.

So, content ain’t the point. Maybe, when the post-patriarchy comes and we’re in a post-racial society and when 100% of our population reads for pleasure, maybe then we can talk about ‘content.’


Until that dreamy day, though, I will just wish we lived in a world so grabbed by the lapels and influenced by young adult books.

But we don’t live in that world. (And that world would also have to somehow become a place where the act of reading is intellectually reductive. Anyway.)

We don’t make that world where everyone reads possible, either – we don’t imagine it into existence – by deciding that certain books are more equal than other books. When it comes to opening up minds, less is not more.




  • Kelly Barnhill on Dec 16, 2013 Reply

    Dear Carrie Mesrobian,

    You are a smart person who is smart. And I adore you.

    Yr fan,
    Kelly Barnhill

  • Shaun Hutchinson on Dec 16, 2013 Reply

    I call BS on people who get the vapors over some sex or cussing in books when movies and TV shows frequently depict some of the most crazed violence I’ve ever seen. The Walking Dead is a weekly OD of blood and guts.

    But you’re right that the population at large simply isn’t reading enough for pleasure to be hugely influenced by some swearing and sex. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only thing all those eff bombs and sweaty sex scenes in books actually encourage kids to do is read even more.

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