Monday, 14 July 2014

Sensible Censorship: Young Adult Literature

Open book on a forest floorI've been reading a lot lately about censorship and children's books. Censorship is an issue around the world and Young Adult fiction features prominently, accounting for six of the ten most challenged titles last year alone. As always, with any healthy debate, there are arguments for both sides. Literature is an important part of our culture and a valuable tool to allow young people to share in other people's experiences and develop a more rounded view of the world. Also, censorship in general is something that should be considered very carefully. Do we have the right to dictate what young people can, or can't, read?

Should we be making a choice about that? At what point do children become old enough to make their own decisions about what they feel constitutes 'offensive content'? Trusting youngsters to make sensible choices about right and wrong is an important part of growing up and exposure to inappropriate language could be considered a part of that process. It is, after all, a major part of our wider society. We can't censor the local builder, when he drops a brick on his toe, or the exuberant football supporters, making their way home from a match and being less than complimentary about the opposing team. It would be pointless having a real-life drama without realistic language and it would be unfair on the author and the reader to put these kind of sanctions in place.


Parents have rights too and some may choose to think differently. There will always be alternative points of view and some parents may decide they would prefer it if their children weren't exposed to bad language or other inappropriate content. Yes, instances may occur in everyday life, but why make it any worse? This is a valid point of view and I feel we need to respect the rights of parents to bring up their children as they see fit. Next to parents, the biggest single influence in a child's life is their school, as this is where they spend most of their time, and schools do their best to respect parents' values and beliefs. Clearly, there is a dividing line here, between the educational perspective; a wide range of styles, genres, fiction, non-fiction, etc, and the cultural perspective; family background, preferences and beliefs. Both are important. From a school's point of view, if a book is aimed at young people, it could potentially end up in the school library. which is vast. It would be impossible to read and assess every book in there. There is also another issue. The Young Adult range is a huge market and books abound on a wealth of different subjects, but what actually constitutes a Young Adult? As far as I can work out, it refers, more or less, to teenagers. Which is fine, except that this isn't always the case. There are plenty of books which are widely labelled 'Young Adult', which would be equally appealing, and harmless, in younger hands.

According to Goodreads, books labelled Young Adult are aimed at those roughly aged 13 to 21 that tend to have a similar aged protagonist. Some titles in this area include:

  • the Harry Potter series. A favourite amongst Upper Primary School children and relatively harmless, depending on your views of occult/ black arts- type fiction.
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A classic, featuring lots of appealing characters, a magical land and no swear words. 
  • Trash. A violent, gritty drama, set in a third world country, against a back drop of poverty and threat. Contains the word 'sh*t'. 
This illustrates the contrast of titles in the Young Adult fiction range. The problem I have with this, is that there are many titles with the Young Adult label that are perfectly acceptable to challenge pre-teen readers. So how do we distinguish, without having to proof read every book our children could encounter, between those books that are labelled Young Adult for want of a more accurate description, and those that are not suitable for children under thirteen? Trash, is a brilliant book. It makes a very important point about the divide between rich and poor, illustrating in graphic detail the grim circumstances children actually do have to live in. The atmosphere created by this thrilling book is so filled with suspense and drama, it draws in even the most relectant young reader, which is a great plus point. The problem isn't with the book, it's with the label. In order to have books like Trash available for the intended audience, I feel we need to be clear with our classification. I'm not sure Young Adult was ever intended as a genre anyway, but it's too vague. Perhaps the answer is to offer certificates, as we do for films. This would provide a clear guideline for teachers and parents and allow our young adults access to challenging content where appropriate, whilst also protecting our younger children. It would also give the reading public more control over what is made available to their children. At the moment, it seems that the only way to censor a book, is to move to have it banned completely, which is a total over reaction. Far better that people can lobby to have the certificate raised, if a book is deemed unsuitable for the lower reading ages, so that it is still available for the rest of the reading public to enjoy. 

I would love to gauge opinion on this. Would you be happy if your child brought home a reading book with swear words in it, or something more graphic than you'd like? Have you ever found your child's reading material disturbing or inappropriate? Please let me know in the comments below. Have a great day.

Book, Glasses and Chocolate



  1. I'm doing a course on writing young adult fiction just now and this is an interesting question. I think there is such a vast age range young adult cover. I think they should really think about splitting it. Maybe early teens and late teens or something. I think it all depends on the child and their maturity. If they are mature enough to read a book with a swear word in it, but know they shouldn't use it in everyday life then that would make the difference. I think it's a good idea to read a book you are unsure of before giving it to your child x

    1. I totally agree, Susan. Splitting the age range would certainly help, particularly with schools, where time and resources make it difficult to check everything that comes into the school. Narrowing it down a bit would at least ensure teen material doesn't end up in Primary classrooms, for example. I will certainly be reading my son's books until he's a bit older!

  2. A few years back, I took a young adult literature course and since then I've been reading lots of middle school and YA novels. I believe with the ever-expanding young adult market, it will be difficult to sensibly censor books without reading them since there are many books marketed as young adult because there's a young protagonist, but are actually adult novels. I would be support a move to offer certificates for books to ensure young readers are reading age appropriate books. Other than pre-reading the book, another way to censor is to read reviews from trusted book reviewers.

  3. I have five grandchildren and do not envy their parents having to keep an eye on what they are all reading. Some people are only worried about the internet but I think they should be concerned about everything children can be exposed to. It was much easier in my day.

  4. I do worry about what my 10 year old reads- I even find Jacqueline Wilson books a bit much for her at times!
    Felicity kelly

  5. I've not seen them reading anything disturbing but within reason anything that gets them interested is fine with me. Kids hear so much worse on the streets and probably in the playground too!


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