“Shielding our kids from dark content in YA fiction” – a blog event
Like many writers’ festivals in 2020, the Williamstown Literary Festival this year scaled back to an online-only event with a streamlined program.
I was scheduled to moderate a panel discussion about cottonwool theory as it relates to young adult literature. We had a stellar line-up of YA authors locked in – Alison Evans, Eleni Hale and Holden Sheppard. But ours, along with many other planned events, was cancelled.
I’d already geared up for the festival – mapped out my questions, thought about some hilarious jokes (mostly at Holden’s expense because, let’s face it, he’s extremely shy – just look at his Instagram. So much material there). So, I thought I’d get the panellists’ views on a few of the topic areas we were set to cover: gatekeepers, avoiding certain topics in their work and dealing with bad behaviour in YA literature.
First, in traditional festival style, their bios:
Alison Evans is the award-winning author of queer YA books Ida, Highway Bodies and, most recently, Euphoria Kids. They are a contributor in the anthology Kindred: 12 Queer #loveozya Stories, co-editor of the zine Concrete Queers and fiction editor of #enbylife magazine. They are based on Wurundjeri Land/Melbourne.
Eleni Hale’s debut, Stone Girl, was published through Penguin Random House in May 2018. It won the Readings Book Prize for YA, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Ethel Turner Prize and was longlisted for the Davitt Crime Awards. It tells the story of one girl’s journey through institutional care. Eleni was previously a reporter at the Herald Sun and a communications strategist and has written for many print and online news publications. She lives in Melbourne and is currently working on her second book.
Holden Sheppard is an award-winning West Australian author. His debut coming-of-age novel, Invisible Boys, won the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and was shortlisted for the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, among other accolades. His writing has been published in the Griffith Review, Westerly, page seventeen, Indigo Journal, Ten Daily and the Huffington Post.
Gatekeepers in YA literature
The first area I wanted to explore was the role of gatekeepers in YA. We don’t see it much in Australia, but certainly in the US, YA books are routinely banned from school libraries because of content that the school board deems inappropriate. Among the most challenged YA books in 2019 were the Captain Underpants series, The Hate U Give, Thirteen Reasons Why and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. Reasons cited included same-sex relationships, gender diversity, political and religious viewpoints, ‘anti-cop’ content in the case of THUG and teen suicide. I wanted the panellists’ take on this.
Gatekeeping, I think, can do a lot of harm. Often with YA books, gatekeepers are malicious adults trying to keep truth away from teens, to silence anything that challenges their narrow worldview. Why do these adults think teens can’t handle books like The Hate U Give, when so many teens live with police brutality in their lives? Why do they feel the need to ‘shield’ kids from queerness in books? They hide under the pretence of ‘protecting’ teens when really, it’s censorship.
Sometimes it’s more well-intentioned than this, and adults just don’t think kids are ‘ready’ for certain themes. But I definitely think there needs to be more trust – adults need to trust teens to know what they are ready for. I feel really lucky because my mum never told me a book was too old for me; she let me choose whatever I wanted to read. We would often read the same books and then talk about them. If I ever did read something that I wasn’t ready for, I could talk to her about it. But because she made room for me to make my own decisions, she gave me the confidence to trust myself.
Stone Girl was banned from some school libraries and I had a school visit cancelled after the librarian read the book. The school that cancelled the visit was home to a number of foster kids. They told me over the phone that the subject matter was the reason for the cancellation.
I’m not sorry for writing this type of book. I’m proud that I didn’t chicken out and adhere to a convention that at times acts to silence marginalised voices.
Teen readers should be respected to choose their reading material. Many consume adult books anyway. Many prefer non-confrontational books or to read sci-fi or rom-com and they can choose that. There are great books in each genre.
My issue is that literature should connect and include, not divide and segregate into categories of acceptable and unacceptable teen experiences. Adults should not be actively blocking or discriminating against realistic tougher teen stories.
There are gatekeepers who feel concern about what teens can read. Sometimes this is misplaced. Swearing and realistic and/or impoverished characters are difficult for some adults to accept. This is despite the fact so many teens live these lives.
It’s baffling to me when adults act as if teenagers are children. They are transitioning and will soon have the choices and responsibilities of an adult. Literature is a brilliant way to communicate and shed light – to prepare teens for the complex decision making required as an adult.
I’m a punk, so philosophically I don’t agree that teenagers need adults to tell them what they can and can’t read. I do think some themes are too mature for younger readers, though – you wouldn’t want readers aged twelve and under being confronted by graphic violence, drug use or sex.
But once a reader is thirteen, they’re already probably watching porn, and wanking, and some will be having sex. Reading sexual references in a YA novel won’t disturb or shock them. From fifteen, Aussie teens can watch MA15+ rated films, which contain graphic images of much higher impact than what’s in a YA book.
As a teenager, I roamed the Geraldton Library, reading anything I wanted, including books for adults. If a teenager is curious enough to go looking for content, more power to them. They are the best judge of what they are and aren’t ready for.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t understand industry realities. Gatekeepers exist. In general, I think they do a brilliant job – librarians, teachers and booksellers almost always get it right. With Invisible Boys being a gay novel, gatekeeper opposition has mostly come from conservative school leaders who fear complaints from moralistic parents.
Are there any topics you avoid?
I was interested to know if there are any topics that the panellists would avoid in YA, either because they don’t think they’re appropriate for the audience or for personal reasons.
In Euphoria Kids, there is a new boy at the school who is trans. He is still presenting as female, and the teacher introduces him using his deadname, but I never engage with that further. I never use this deadname in the text. It’s not necessary. This is a deliberate blocking of the cis gaze and is me saying: this book is written for trans teenagers, first and foremost.
I don’t want to write about transphobia anymore. I don’t want to write about gender dysphoria. I’m sick of it. There have been so many books about trans tragedy written by cis people, for cis people. I want to write about trans people for a trans audience. (There is of course always a need for more books about transphobia and gender dysphoria, but I believe that they should be written by trans people.)
Sometimes it can directly oppose what would happen in real life: I come up against transphobia all the time and I know trans teens do as well. I’m not trying to shield them from it, because I know that they know it exists. I want to provide them with an escape to how things could be.
I always knew Stone Girl would be tough for some, but the reality is that over 40,000 kids live without parents and this story is no surprise to affected young people or the organisations who support them.
In my young adult writing I avoid gratuitous violence and sensationalised sexualisation. But, otherwise, most things are fair game. I strive to write carefully, thoughtfully, but not to flinch. To show consequences and options. To make people wonder what would happen if a different path had been chosen.
When I was eleven I read Go Ask Alice, and the knowledge I gained from that book helped me many times as I navigated a world where drugs were as available as cigarettes. By removing the mystery, I believe we allow teens to learn about choices and consequences from the safety of a book.
I wouldn’t shy away from much in YA, but there are a few topics I’d avoid. No gratuitous, graphic violence, no torture, no abuse of children. No gratuitous, high-impact sex and no sex that is eroticised.
With Invisible Boys, my publisher asked me to tone down the swearing. The book is still packed with swear words, but I cut the F-bombs down and wiped out almost all the C-bombs. We only kept two C-words, for impact. I’m proud of the swearing in my book: teenage boys swear more than any cohort on the planet. I feel we struck the right balance to maintain authenticity.
I thought I’d be asked to pare back the sex in Invisible Boys, but my publisher saw the importance of having realistic gay sex in this book. Their philosophy was in line with my own: teenagers are already watching porn. I’m super sex-positive and I think porn is great, but porn is for arousal and pleasure, not for learning about what sex between two humans is ordinarily like. If we shy away from sex in literature and art, we leave porn as the primary way boys learn about sex. Books provide a more nuanced sexual education.
Teenagers behaving badly
Characters in YA behave badly at times (acting in illegal or immoral ways; saying things that some might consider socially unacceptable in 2020). I wanted to ask how the panellists approach this in their work. For example, if they felt a responsibility to ensure bad behaviour has consequences. Because, in real life, people get away with bad behaviour all the time. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect there to be consequences for everything? But what message does that send?
I try to always approach writing with kindness. I never want to endorse any kind of bigotry in my books – which is always something everyone needs to work on, whether it’s in their personal life or their art.
If you, for example, use a transphobic slur in your work, I do think there should be some kind of consequence for that behaviour within the work itself. The issues for me would be: do I NEED to have that particular slur in my work? If so, why? Am I endorsing the use of this word? Is it my word to use? How would a transgender teenager feel if they were reading this and came across that slur?
I don’t think we need to obviously or clumsily spell out that using transphobic slurs is bad to the audience, but I do think there needs to be some interrogation of it within the text.
Teens who swear, who won’t listen, who do the worst things, the ones we don’t like … they deserve their place in literature too.
Impoverished homeless teens are living these kinds of lives all over the world. Maybe if we do more to include their stories and allow their difficulties to be understood by other kids then we’ll create more empathetic adults.
Life is messy and sometimes ugly. And from the ugliness sometimes beauty comes, and that’s okay too.
If literature positions itself as the last bastion of prudence then it will be rendered innocuous, thereby surrendering its immense power. A tragedy.
I would never write moralistically or didactically. My main characters are always flawed. Zeke, Charlie and Hammer are sometimes well-behaved, other times unsympathetic. So what? Isn’t everyone? Jungian psychology recognises not just a human’s perfectionistic public persona but their shadow, too. Nobody is purely dark or purely light. Nor should any character be.
These Invisible Boys behave badly, from lying, stealing and drinking through to bullying, violence and sexual misadventures. They don’t get punished. In real life, bad behaviour often goes unchecked. More philosophically, I don’t like the idea of punishing humans for being flawed or making mistakes.
Hammer is the character I hear about a lot. Yes, he’s a homophobic dickhead and treats others horrendously. I think some readers wanted a moralistic comeuppance for him. What did they expect, one of Hammer’s bullied victims to vanquish him with a self-righteous speech? That’s mawkish, and it’s weak writing. Readers aren’t stupid. They can see Hammer’s flaws, how pain drives his behaviour, and how it impacts him.
I don’t write consequences for bad behaviour. I prefer to show the good and bad and let readers make up their own minds. To me, that is both more realistic and more humanistic.
My thanks to Alison, Eleni and Holden for taking part in this blog event.
Stay up to date with the Willy Lit Fest: https://www.willylitfest.org.au/
Learn more about our panellists and their brilliant work:
Alison Evans: https://www.alisonwritesthings.com/
Eleni Hale: http://elenihale.com/
Holden Sheppard: https://www.holdensheppard.com/