Before I begin today’s
rant blog post, I’d better preface it with a few things.
People are, of course, free to read whatever they want. I hate policing other people’s reading habits, and everyone should feel entirely free to read whatever it is they enjoy without threat of judgement, even if it’s something I’d find personally objectionable.
I don’t believe that only children should read children’s books, only teenagers read YA, and only adults read everything else. Of course. If I did, it would leave me immensely stuck, since children’s literature is my (literal) bread and butter.
People are fully entitled to their beliefs, be they religious or whatever. I’m a semi-practising Catholic, most of the time. Faith is important to me. It doesn’t run my life, and it doesn’t blinker me to reason, but it’s there at the core of who I am. I get it. Faith is a mainstay for a lot of people, and I’m not here to undermine that.
Something I’ve seen people talking about on Twitter a lot lately is a sub-set, or type, of YA literature known as ‘Clean’. Clean teen reads seem to be big business, primarily in the US, but increasingly in the UK (and Commonwealth) too. And I have to admit that the whole concept of ‘clean reading’ sort of bothers me.
Not ‘sort of’, actually. It bothers me. Straight up.
Firstly, it bothers me because it makes judgement calls. It decides that certain books – ones which don’t include any sexual (and we’re talking anything from hand-holding up), and/or supernatural, and/or paranormal, and/or violent content – are ‘clean’. Which means, of course, that books which do include any or all of the ‘offending’ items are ‘unclean’. So, books about messy feelings and icky bodies and all the natural stuff that most people are doing during their teen years would all be considered off-limits. Unacceptable. Wrong.
Which sort of implies, doesn’t it, that the people who do these things are also off-limits, unacceptable, and wrong. Is this okay? I’m not sure it is.
I was a teenager during the 1990s, in Ireland, which is to say I may as well have been a teenager in the fifteenth century from the point of view of a modern youngster. No mobile technology, no computers, no instant this or high-speed that, and – despite the fact that I attended a mixed-gender school for most of my educational life – very little contact with boys. I was a lumpen, shy, ungainly and rather awkward adolescent, quite sweet in my own way, but certainly not adventurous.
Which is why I needed books.
I needed to read about heroines who were off doing the things I wanted to do. I needed to expose my brain to other ways of thinking, I needed to engage with media (including TV, which had a big part in forming my teenage – and, hence, my adult – mind) which challenged me and made me realise that not everyone was just like me, and that this was absolutely fine.
I had a place in the world, and I was happy with that. Stories existed about girls like me, too. But stories about girls who had sex with their boyfriends, drank and smoked and fell into and out of bad choices, who were growing up in complicated households, who were dealing with problems far beyond anything I had to think about, were so important. They wouldn’t have been considered ‘clean’ reads; I’m not sure such a concept existed at the time. But I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a household where my reading was policed. I’m glad I was allowed to read books which I chose for myself, and I’m glad I was trusted to decide whether or not something was too much for me to take at any particular time. I firmly believe that a child or young person will ‘self-censor’, by which I mean they’ll avoid something that they feel they’re not ready for, and that they’ll let things go over their head if they’re not able to process it. I know this is true because it’s how I was. It’s how I read, for years. I didn’t need to have my reading patrolled for me by an outside force who decided what was ‘appropriate’ and what wasn’t; I patrolled myself. I learned at my own pace. I was exposed to the world, other ways of thinking and feeling and being, and I am a stronger person for it.
If we only ever read books which reflect our own reality, how do we expect to be? We might as well read the same book, over and over, and expect it to give us a different story every time. Of course, I’m not advocating handing a six-year-old a copy of The Omen, or The Shining, or Fifty Shades of Grey. (They’d not be long about flinging it back at you, anyway – but that’s not the point). But children – after a certain age, at least – should be free to choose what they want to read. Parents do have a role, of course; they need to be there to advise and act as a safe sounding board if a child encounters something in a book which makes them scared, uncomfortable or unsure. They need to be there to explain, wisely and calmly, what the child has experienced in age-appropriate terms, and help them deal with any fallout. But they shouldn’t, in my opinion, be pressing for ‘clean’ books, ones which fit their narrow world-view, to be written and published. They shouldn’t be pressing for these books to be the only ones available to their children. They shouldn’t be clamouring for ‘unclean’ books to be removed from schools, and/or banned. Or is it just me?
A mother in the US recently took an author to task over a non-fiction book she wrote about Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose death from cancer has changed the world of science and medicine for untold millions of people. The book mentions the word ‘cervix’ and describes how Mrs Lacks discovered the tumour which would eventually kill her; the mother in question decided this was ‘pornographic’, and lobbied against the book. This, to me, is insane.
Women have cervixes. Sometimes, they get tumours. They have bodies which exist, and leak, and wobble, and give birth, and feed children, and which aren’t always perfect vessels. If you feel your child is too delicate – in high school – to understand concepts like this, then there’s a problem, all right. It’s not with the book, or your child. It’s not with biology.
Maybe there is a space for clean reads in the wide world of books. I’m prepared to admit that. But to think of a world where they are the only option? I’d rather not go there, thank you very much. And my choice is surely as valid as anyone’s.