Careful Now: Censorship in YA
It was one warm afternoon in the bookshop, and at the till, we have a bell. It’s a bicycle bell, strapped to a pole, that the cashier can ring if there’s ever a problem (there’s always a problem).
But this time, came a very unique problem.
A lady, furious and downright confused, slams a Stephen King book down on the counter. Thankfully, there isn’t a queue and my day hasn’t gone to pot just yet, though I can feel it coming with the glare that this customer gives me. Good God, what have I, or anyone else in this store, done to anger her so much?
“You sold my son this book.”
“…Ok.” It’s what we do? We’re a bookshop??
“It is not suitable for my son.”
“Oh, well that’s fine! We can give you a refund.”
“I think it’s terrible you would sell this book to a 12 year old boy. It’s scary and gory. Shouldn’t you have ID’d him?”
The book may have been scary, but the scariest thing was the fact that this woman assumed we knew the contents of every single book in store, and could identify what was appropriate for each customer that passed through our tills.
But it got me thinking; what if that was the case? What if books were given warnings and age restrictions due to the contents of said book?
Today, I wanted to talk specifically about YA, and not because I continuously pipe on about YA, but because YA is the in between bit of adult and child. The child, in a store, will find a book and pester their parent into getting it. The parent will find out which kids section it’s from (in my store, it’s 0-2, 3-5, 5-7, 8-12, Teen, YA), and sometimes ask me for a second opinion. The adult, in a store, will do whatever the Hell they want.
So what about the young adults who read YA? They have the freedom to choose what to read, but should the content be restrictive because of their age? Should they be shielded from questionable or explicit content like that of a movie rating does?
During YALC, there was a panel on morally complicated YA, with authors Emerald Fennell, Louise O’Neill, Manuela Silva, and Melvin Burgess. All authors put in their two cents, and all agreed that there is a certain damage to censoring what a young person should see and shouldn’t see in the books they read. Along with many things, books are a learning experience; they introduce you to new ideas and concepts, as well as make you care about things. And while many publishers may hesitate to publish a morally complicated novel directed at teens, it’s easy to see how many teens and young people love it, and how not every young person is at the same reading level, maturity, or even has the same reading tastes (no duh).
It posed another question; what warnings should be placed on a book to let parents and readers know what they’re in for? Does it ruin the novel as a whole?
I recently read the novel Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. I named it recently as one of my favourites of 2016 (more on this in my review). I was sent it from NetGalley, where it was marketed, and still is marketed, as a young adult novel. However, whilst reading it, I found that this young adult novel was not like others, because it has incredibly graphic sexual content. How graphic am I talking? Well, afterwards, I read Uprooted by Naomi Novik, another high fantasy, although this time placed in the adult fantasy section. It also had a fairly explicit sex scene, which, compared to Nevernight, were merely fumbles in the bed sheets.
As a 23 year old, I can make my own decision as to whether it is appropriate for me to read scenes like that. My mind will tell me “oh, this is too much for me.” or “I’m fine with this.” But perhaps for a younger person who routinely peruses the Young Adult section?
Jay Kristoff tweeted a few interesting things about this:
So should Nevernight have a warning saying that there is explicit sexual content? Or a warning of graphic violence? What is graphic to one may not be to others, but where is the line between parents stepping in and saying “you’re not ready for that yet.” and teens and young adults deciding for themselves what is appropriate for them?
Restrictions and more restrictions. Other people deciding for you, at a certain age, what you can and can’t read, despite each young person being an individual and having differing maturity levels. But then, other novels that might deal with adult content are not necessarily for adults. Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It is a story about teenagers dealing with the very topical and dangerous subject of rape culture, because it happens to teenagers so often, and it should be something that teenagers talk about. Louise O’Neill wrote it for teenagers to understand it and get talking about it. But, here is another restriction, a subtle one, but one that has a massive impact. Asking For It is often placed in the general fiction section, also known as the ‘adult’ section, also known as the other fucking side of the shop, nowhere near where the target audience is often guided to. So, here you have another gatekeeper. Another boss you have to fight to get to the book that might very well be your next favourite.
Age ranges in a bookstore are merely a guideline, not the law. You don’t actually have to stick to the adult section because you’re an adult. But for a child, and for a parent, I can understand the need; I can understand that in older books, in books that are in an age range older than your child, there’s going to be themes that maybe shouldn’t be introduced to them yet. It is not the law, and, as a bookseller, it is not my responsibility to uphold this fictional law. But, at the same time, I can understand that a teen/young adult should, at this point, not be shielded from realities in the world; cursing, sex, mental health, sexuality etc. It’s important for a teen to have this information open to them, and I’m so happy that YA has become a part of that; it’s experience and open-mindedness, because if adults and the television and the movies won’t talk about it with them, who will?
I think about the little boy who found a Stephen King book, completely disregarding the fact that it wasn’t in the ‘children’s section’, and got super excited that he was about to read a novel from an author who everybody talks about. Who writes horror and thrillers so well that he’s topped almost every best seller list. I think about why this boy, at only 12, decided to choose this book; whether or not it was a “fuck you” to his parents or even to the idea that he has to stick to the other side of the shop. Did he flick through this book, saw the language, the size of the font, the size of the book, and thought this is the book for me?
I can’t remember being 12. I can’t remember what I read. But I feel that if a 12 year old is allowed to roam free around a bookstore, find a book that he will enjoy reading, and pay for it by himself and then walk home by himself, I think he has a mature understanding of the content he was about to read, and doesn’t need his dramatic mother coming in and slamming it on the counter.
As you can see it is not something where I feel strongly about one particular side, but see favouring opinions on each, so I’d love to hear your opinions about this! Are you a teen? Do your parents sometimes step in when you’re deciding what to read? Have you picked up a book as a young person and decided yourself that it wasn’t appropriate for you? Or even now, do you find a book in particular that’s marketed as teen/YA that should actually be adult?