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Monday, March 12, 2012

Censoring YA: When it's Good and When it's Bad


For those of you that don't know, YA is short hand for Young Adult Literature.  YA lit covers any book written for older teens, say 14-17ish.  These aren't books you read in high school per se (I read Hamlet, The Things They Carried, The Awakening, and a bunch of other adult books in high school that were definitely NOT YA), or even necessarily books that feature teenagers (though most all YA books do of course) but novels directed at kids in their late teens.

Now, the problem with some YA books (or Middle Grade (MG) books) is that taboo topics pop up.  Like sex, drugs, violence, etc.  Now these are things teenagers deal with, and it can be comforting for an author to address these topics in a story.  It lets them know they're not alone, that some of these things are normal, and that they can get better.  But sometimes authors go overboard and descend into gratuity, sensationalism, and absurdity.  

So then, when is censorship in YA okay?  The answer is never.  Censorship in literature is never okay.  

"But Justin!  Then gratuitous sex and all that other stuff will run rampant!"  You might say.  No it won't, because gratuitous things are never okay either.

So now you might be confused.  It's okay, it's actually super simple.  If sex is important to a YA story, if sex is essential to the plot and characters, then it isn't gratuitous.  And if it isn't gratuitous, it shouldn't be censored.

If however, the sex in the story is meaningless, if it does nothing to advance the story or define a character, than it IS gratuitous, and shouldn't be in the story anyway, making censorship irrelevant.  

See?  Easy.  

Now, let's takke a look at an example.  Here we have Teach Me by R.A. Nelson.  Teach Me is the story of a girl, Nine, who falls for and has an affair with her teacher, the hilariously named Richard Mann.  Now, there are a lot of horrible news stories about teachers diddling their underage students.  A book about how something like this happens is both repugnant and fascinating, especially to kids I'd imagine.

But Nelson kind of cops out of making things really interesting by holding off on the sex until the heroine is 18.  Why?  Was that an editor censoring Nelson's original manuscript, or Nelson censoring himself?  The real world isn't neat and tidy.  I've yet to hear the news story about the teacher who waited to start the affair until his or her charge was of age.  

This is what I'm taking about.  The characters' decisions to wait until Nine becomes nice and legal feels way too tidy and neat.  Am I really expected to believe a man (especially a Dick Mann) who is willing to risk his career, his future, his own adult relationships, is also going to be responsible and possess the self control to wait until the object of his desire is 18?

Likewise, is Nelson really expecting me to believe that Nine, a hormonally charged teenager, can restrain herself from her hunky English teacher until she is allowed to legally buy smokes?  That's bullshit.  It smells like censorship.  and furthermore, it cuts off a lot of interesting ethical dilemmas.  It makes the story too neat.  It makes Dick Mann too easy to forgive and excuse what is an otherwise deplorable choice.  

Comepare this to S.E. Hinton's classic The Outsiders.  By today's standards, The Outsiders seems pretty tame, but it was some serious shit back in the day.  Kids from broken homes, gang violence, sexual desire, murder, all in a time when that sort of stuff just wasn't talked about.  But all of it built up the characters, all of it moved the story forward, all of it touched the reader, and all of it was real.  It was ugly and sad but it mattered and it was true.  It's even more poignant because when Hinton wrote it, she was a teen herself.  

The Outsiders was great because it didn't censor itself.  It didn't try to makes things neat.  Teach Me is a disappointment because it does.

So never censor, and never be gratuitous, and everything will work out great.   

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