Racy Reads For Middle Schoolers: Two Questions

Here's one high school teacher's perspective on teen reads and middle-schoolers. Interestingly, Christopher Paslay doesn't advocate censorship on the receiving end of stories but responsibility on the publishing end:
..From my experience, most 16-year-old students wouldn't be caught dead reading anything within the "teen" genre. High school kids are too cool, too grown-up for teen books. Upperclassmen are getting ready to head to college or go off to work, and they have little tolerance for the fairy-tale crushes and catty gossip found in most contemporary young-adult books.

It is the middle school students, ages 11 to 13, who are reading the teen genre. They're the ones picking up books like Beautiful Disaster or Gossip Girl in order to see what it's really like to be a teenager in high school. Of course, what they read isn't real at all. It's a lot of superficial nonsense, a make-believe world filled with steamy sex, vodka bongs, and pool parties. It's a fantasy land where 15-year-old girls get breast implants and drink martinis on South Beach...

Publishers of contemporary teen books should stop peddling soft porn to minors, and go back to promoting storylines with substance and moral character.
Here are the questions this article raised for me:
  1. Somehow I don't think middle school girls are primarily reading these books "to see what it's really like to be a teenager in high school." So why are they reading them, then? Is it the "everybody's doing it" buzz effect? Do these reads offer the same vicarious thrill adults feel when we consider the lifestyles of the rich, spoiled, and famous in People? Is teen chick-lit a way for girls to escape the stress and/or doldrums of middle school life?

  2. Steamy books are lucrative. Do any publishers of books for young adults have mission statements that would prevent them from producing a line of books like Gossip Girls? Like Dutton's, for example, although there's isn't official. Are any houses or imprints clear about their desire to avoid publishing the type of book this teacher describes?


Little Willow said…
Some people (any age!) are tempted by the forbidden. If they are told the books are too racy for them to read and/or off-limits, they might be MORE interested in reading those books than they would have if they hadn't been labelled as such!
Mitali Perkins said…
You're right, Lil Wil (that's how I think of you in my head, BTW). It's human nature to want the forbidden. And like all things pleasurable, a reading habit becomes damaging when indulged in excess or becomes an obsession.
Imani said…
I can't take anything this man says seriously. He bases his premise on picking up a few books from a store shelf. He claims that teens wouldn't be caught reading "teen books" when a significant portion of Japanese 'graphic novels' in the North American market are aimed at teens. They don't want to read "fairy tales" when authors like Holly Black and Stephanie Meyer books seem to be fairly popular.

I also wonder if he's a hermit. I and several friends, acquaintances, strangers on the internet were reading 'steamy' romance novels and 'raunchy' Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel novels from the wee ages of 11 or 12 and I've yet to learn of any studies linking this to sexually risky behaviour. What about Shakespeare? My eyes widened at the explanatory notes for Mercutio's dirty jokes in my Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet; and the play itself is hardly a neat little moral fable.

I could go on. I'm more worried about the students exposed to the weak intellectual reasoning displayed in that article on a regular basis than late night readings of dirty books.
Little Willow said…
Mitali: :)
I came across this article myself and found it interesting. I’ve been “googling” some of the responses to it for the past couple days, and I’ve been really surprised about the outcry over this little piece of commentary.
Like you, I’m a young adult author and freelance writer, so it was of special interest to me. I think the key word here is "balance". Should we condemn the entire genre because of some albeit highly questionable novels? Absolutely not! Did Mr.Paslay bring up some points of merit in the ongoing dialogue about YA literature that's been in progress since the early Judy Blume era? Absolutely!
Teen novels should explore the real-life issues teenagers face. They are a valuable tool in processing experiences and sparking dialogue. Do some novels teeter to far, glamorizing behavior that is far from every day teen fodder? Absolutely, again! Do other novels not go far enough, erring on the side of caution? Sure!
But as a teen writer, the one point that stuck with me the most from Paslay's piece was where he says the actual readers of teen lit are often still in their single-digit years. At first, I was surprised when 8-year-olds approached me at book signings, telling me how much they enjoyed my novel, The Chrysalis--a book that include scenes that deal frankly with sex. Now I pretty much expect it. It doesn’t mean I shy away from though subjects--my upcoming book Drink the Rain, has a subplot about underage drinking. What it does mean is that I need to be just that much more responsible in my treatment of these topics. Sure, it's tough, but these kids are the next generation of teachers, counselors, journalists, and parents. We owe it to them to discuss tough issues honestly. And if they laugh and cry and dream along the way, all the better.

By the way, I read your Campus Life article and as a Christian, I found it fascinating….

Cynthia Davis
Author, The Chrysalis (Greenroom Books 2001)
Drink the Rain, upcoming (Greenroom Books, 2007)
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks, Cynthia, for stopping by and sharing your ruminations. I'll have to look for your books! I thought it was interesting that an interview with booksellers in this week's PW also mentioned that teens don't really read YA novels: "The market for middle-grade novels is larger than for older fiction, Brown reminded the audience, saying that the more mature content of YA books limits its readership, since there is a short window for teenage readers "between the YA novel and the progression into the adult arena."

Thanks for the link! I’ve been trying to keep up with all the latest in YA books—I’m going to grad school soon and I want to focus on YA lit. I’ve been clicking around on your site and I’m definitely going to take a look at Rickshaw Girl. I really like what you’ve done with your website—it inspires me to work on mine!

My books center around a summer camp—I’m building a series that follows different characters through the adventures, relationships and decisions—and ultimately, growth-- of their first summer away--with a sequel for each character that puts their new-found maturity to the test.

So I don’t really have a cross cultures theme, but a good chunk of Drink the Rain is set in South Africa and some cross cultural issues certainly emerge in that storyline…so you may enjoy it.