Last week I sent an email to various YA writers, whose works and opinions I respect, saying, "Frequently on my blog I get into the top of morals in literature. I have claimed that as an author, I cannot be the bearer of morals, cannot create morals in my books but can only be true to the story and allow the reader to create her/his own morals...Many of my readers push back, parents who believe that children's and young adult writers have an obligation to have moral standards and create boundaries in their books so as not to expose children to issues/situations that are age inappropriate." I invited those writers to respond to this issue any way they wanted, to agree or disagree. You'll notice by their responses what a broad topic this is! Many responded to different aspects of the topic, and none saw what anyone else wrote, so this is not a conversation but a collection of individual reactions. Get ready for a long post! But I find them all fascinating and powerful, and I hope you do too.
If parents are doing their job at home, they should have enough confidence in their kids to handle what a book throws at them.
I suspect that it is impossible for me to write a story in which my morals did not show through in some way. Yet, strangely, it seems that readers are often misunderstanding the way in which my morals show through. They accuse me of having certain viewpoints which my characters express but which are not my own, for example. Or of accepting situations because I write about them, even though it seems clear to me that the whole point of the novel is to show how bad the situation is and how the characters are trying to get out of it.
My objection to the idea of morals in YA or children's literature is generally people being too literal in their interpretations. Because I have a divorced character in my book does not mean I advocate divorce. Or teenage pregnancy. Or child abuse. Or war. Or vampires eating people. I mean, seriously, I do not think vampires should eat people, even though they eat people in my books. Do I have to say that? Perhaps I do.
I really dislike the whole movie rating system mentality that we have currently in America. We keep kids from watching moral movies that show difficult actions instead of keeping kids from seeing trivial movies because they have no bad words in them. Which isn't to say that all R rated movies are deeply moral. They're not. But neither are all PG or G rated movies. Having a morality rating would be impossible, however, and I'm not sure I want that, either.
As a parent, I try to read most of the books my kids read first, and then we talk about them afterward. I think this is a great way for my kids to see how I deal with different points of view, and it allows them to do the same. They are going to have friends who have different moral values than they do, and will need to be able to remain friends with them. Or I hope they do. I do.
I agree that it would be tough to impose lessons on a story. I believe that as conscientious characters face tough choices, some themes or morals tend to appear naturally. So I would say that writing about thoughtful characters with moral backbones could help bring moral considerations into a story, but that tends to work best when the author lets it happen rather than forces it.
I once had someone write me an email criticizing Twilight because Bella lied to Jacob and led him on. She was clearly not a good role model for girls because of this and therefore girls shouldn't read the book. I wrote back and explained that if characters never made bad choices literature would be very boring and unrealistic.
In that way, I don't think authors could or should try to make their characters role models. But in other ways, I definitely think that authors should think about morals. One of my pet peeves in today's YA literature is the high incidence of teen characters having sex without any bad consequences.
I feel like authors are not only encouraging kids to have sex by normalizing it in literature, but they're out and out irresponsibly misleading kids about the consequences. Eighty percent--yes, really, eighty percent--of sexually active people have at least one sexually transmitted disease. Some of these diseases are incurable--one of them is deadly, and many of them aren't prevented by using condoms. If you get herpes or genital warts, sorry baby, you've got them for life.
And yet I don't see this issue anywhere in books where kids are having sex. I don't think YA authors can just wash their hands of that responsibility and pretend that what they write doesn't have an influence on their readers.
My two cents.
I want to be all blank-slate-y, let the story be the story, and all that. I know that's the fashionable view of literature, and I know that a reader brings her or his own values and beliefs into the interpretation of a text. Yay! Hurrah!
But--and I'm just speaking for myself--I know that I bring my own morals and value system into the books I write. Of course I do, because I write from within my own particular world-viewing framework. Can I see beyond it? I try. Do I agree with everything a given character of mine says, does, or thinks? No. But do my books have a moral compass that matches up with my own moral compass? Yeah, and here it is: Be kind. Love yourself. Love the world. And don't be afraid to laugh.
Our job as writers is to tell stories. Our job as writers is to tell our characters' truths. Sometimes our own truths are mixed up in our words of fiction because we are a bit of our characters.As soon as we start to preach or teach something, our readers shut us out. They shut us down by setting our books aside and picking up other titles that resonate with them instead of our books.
I tend to write a bit darker story and it's been funny how many of my writing 'friends' have not appreciated my looking at the darker parts of the world. "There's too much darkness out there. Why contribute to it?" they say.
Why? Because there is so much darkness and because even kids in good families are seeing it and because I hope that my books might offer a bit of light. A glimmer of hope.
When I let people push me to write what they want, my stories become artificial and they start posing the way someone else wants them to pose--like a mannequin in a store window.
The truth (for me) is that people look for what they want to look for. "See the truths (insert famous writer name ) taught here: being anti-abortion." We color the dots the color we want them to be, huh? Those teachers of 'the way it should be'--can read books that seem innocent and look for what they want to be there. And vice versa. The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson was banned for a sex scene. I was surprised, too, as there is no sex scene in that book. Sheesh! How embarrassing!
So we writers must do what we do best--tell our stories.
And critics must do what they do best--be critical.
And hopefully, what will happen as readers read our books is that they will find their truths in our pages.
Oh, sure, I'll disagree. I'll take up the puffy gloves and engage in fisticuffs, my dear!I would argue, first of all, that our world-view is already wound into our narratives, whether we're aware of it or not, and that we can't help broadcasting it to our readers. Our idea of what a "happy ending" is, of who is evil and who is good, of who should triumph and who should fail (or whether anyone *should* do either) -- all of that is played out in our writing. Just because we don't overtly talk about it doesn't mean it doesn't structure our stories, without us even thinking about it.
And I would argue, second of all, that we shouldn't be embarrassed of the world-view that's wrapped up in our stories. (Although we should be embarrassed if we're being boring and clumsy about it.) What's wrong with acknowledging that children are not just learning about the world, but actually building their own world, as they read? They're making themselves. What's wrong with wanting to be there by their side as they do that? I think that's one of the incredibly exciting things about writing for kids.
Incidentally, I have a little essay on this on my website.
Okay, this is a subject I think about a lot.This is a monster-long response to your question, but I'm a parent as well as an author and it's a subject I feel strongly about and I have let myself drop into total lecture mode. Sorry about that. (Just so you know, every paragraph here could have been a page. I really did try to control myself.)
So . . .
I wish people would stop saying "adult" when what they mean is "sex." I don't think sex is dirty and I don't think it's shameful. I think the activity is for adults, but I don't think it is wrong for children to know what it is. Cats, dogs, horses, the animals at the zoo, people, we have sex. We have body parts and we should be comfortable naming them. When something makes us *uncomfortable* it is vital that we feel able to talk about it. So, I don't think "Sex" is an adults-only topic or should be an adults-only topic.
It bothers me when people use "adult" as a synonym for "sex" because I do in fact believe there are "adult topics" and I think that this weird prudery about sex confuses the issue. Sexual violence. The Banality of Evil. Suicide. Depression. Other forms of Mental Illness. And there's all that foul language! I don't think that children should be exposed to those things prematurely.
But what is prematurely? This might go over like a lead balloon, but I believe that the person who determines the right time is the child reader. I think that in the same way that most toddlers will select a reasonably balanced diet if you give them the choice, that pre-teens and teens can select reasonably appropriate books for themselves if offered the chance.
This means that I do think YA books should look like YA books, and that Jacket Copy should accurately reflect the contents of the book. I think publishers do a pretty good job at this [speaking as a grown-up who learned early on to avoid like the plague any book with the word 'poignant' on the jacket. Nothing signified adult content like 'poignant.'] And I think the idea that these signifiers of jacket design and copy are insufficient and that some sort of parental advisory label is necessary is nonsensical. Let me cap that NONSENSICAL. I will add exclamation points NONSENSICAL!!!!
I think most authors do a good job of signaling in the first few pages of a book what kind of story they are telling. It's not an accident that I used a curse in the first twenty or so pages of my book. If you aren't old enough to handle that, you aren't old enough for The Thief.
Do I believe that it is okay for a parent to take the skin off their kid's knee with a flail? Gosh, no. Do I think it is okay for a parent to let kids go off on a bike *knowing* that there is a very good chance for skin abrasion coming their way? Yes. I'd argue that someone who *won't* let their child run the risk of a skinned knee is not doing their kid any favors.
Kids feel very differently about those skinned knees when they know they are self-inflicted.
Are your kids going to read something you wish they hadn't? Oh, yes. And sometimes they'll read stuff THEY wish they hadn't. They are going to get a few bumps and bruises, and I am afraid, a few adventurous ones might end up with a scar from something that needed stitches to heal. But unlike bike accidents, I don't believe that any of the injuries will be life-threatening.
Teach kids the rules of the road, teach them to look for those clues on the book jackets and teach them to glance through the pages before they let themselves get sucked into the story. Remind them that when they are uncomfortable they can stop reading. Tell them you're there to talk about these things if they want to. Tell them you trust them to be careful. Then take off the training wheels and let them go.
Hope this makes sense. If you'd like Lecture 213-2.b "On the Evils of Assigned Reading," let me know. : )