What Will the Parents Say?
Jessica Yates continues our discussion of teenage love stories and pinpoints some of the dilemmas teachers and librarians face when selecting books.
There is clearly often a clash of interests between young people who ache for ‘forbidden fruit’ in the form of sex ‘n’ violence fiction, and their parents who want them kept in innocence. Librarians want to encourage the reading habit as part of an overall educational aim, the development of the child through adolescence to young adulthood as a moral, critical being.
In her book Pictures on the Page Pat Wynnejones says: ‘Children’s literature now covers such material as sex without marriage, unwedded motherhood, drugs and homosexuality … pessimistic, negative attitudes, especially towards family life make one wonder what social and family patterns books of this kind may lead to.’ Some would dismiss this as ‘Mary Whitehouse’ talk. It would be more useful, I suggest, to consider that Pat Wynnejones speaks for many parents who have not read widely and feel genuine concern.
Accepting the power of the book for good or ill we must appreciate parents’ fears that reading about teenagers enjoying sex will encourage their own youngsters to follow suit with less happy results. There has been until very recently an unwritten consensus, challenged by, among others, Keith Barker and David Rees, that in fiction published on children’s lists teenage sexual relationships should be shown to have unpleasant emotional or physical consequences: every book must carry a Pregnancy Warning.
Well, teenagers do use love stories as ‘agony column’ fiction, seeking information and advice. What should they find out? In real life it is not only pregnancy (and abortion) which frequently follows teenage sex: there are long-term problems like cervical cancer, the unknown effects of the pill. VD, AIDS, and the dangers of being drawn into prostitution. Homosexual acts for boys under 21 are illegal – so should the author of a ‘gay’ love story warn the readers? Dreadful warnings apart, if we provide stories in school which offer more than a sterilised sexual fantasy, what should we say to parents?
As a school librarian I found the moral consensus useful in justifying fiction, like Forever, with explicit sex scenes. However, I was unhappy about lending some books to under-13s, and with the Head’s agreement I restricted borrowing of Young Adult and adult best-sellers to third-year pupils and upwards. Forever was kept on permanent reserve, and we always had copies in circulation! I would always defend stocking Forever, In the Tent, The Lighthouse, My Darling, My Hamburger, Breaktime, Hey, Dollface and many others, on the grounds that teenagers need to read about a variety of experiences, and luckily my Head supported me.
Not every school or public library is so lucky. I recently heard of a children’s public library service which cannot buy some Young Adult books because they are too explicit, and yet may not pass on requests for them to the adult department because they are published on a children’s list.
How a book is published – hardback or paperback, children’s list or adult list – can have a disproportionate effect on how it is sold or lent and in the end on whether it reaches the readers. Dear Fred and Forever have made it into standard paperback format (though Forever is rarely found in general bookshops): but few YA novels get paperbacked. Rosa Guy’s Edith Jackson is at last scheduled for Puffin Plus: but none of David Rees’ novels for Dobson is paperbacked, nor is Aidan Chambers’ Breaktime. The large format paperback originals, now priced at £3.50 or more, need to be re-paperbacked in cheap format before teenagers can afford them. When I visited my local Smith’s I find rows of Sweet Dreams etc. among the children’s books, and hardly any teenage fiction from Fontana Lions or Puffin Plus. As with libraries the problem in bookshops is where to put it and how to identify it. If the Deutsch and Bodley Head Originals were bought into stock shouldn’t they be shelved with adult fiction? Dance on my Grave certainly should. As for David Rees’ The Milkman’s on his Way, I believe the decision to publish on an adult list (Gay Men’s Press) was right. Here’s a description of a teenage boy’s first time – with a man.
‘… though it still hurt a bit … it was the most natural, normal and utterly beautiful experience. His hand, still slippery with K. Y, on my cock, a sensation more superb than any I have ever felt, then orgasm so perfect I thought I was changed from a body into pure dazzling light. And he, coming, the spurt and gasp of him inside me.- oh, yes; this is what life is for, Ewan: for this I was made.’
Detail apart, this passage isn’t really very different from the ‘hot fudge’ romantic scene quoted by Keith Barker (January BfK). And the book does contain a warning about the age-of-consent law and about VD. ‘Adult’ book or ‘Children’s’ book or ‘Young Adult’ book, we still have to decide whether to buy it for school. What would the parents say? What would we say to them?
Sex isn’t the only area parents worry about. Pessimism and violence in fiction such as Robert Cormier’s can cause concern, and also books like Go Ask Alice and Tex which include drugs. Many parents want teachers and librarians to protect their children from what others see as ‘reality’. From other directions come pressures to identify and remove sexist material. Sweet Dreams are at one and the same time popular, ‘safe’ (from parental disapproval), and sexist. What to do?
And the argument is not confined to so-called ‘children’s’ books. What about the selection of adult fiction for schools? At a librarians’ meeting recently I collected a list of favourite reading’: Danielle Steel, James Herbert, Stephen King, Wifey, The Omen and The Exorcist. I kept most of the above in my office for older readers only, but refused to stock Scum, The Omen, Sven Hassel’s books, and the Skinhead series (now mercifully out of print).
Aside from topical best-sellers which make even the broad-minded shudder, recent ‘quality’ fiction is not always acceptable in schools. I stocked A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy, The Flute-player and Tom Sharpe’s books – but not Ian McEwan. We are now approaching the dangerous ground of censorship American-style. If we become over-sensitive, are we in danger of excluding important books, like the censors of the past who attacked Ulysses and Tess of the D’Urbervilles?
A study of the pamphlet The Students’ Right to Know is useful. American censors are attacking books already acclaimed as having literary merit. ‘Censorship attacks good books, not poor books’. Most of the complaints from parents and the ‘community’ received by American schools were about classic twentieth-century works like: The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, To Kill a Mocking-bird, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Anne Frank’s Diary – and, inevitably, Forever!
Bearing the American experience in mind, we should still hold to the occasional decision not to provide a book which a pupil requests, for reasons which we readily give: but on the other hand parents must be persuaded to trust the professional book-person’s choice of stock for the school library and bookshop.•
Jessica Yates was an ILEA librarian for ten years. She now combines motherhood with freelance reviewing and writing.
Pictures on the Page, Pat Wynnejones, Lion, 0 85648 475 8. £1.95
The Students’ Right to Know, Lee Burress and Edward B. Jenkinson, National Council of Teachers of English, USA.