In recent months there has been much talk about ebook content and distributor decisions to remove certain titles from their offerings. I discussed my specific thoughts on the issue in the post Censorship, Branding and the Indie Issue, but in general I believe that content decisions are ultimately a combination of what writers choose to write and what readers want to read. In my habitual search to find bloggers with interesting and unique insights, I came upon blogger and author, Jenelle Schmidt who present both a strong and intelligent argument for keeping Young Adult Fiction wholesome.
WIDW: Young adult fiction is a category that’s difficult to define. According to the American Library Association it’s target audience is 12 to 18 years of age, but studies indicate that over 50% of YA category readers are over 18. Why do you think YA has become so popular with readers of all ages?
Jenelle: Well, personally, I think people tend to gravitate towards the stories they loved when they were younger. When I talk to people about books, I often find myself recommending a YA title, simply because I discover in the course of the conversation that the other person hasn’t read it, and it was a childhood favorite of mine. YA books tend to be a little shorter, or a little bit easier to read, which is appealing to all readers, but particularly those who are busy and don’t want to invest too many hours into a single book. I think YA books also take us back to a time when life was simpler and not so hurried or complicated, and we like to read books that remind us of that. The other nice thing about YA books is that, knowing they are approved for audiences under the age of 18, means that you can sit down and read the book without fear of stumbling across something offensive or objectionable. That is probably the number one reason I gravitate towards the YA shelves when I’m in a bookstore or library.
WIDW: It seems to me, that perhaps either older readers like the content of these stories OR perhaps the content has shifted to a tone/language that attracts older readers?
Jenelle: I don’t think the content has really shifted that much. I think it is a category that is exploding with new books and new authors, and so it is easier to find new books in the YA section. But thinking about the books I read when I was younger such as “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Charmed Life,” “The Giver,” or “Where the Red Fern Grows,” I don’t think the new YA books are all that different content-wise. The “Harry Potter” books are very similar to many of the books Diana Wynne Jones gave us. The Hunger Games have a lot in common thematically with “The Giver.” And those are just two examples. I also think that a lot more parents have begun reading the books their kids are reading. That could account for some of the shift in the actual age of the audience.
WIDW: One of your preferences for YA is that the language and content is not crude or for lack of a better term risque. In discussing books on your blog you request only “wholesome” content. Can you describe that definition for me?
Jenelle:I can try! Please understand that I do realize there is a subjectivity to this definition. On my blog, the definition is created by myself, and others may argue with my guidelines. However, for me, “wholesome” means “family-friendly.” I want to promote books that I can recommend without reservation to families. That means books that families can read out loud together with their children. The MPAA would probably rate books like that G or PG, if that is helpful… A list of criteria would always be subject to disagreement, but for me, “wholesome” means that a book does not contain foul language, in any way glorify or condone crude or unkind behavior towards others, have sex scenes of any kind, describe romantic feelings or kissing too graphically, or contain graphic violence. A perfect example of a book that meets these criteria in the fantasy genre would be the “Lord of the Rings.”
WIDW: With such a wide audience and with so many different works being categorized YA, how can a parent or teacher be certain a YA book is actually YA?
Jenelle:The only way to determine that would be to read the book for one’s self. For a parent, that will involve thinking about one’s child and determining if a book is one they are ready to read on their own, or if it would be better to either a) not read it, or b) read it with the family and discuss the more difficult themes. For a teacher, if there is a concern in a book, I think the teacher should speak with the principal and parents and determine together whether a book is acceptable to study in a classroom. I was told to teach a book to my 7th/8th graders (Flowers for Algernon), that after reading through I felt I was not comfortable discussing with that age-group. I flagged all the parts I thought were too mature for that class and gave it to my principal… who, after looking at the first two or three tags I had created, decided he agreed with me and let me choose a different book to put in the curriculum. With an older class, I think it would have been fine. It’s a good book, and has a lot of good themes. However, I did not feel it was my place to discuss it with such a young class.
WIDW: Do you think we need to either better define YA or as I’ve seen, move the twenty-something fiction to its own genre?
Jenelle:I believe the twenty-something fiction has already begun to acquire its own genre… it’s called “New Adult” fiction and is geared towards the 18-25 age group. I’m a big fan of categories, so I have no problem with that.
WIDW:I have five kids (ages 17 -24) all intelligent, college scholarship types (I’m just pointing out that they are not degenerates) – in their earlier teens they occasionally swore, they talked about Rated “R” themes, they’re were facebook and the like. My point is that teens do all these things because that is the culture – will wholesome themes attract the average reader or will it seem to Pollyanna to be real? I mean life is not all sunshine and roses.
Jenelle:True, life is not all sunshine and roses. But to assume that all teens swear and talk about “R” rated themes, etc, is to be as naive as those who think that none of them do. Teens are as varied as the books they read and the movies they watch. “Wholesome” doesn’t have to mean sunshine and roses. It doesn’t have to mean “happily ever after,” “cheesey,” or “unrealistic” either. It can mean “charming.” One of my favorite books and movies is “Bridge to Terabithia.” Many themes in that story are actually quite dark and a child dies in it. And yet I would still argue that it is “wholesome.”
WIDW: To sort of answer my own question – it is well-known that Stephen King, although a horror write,r never wrote sex scenes into his stories and even the swearing is minimal – do you think writers are too quick to use these devices to add reality?
Jenelle:Yes, I do. Personally, I think that there is perhaps a place for the occasional swear word in a book or movie, but it ought to be there for a very good reason. Otherwise, I tend to feel that it is simply laziness on the writer’s part. I’ve had conversations with people where they argue that it is impossible to express certain emotions in writing without using swear words, and I politely disagree. Is it harder and requires more creativity? Yes. Is it impossible? No.
WIDW: Fifty Shades of Gray – terrible writing mechanics and a best-seller soon to be movie. What do you think that says for the state of literature that “mommy porn” is so popular?
Jenelle:Ugh. I don’t think it says as much about the state of literature as it does the state of the culture in which we live.
WIDW: Jack Ketchum wrote a novel called The Girl Next Door. The most disturbing and brutal story I have ever read. But it was based on real life events. The world is often an ugly place, so what is the upside to providing youth with wholesome themes?
Jenelle: I suppose my first reaction to this question is to ask what is the downside to providing youth with wholesome themes? Yes, there are disturbing, brutal, evil things in this world. But don’t we want our youth to learn that there is a different, better option? Horrible things happen to some of my characters. Some of them react in evil ways. Some of them rise above their circumstances and fight to make the world a better place for others. Just because something is “wholesome” does not have to mean that it is in any way shallow or cheesy or unrealistic. It just means that it might hold its heroes to a higher standard. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, just because the world is an ugly place, does not mean that we have to be ugly people living in it. I would hope that the upside to providing youth with wholesome themes would be that we might raise up a generation that yearns to work at changing the world. My hope is to write stories that inspire courage in the face of fear, perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, and kindness, loyalty, and friendship in the face of devastating betrayal.
WIDW: Although I wouldn’t call any thing I write “wholesome” because it contains violence and the more than occasional “F” bomb, even I cringe at the content of some television. Particularly ABC Family. The programs seem to go beyond normal teen dialect. For example, The Secret Life of Teenagers, is or was episode after episode of discussions on “sex.” In fact they say the word “sex” no less than twenty times in an episode. Every adult on the show acts like a teenager playing a parent. I think discussions on sex are normal for teens, but I think normalizing teen sex sends the wrong message. Your thoughts?
Jenelle: Don’t even get me started on the misnomer that is the title “ABC ‘Family.’” There is a lot of crud on television in general, and it’s not new. Sometimes I feel like the only thing I want to do is go watch old episodes of the Original Star Trek or the Andy Griffith show… simply because I know I’m not going to be offended while watching those shows. I definitely think that normalizing teen sex sends the wrong message. I’m a Christian, so of course I’m going to send the message of waiting until marriage for sex. I believe sex should be sacred to a husband and wife, and prefer for it not to be a part of what I watch on television or read about in books.
WIDW:My wife has pushed for me to do book signings and readings. One of my hesitations is the thought of standing in a bookstore reading the “f” word aloud. Not that I don’t have occasion to say the word, but not in a public setting – do you think authors can find the mix between realistic dialog and profanity?
Jenelle:I have no idea how to answer this question, as I neither use profanity in my daily life or my writing. I think it’s a bit harsh to simply assume that “realistic” dialogue has to include profanity, as 99% of the people I know and interact with on a daily basis never use it at all in their daily lives.
WIDW: One of the great things about self publishing is even teens can get in on publishing their works, especially on places like Watt Pad. Do you think that is a good thing or a bad thing for the future of literature?
Jenelle:This is a huge question, and not one I’m going to attempt to answer completely in this conversation. Whole books can (and probably have been) be written on this topic. However, let me “sum up” a few of my thoughts. Self-publishing is one of those things that is neither good nor bad for the future of literature. It’s a mixture. The up-side of self-publishing is that there is no longer a “gate” that one has to get through in order to create a book that is available to anyone who might enjoy reading it. However, that also means that there has been a veritable flood of horribly written, completely unedited books flowing into the market. This means that self-published authors of well-written, edited books have to work incredibly hard to get their story noticed or encourage anyone to pick up their book and read it.
WIDW: My kids got through high school having spent more time reading “weird” school assigned novels than some of the classics they probably should have – what do you think is the future of English literature in the US school system?
Jenelle: I think the future of English literature in the US school system needs to be seriously evaluated. I am a proponent of the idea that not all classics are worth studying, and not all “popular” books are worth reading. I think novels for an English class should fit certain criteria that include (but probably are not limited to): deep themes that are thought-provoking and good to discuss, a writing style that is worth studying or reading, and lessons that can be gleaned from the story. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good start. (For example: I don’t think the “Twilight” books by Stephanie Meyer should be on the list of books read in a classroom – because I don’t think her books contain any of the afore-mentioned criteria).
WIDW: Thank you Jenelle for joining us today. I think you bring up some valid points, specifically the challenge that the language and content of a story doesn’t need to rely on profanity or horrible scenarios in order to entertain. I think my favorite point that you made was that writing can demonstrate life’s uglier side but it can also demonstrate the positive things in our world. To learn more about Jennelle and to check out her novels visit her website @ http://jenelleschmidt.com/
About the Author
Jenelle Leanne Schmidt grew up the oldest of four children. Every night before bedtime her father read to her and her siblings, and it was during these times that her love for adventure and fantasy were forged. While she adored the stories of the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Prydain, the Wheel of Time, and the Chronicles of Narnia; it wasn’t long before her imagination led her to the creation of a world and story all her own.
Categories: Blogger Insights