Battles over the content of young adult reading material have raged in the US since the 1980s. By comparison, Britain has seemed a haven of tolerance. Is this changing? Julie Bertagna on the reactions to a controversial subject in her Young Adult novel, The Opposite of Chocolate.
Thirty years after publication, Judy Blume’s Deenie, a novel about parental expectations which includes sensitive passages about a young girl masturbating, is embroiled in its umpteenth censorship campaign in the US. Blume’s books are amongst the most widely read and loved in teenage fiction. They also cause outrage, because Blume writes about teenage experience – especially young female sexuality – with an honesty that can make adults flinch.
Until recently, there were much fewer true Young Adult novels published in the UK, and little attention paid to them, whereas in the US teenage fiction is long-established. As interest in Young Adult books has grown in the UK, a lengthening list of British writers for young people have found the ‘appropriateness’ of their subject matter challenged. As in the US, it is the writers who take on edgy subject matter in teen fiction, books that question the authority of adults and adult value systems, that are challenged. So I knew to have my flak jacket ready when I embarked on The Opposite of Chocolate – a novel about teenage pregnancy which ends with its young protagonist choosing a termination – especially when I couldn’t find any other teenage novel in print in the UK that explored this difficult subject.
A recent American study on Young Adult fiction found a dearth of books on this topic. The few that exist (such as Paul Zindel’s My Darling My Hamburger, published almost thirty years ago) would seem hugely dated and sexist to today’s teenagers. The attitudes in almost every book that does exist are overwhelming judgemental towards the character who has a termination – they are portrayed as bad girls, destroyed girls, guilty, punished, helpless and utterly hopeless. The resounding message is that there is no life or hope for a girl who has an abortion.
Despite (or because of) my own hugely complex feelings about this emotive and sensitive subject, I decided to explore a story that didn’t shirk the trauma of a young girl facing one of the most difficult choices of her life, that showed the complexities and stark attitudes that surround it, but also asked, without judgement: is there really no hope for a young girl who has an abortion? To write a book for young adults that doesn’t include an overtly anti-abortion message and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions – also about the motivations of the adults in the story – is a risky endeavour. My refusal to judge my young character, to tell her story sympathetically, risked being denounced as pro-abortion rather than pro-choice, simply because I withheld judgement on all the choices.
The depiction of female sexuality
I also wanted to explore a young girl’s feelings about her sexuality. Female sexuality appears to be the last taboo in YA fiction. If not, where are the books that really explore it? (Melvin Burgess only got away with writing Lady: My Life as a Bitch because his female character is, literally, a dog.)
Schools are more than happy for me to talk about my novel, Exodus (where global-warming has ended the world as we know it), but The Opposite of Chocolate’s story of a pregnant 14-year-old who feels her world has ended because she followed her sexual instincts is too hot for many schools, fearful of possible parental reaction, to handle. Is it this reluctance to allow teenagers to discuss sexuality that makes the UK the country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world?
Teenagers seeking information
A recent readership survey by J*17 magazine reports teenagers condemning the lack of information parents and schools give them on sexual matters and uncovers an overwhelming need to discuss sexual matters in the context of emotions, pressures and relationships. What better way to do this than through a novel? One girls’ school followed up the talk I gave on The Opposite of Chocolate with open discussions in Personal and Social Education classes. There was a waiting list for the copies in the library and the letters I received afterwards showed just how valid this enlightened approach had been.
The guardians are at the gate
The urge to ban books is based in fear. If children don’t read about difficult issues, maybe they won’t know about them, and maybe nothing will happen? Unlikely, as they are bound to come across much more disturbing, much less thoughtful material on TV, DVD, in a magazine, in the street, playground, the internet or at a friend’s house.
At a recent US National Book Awards ceremony, there was immediate post-award condemnation of the winning books as too difficult, too sexy, too serious, too laden with sorrow and pain for young minds and hearts. Writer Norma Fox Mazer, one of the award-winners, said: ‘Those of us who write for young people are always aware that the guardians are at the gate … vigilant to protect the innocence, as they think of it, of children, of young readers. These are the same young people who are bombarded daily by the cynicism, the din and lure of the commercial world. These are the same young people who face extreme problems of their own.’
A challenging book can be a powerful way to think about and discuss the difficult stuff of life. I find it impossible to write fiction that lacks hope. But the difficult journey – an epic struggle in a world of the future or a personal one in the here and now – fascinates me. My post bag tells me that so many young people want – need – to read about these difficult journeys, because it inspires them to think their way through their own lives and deepens their ability to experience the world – all its colours and shadows. I write for them.
The Opposite of Chocolate (0 330 41345 7) is published by Young Picador at £9.99.