Should books cater to a taste for violence, if that’s what teens want to read?

Today’s “Midmorning” looks at a controversy surrounding fiction for young adults. Critics say too much of it is dark, disturbing and violent. Today’s Question: Should books cater to a taste for violence, if that’s what teens want to read?

  • Patti

    Fiction, YA or mainstream, should never cater to any tastes. The purpose of fiction is to tell a story, one that the author and publisher feels is worth telling. Both fantasy and reality-based fiction create microcosmos within it’s pages and if the author has done her job well, it is a world that engages the reader with it’s sights, sounds and even smells. Violence and sex are a natural part of reality that authors can’t afford to ignore if they want their stories to ring true, but a good writer knows that as with everything, less is more.

  • Rich

    Teenagers who are avid readers traditionally post higher test scores, demonstrate critical thinking skills, have a more extensive vocabulary, do better in school overall, and develop a well-rounded set of interests and values. They do that by picking and choosing the books they want to read. And, as we’ve mentioned before, if we picked through the classics, many of which are assigned in school, we could come up with just as much violence/sexual content/strong language as we could find in contemporary YA books.

  • Zach

    Here we go again. Every once in a while someone writes an article insinuating that YA Authors are purposefully writing dark books with inappropriate subject matter for teens. We’ve been down this road before. Every time a book is banned in a library or from a school. Some of those books are good and some of them are bad. But here’s the thing: a good book is never bad for you.

  • Robert

    I like to look at some of the hard things that are being written about as opportunities for conversation. What one child is ready for is not necessarily what another child is ready for. Teenagers, like adults, come in all different shapes and forms. They also have different tastes. But that doesn’t mean that you deny a book that some kid might need. Some kid might need Shine. Or Scars. Or Marbury Lens. Or Hunger Games. Or Rage. Or any other book that might seem at the outset to be too dark. Why not talk to them? Why not figure out why they are attracted to whatever it is they are reading? But the thing is, you don’t know what is appropriate for every child. You don’t know what book a kid’s life might well depend on.

    Because YA books with hard topics and uncomfortable subject matter do save lives.

  • Chris Oinonen Ehren

    The best way to ensure more kids are reading the books people are concerned about is to kick up a fuss and talk about banning them. My high school Euro history teacher convinced me to read Lysistrata by mentioning in passing that he couldn’t talk about it in class, so I hustled down to the public library and checked it out. Forever by Judy Blume was passed around in study hall with the “good” parts underlined in red pen, ensuring that we got exposed to the parts the grownups didn’t want us to know about, out of context and without the sensitive treatment that Judy Blume gave it.

  • Linda

    Absolutely not! There is already way too much anger and aggressive behavior in this generation. We’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

  • suzie

    In order to make money, authors will write what is currently selling. This mean more violence and sex in their works. Parents need to read the same books and watch the save TV shows and movies as their children and then discuss the contents and story lines with their children. The parents have the first responsibility to raise non-violent children. LIbrarians and teachers are there as back-up to parents.

  • Joanna

    It would have been helpful to provide some background on this particular question, especially as it generated a fascinating set of online discussions about the topic. The Wall Street Journal published a poorly researched piece on one person’s concerns about YA fiction that the prompted a HUGE response by writers and readers of YA fiction, includng a Twitter campaig. In their majority, these responders said that the WSJ article was ignorant of what is actually in the YA fiction it was (mis)labeling as violent, and what teen readers get out of it; many “dark” themes are about real subjects that teens deal with, and readers overwhelmingly find these books to speak to their real-life experiences (of bullying, for example). Many readers (and writers who received lots of mail from readers) spoke eloquently about how a book helped someone feel as if they were not alone in dealing with a particular issue of problem. What I got out of following this discussion was that, far from catering to an appetite for lurid violence, much YA fiction is powerful precisely because it talks about otherwise taboo topics that people want desperately to understand, and that it models responses that are not self-destructive.

    By the way, Romeo and Juliet depicts teen suicide, but is was also required reading in my child’s English class.

  • Philip

    This is what you do: your energetic fountain of brilliance tells you they will only read a book that contains violence, because it will keep their attention while reading and at least their reading something. After all, reading something is better than not reading, right? So you give them a copy of Winnie the Pooh and tell them to get a job.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Who is to decide what “should” be, and how would it be enforced? Fiction writing is one area the government should definitely keep its nose out of (unlike those segments of the economy where the powerful can easily exploit the weak, like health care and financial “services”).

    And besides, this is nothing new. Consider A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, 1962.

  • Andrew Karre

    I’m the editorial director of Carolrhoda Lab, a teen fiction imprint based in the Minneapolis. I’ve been publishing novels for teens since 2005. You can play a mildly diverting game of Mad Libs with this sentence: “Teen fiction is rife with _____, and it’s warping their minds.” Of course, you could play the same game with adult fiction.

    There’s no shortage of dark subject matter in YA. There’s also no shortage of lighter fare. And everything in between. This is the sign of a maturing genre–and YA definitely is that. It’s a sign of health, not sickness.

    The thing about YA novels is that they don’t fit neatly on the spectrum with other children’s books. Just like the music a 15 year old chooses isn’t likely a natural outgrowth of the Raffi CD’s his parents played for him. Teens have much more agency in their reading choices (a good thing in my mind) than do younger children. They are going to make choices that are uncomfortable for their parents. And this HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE. The WSJ article is merely a clone of every critique of teen culture since Elvis.

  • kennedy

    Here is a sampling of reading options for my high school freshman:

    Bless Me Ultima

    A Clockwork Orange

    Lord of the Flies

    Romeo and Juliet

    The Hunger Games

    Secret Life of Bees

    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian

    I think it is important to expose our kids to some of the challenges they (and others) may face in life. However, I wonder about the bias toward darker presentations. Do english teachers give less merit to happy stories? Does reading about these topics better prepare kids to deal with them in person? Does reading so many depressing stories take the fun out of reading?

    These stories have sparked some very good coversation for us. But the student in my house would appreciate a break from all the violence, depression and loss. How about Much Ado About Nothing?

  • greg from Roseville

    Frank Zappa – when asked abou the nature of rock & roll music lyrics stated – “There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we’d all love one another. ” Personally – I’d have to apply the same thing to general literature. There’s just way more of it on the idea of love and general life. If we can’t have literature of all stripes discussed in class…. then perhaps the concern we should have now is that the conservatives read “Fahrenheti 451” as a cookbook.

  • Sue de Nim

    As the old saying goes, a mind is like a parachute; it works best when open.

  • charlotte Knoche

    Just to clarify a comment that was made.

    Grimms Fairy Tales were not “written,” they were collected. They were not also originally considered stories for children. They tended to be entertainment for adults after the children were in bed. (Interestingly – the stories were, in a sense, secondary. The driving purpose was the study of language and dialects)

    Thank you

  • Marcus

    Do we want to raise a generation of Jeffersons, Lincolns, Clara Bartons, who confront the ugly realities of the world with strength born of optimism and good examples, or do we want a generation of desensitized nihilists who expect decadence and decline and have no skills or inclination to resist it? The guests who suggest that the quantity of dark subject matter is exaggerated are being willfully ignorant. 2000 new titles published for teens? That’s great. Now walk through the nearest bookstore and see table after table, shelf after shelf, of grim ugly books. Yes, variety exists, but the spectrum has skewed decidedly nihilist in just a few decades.

  • Alexander Cahill

    It sounds like the helicopter parents that were discussed last week are engaging in the same harmful practices with literature that they do when protecting their kids from bad experiences. Let them fail……let them read literature that may fail them!

  • Kathy

    I have worked in k12 education for 27 years–11 years in elementary libraries 1 year at high school library, 10 years in high school classroom and the rest in middle school as a dean and human rights officer (harassment/bullying issues). Let the students make choices and help guide them, but to ban and censor and forbid them, I believe will only lead them to find the information somewhere else (with or without parental permission). Discuss things with your children. Having 3 daughters (my youngest 15 years), we started to listen to Hopkins’ Crank this fall….she looked at me about 20 minutes into the audio and indicated she wasn’t interested. We talked about it and then listened to music–pretty graphic lyrics relative to the book.

    I remember reading Go Ask Alice (I’m 50) and never turned into a drug addict but learned so much about that world. Unfortunately the “really bad” gets sensationalized and generalized to the entire teen population, when the grand majority of teenagers are really great people who make mistakes and laugh and love and just are wonderful to be around. I don’t think the quality research on teen behavior bears out the “beliefs” of people who are fearful for them. Shakespeare is violent and explicit if one considers the language of the day. The other research to look at it how much do YAs read…are they really inundated. Or do they just read the “it” book because everyone else is reading it and that’s all they read? Anyhow, good discussion, but banning doesn’t work.

  • Andy Fisher

    It is incumbent on the media channels to be responsible about what they feed our kids. They ARE vulnerable and it’s naive to believe that parents can be aware of or influential against the “Omnimedia” barrage. Media is creating a reality apart from the day to day lives of MOST kids, skewed to the negative. Books look like they are following suit in promoting the same distorted views that movies, the internet and other media purvey. Why? Money?

  • Lauren Peck

    As a recent college grad who still loves YA to the point that I’m currently interning at a YA publisher, I think the fact that teens are READING is what we should value the most. The teenage years are a time for exploration and expanding your world view, and if the publishing industry puts limits on what it publishes, teen readers would definitely lose something.

    My favorite YA authors have always been those who take their teen readers seriously as mature, thinking, exploring individuals (such as John Green and Libba Bray). If books challenge their teen readers, whether it’s with dark subject matter or discussions of literature, philsophy, etc., teens will rise to that challenge and, more often than not, respond with maturity and intelligence.

  • Steve the Cynic

    I’d like to see people stop shoulding on each other.

  • Sarah

    Do teens really *want* books that cater to a taste for violence? When I was a teenager I quickly became impatient with YA fiction and soon went directly to the library’s regular fiction section. Clearly, some teens are attracted to violent and dark YA books, but it would have been nice if I had been able to find a few books there that interested me.

  • Deborah

    Good literature, like good food, is an acquired taste. Parents need to expose very young children to the best in children’s literature, and as the children grow, parents need to help children select appropriate reading matter. With luck, by the time a child becomes old enough and independent enough to select his or her own reading matter, the taste for good literature will have been inculcated. Just as a parent would never allow a child to exist on a diet exclusively of soda, chips and candy, no parent should allow a child to be raised on a diet of violent or salacious literature. I raised two children, both now adults. One an avid reader, the other, unfortunately not; however, both my children know and appreciate the difference between good literature and bad.

  • CF

    The question should be, do teens even bother to read in the first place? Considering that 1,000 plus high schrool so-called “graduates” will not receive their diplomas because they failed reading tests.

    As opposed to getting all their violence entertainment from TV and video games.

  • JQP

    “boston” (and homeland security, FBI, etal) did not capture some thoughtful careful well organized terrorist. It captured a couple of largely stupid, disorganized youth who had internet access and time to act on petty personal hate/stress/anxiety.

    What this investigation and its analysis in the media has done, is to advise any other local bone-heads and agitators – what to avoid should they choose to “display” their frustration with some part of our society.

    If you want a perspective on how this can play out – read about ETA in Spain. It took decades to resolve a loosely “organized” terror campaign. These boys in Boston … they could be the tip of totally random , unaffiliated, single-bone-to-pick , why-NOT-a-bomb , Loners. Everywhere.
    That’s not so fixable Mr. Lahane.

    • Fred Garvin

      ” did not capture some thoughtful careful well organized terrorist. ”
      I suspect we might find out otherwise.

  • marlo

    JQP — I largely agree with you. What is most frightening is how aimless and hapless those two boys were — yet they still managed to kill 3 people and seriously maim several others. Many of the dozens who were injured will be dealing with pain and physical ailments from these bombings for the rest of their lives, not mention astronomical out of pocket medical costs. So they inflicted a lot of damage despite their stupidity (and no one may ever be able to figure out why they did it — their motivations are very murky and shapeless). But I think this is a separate issue from what Lehane is talking about when he describes how Bostonians are, and how they reacted to (and are till in the process of reacting to) the bombings. There was/is something about Bostonians (just as people from Minneapolis are different, from say, Chicago — that brand of “Minnesota nice” which I would argue is more “Minnesota passive/aggressive”. Bostonians, on the other hand, are very upfront, brutally honest, and tell you like it is).

  • Fred Garvin

    Messed with the wrong city?
    Scores ran from the finish line. MILLIONS cowering in their own houses? Boat owner and other homeowners can’t get a handgun permit? ONLY when the lock down is ended is the surviving suspect caught by an unarmed civilian?
    Sounds like they picked the best city to create terror.