On Monday, the TODAY show drew attention to the wildly popular Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, posing the question: Should parents let their children feed on The Hunger Games? “-or any of the dark, disturbing young adult fiction now crowding bookshelves?”.
The article above goes on to discuss how “content is more frightening and gory than ever” how impressionable youth are, and even speculation that Collins must “have issues” to write such a violent, dystopian trilogy. What should parents do about their children reading such things?
This is certainly not the first time YA fiction has come under fire from concerned parents (or school boards, child health practitioners, religious groups, literary critics, or book sellers), but concern isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Censoring, or limiting access to books based on subjective opinions? That may be going too far.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with parent or guardian being concerned about what their child reads (or watches, plays, listens to, ingests, etc.) Since we all want children and teenagers to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults, the question isn’t should we be concerned, the question is:
What does a parent do with that concern?
Before we talk about mandating a rating system for young adult fiction books or discrediting authors by reducing their creativity to a deranged mental state, let’s talk about a few helpful first steps:
1. Remember your high school reading list.
If you believe that young adult content is getting darker or more gruesome, take a moment to consider the required reading from your school days: To Kill a Mockingbird. Lord of the flies. Catcher in the Rye. Beloved. Any thing by Shakespeare. Racism, sex, loss of innocence, drinking, murder, savagery and colourful language. Lots of colourful language. This isn’t meant to equate the literature of Toni Morrison to today’s dystopian teen reading, but it is to say that serious or dark content is not new to the eyes of young adult readers.
2. Read it (or at least read about it).
If you’re concerned about a specific young adult novel, the best way to understand exactly what its about, is to simply to read the book yourself. If you lack the time to do so, try Google. You’ll be sure to find a few reviews to give you the gist of the story, and a better grasp on its content.
3. Accept the young adult realities.
Teens and preteens are confronted with larger issues than a high school dance or failing a math test, more often than we would like to believe. Sex, drug use, prejudice, bullying, violence, eating disorders, depression, poverty and crime are just a few of the scary subjects that they are already familiar with. Not every teen or preteen directly experiences these issues, but sheltering them from other perspectives is not the answer… which leads us to the next point:
4. Talk about what they read.
This is one of the suggestions the TODAY Show got right. Engage with your kids about their book selection. What they like about the novels they choose, their themes, the characters, etc. If you didn’t like something in the story (provided you read it) tell them, and ask about their opinion on it! Make yourself available to discuss the good, bad, and the ugly about the book with them. Critically thinking about the novels they have read will lead to critical selection of their book choices in the future.
5. Give kids a little credit.
Don’t worry about the content of young adult fiction being too difficult for adolescents to understand. It’s Harry Potter, not Finnegan’s Wake. Most youth are perfectly able to process the difference between reality and fiction while acknowledging the elements that connect them. While they understand that the settings of stories like The Hunger Games, Divergent or Ender’s Game are fictional, they can connect on a very real level with the themes of the books, or the emotions of the characters. Fear. Loneliness. Confusion. Hope. Perseverance. Resourcefulness. YA fiction is a great way to identify with these messages and ideas. Extend to them that opportunity.
Sadly, not all young adult fiction will be well-written, thought provoking or helpful. Not all books will instill virtues in their readers, or align with your sensibilities, but the solution isn’t restriction or censorship. It’s asking questions.