On Preaching and Self-Censorship in Writing for Young Readers

I sat on a library panel this week with four other YA authors. I'd had a busy day, and was irritable already. I probably should have sat back, listened, and shut up, but of course I did no such thing.

"Do you purposefully put messages in your books?" someone in the audience asked.

"Do you feel you must censor yourself to any extent because you're writing for young people?" another attendee asked.

A few of the other panelists responded, and the consensus seemed to be a rousing no to both questions. They talked about the freedom we need to create good art, the disaster of didactic fiction, and the mandate to trust our young readers. They sounded so cool, and so right. But I've already told you I was feeling contrary. Without much thought, I leaped into the conversation.

I've been ruminating on why I erupted with such fervor and decided to air my responses out here on the Fire Escape. I'd love your comments and thoughts. Do you resonate with any of these statements/questions—all of which popped into my head, and some out of my mouth (more inarticulately than below)—and if so, which ones and why?

On putting "message" in our books:

"Aren't all stories containers for worldview, messages, and morals, even if it's the view that the world is morally uncertain? A belief that there are no definitive answers is a particular philosophy. An author's reluctance to convey any morals or ideologies doesn't mean a story isn't saturated with them. And if the head isn't in charge of weaving your worldview into a story, the gut will do it for you."

On writing more carefully for children than for adults:

"Children's stories are more powerful conveyers of worldview because a child is in the process of formation. Don't we have a responsibility as adults to discern the hidden as well as overt messages in children's stories, even our own? Shouldn't we steer them away from the 'danger of a single story,' for example, about certain kinds of people?"

"Is there a right 'age of consent' for young people to roam freely in the world of stories? Is a parent solely to decide or are we in the wider community of adult writers, publishers, and educators also called to defend young minds and hearts? If so, shouldn't we pay closer attention to our stories and perhaps limit our freedom more than artists who produce works for adults?"

Wow, was I cranky. But what do you think?  I don't mind you showing me why and how I was off. Or on. Or both. Don't hold back.


Marcia Brandt said…
I was in a conference session where author and storyteller Joseph Bruchac explained the purpose of the Native American legends. They were intended to have messages - sometimes of fear - for the purpose of teaching kids to act accordingly. I appreciate when books contain "messages" and are thought provoking. ("Wonder" is a good example.) I do not appreciate obvious agendas. Message and agenda are not the same to this librarian.
ACE Bauer said…
I entirely agree with you about there always being a message in a book. A book, like all narratives, is a conversation w/ the author's readers, based on the author's assumptions about what their readers know or don't know. It's also a conversation with other books: so-and-so wrote about X this way, but I really think talking about X is more authentic/interesting/easy/fun/powerful/will sell better/whatever this other way. Or, "gosh, I'd like to say this too!" The message may be "I think what I've written is better," or "you'll like this as much as in the other book," or "have you thought about it this way?", or something entirely different. No book is written in a vacuum--we are all part of a literary and genre culture that we hook onto in some way, most especially when it comes to children's literature.

And that does mean that we all self-censor. W/ YA we go into traditionally taboo subjects more graphically, but porn isn't part of the equation. Neither is the level of gore you might find in adult horror. We tend not to dwell on mid-life crises that don't relate at all to kids' lives.

And just as we omit some things, we add things, too. We assume our readers might be new to a topic, so we give information that we might not with adults. We might engage in humor that adults would consider puerile--to which I answer, "exactly."

Sorry for the long answer, but this is an interesting topic.
Amitha Knight said…
I agree with most of what you have written--I don't think it is possible to write a book without include some kind of message or takeaway, even if a writer doesn't without meaning to. And writing a story with ambiguous morality is also a statement in itself. What will differ from story to story is how subtle the message is.

I do think that children's books can and do teach children how to navigate the world and because of this I personally do think children's authors have a different responsibility to their readers than authors who write for adults. I don't know if I would state it exactly in the way you did, that our "freedoms" are limited, but I'm not sure that this is technically wrong. Perhaps what I would say is that with children's literature, you have to work a lot harder with your writing. You have to be more thoughtful in your choices in what you write and what you say.
Mitali Perkins said…
Wonderful comments that help me to clarify my thinking. Thank you.