Friday, 14 May 2010

What is inappropriate for teenage readers?

"I'm not sure it's appropriate for teenagers," said a writing (and teacher) friend, having read the first 5,000 words of my novel. The reason? It features some gritty issues including drug use, prostitution and sexual exploitation, all of which affect teenagers. Ok, not all teenagers will be groomed on the internet or tempted into a life of heroin addiction but isn't it important that all teenagers know how it can happen?

It's a debate I've had time and time again with writers, librarians, teachers and literature promoters and I refuse to change my stance. I've worked personally with hundreds of young people who have been affected by these issues and I believe that it's important that their stories are heard. The book I'm writing certainly doesn't glorify the use of heroin, prostitution or the life of a homeless teenager. I hope it's a sensitive look at how young people can become the victims of circumstance. It's also just a love story, about two people from different backgrounds who find common ground.

I've been re-reading Pieces of Me ( )
a recent Sheffield publication written by young women about their experiences of sexual exploitation. I've also been looking at a linked website talks about girls as young as twelve being lured into prostitution by pimps posing as boyfriends. The issue of 'internal trafficking' (where young girls are essentially kidnapped and sold into the sex trade) has been a hidden issue, misunderstood by many . Isn't it better that we speak about it so that we can do our best to prevent it?

In my recent post as national HeadSpace Project Manager for The Reading Agency I was horrified (though not surprised) to discover that we were finding it difficult to find library groups who would host eminent author, William Nicholson, to talk about his recent book Rich and Mad - a beautifully written book about first love which includes a realistic account of a first sexual relationship, as well as giving some coverage to the subjects of pornography and sexual violence. In essence, to me, it is a feminist book, dealing with the issue of respect in relationships. According to the author ( surveys suggest that by the age of eighteen 93% of boys and 62% of girls have watched internet porn, and sexual violence is commonplace in films and on TV. If nobody is allowed to write sensitively about the subject, isn't there a risk of young people have a slightly skewed perspective on what love and sex are all about?

In libraries, I've known books be taken off shelves because one parent complained. Carol Ann Duffy's poem Education for Leisure was removed from the exam syllabus because two schools were worried that it might incite young people to knife crime, and yet, I've never heard anyone debate these issues with young people themselves.

Of course, my friend may be right and I'm aware that I might find it harder to publish this book because of the issues it deals with. Maybe I should have written some frothy pink book all about buying nice frocks and acquiring a boyfriend but aren't those books potentially just as dangerous? Many authors do publish books for young adults on controversial subjects. Melvyn Burgess is famous for it. Other authors such as Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai and Anthony McGowan all do it brilliantly. And yet, we're still having this discussion about whether it's appropriate. I'd love to hear from teenagers who have an opinion about what they think should be allowed to read.

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