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Glee, Scars, and YA's Censorship Problem

Well, another YA novel is under challenge: this time it's Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield. (A book I had never heard of before this, which is now getting tons of free publicity courtesy of one library patron in Kentucky.  O, my fans and supporters, you could do this for me! Sigh...)

As I wrote when the Speak controversy happened, the real threat to artisitc expression in the YA arena is self-censorship.  And to illustrate this, I'd like to talk about last week's episode of Glee. I am apparently the only person on twitter who does not regularly watch this show, but I did watch last week with one of the Glee-addicted teens I live with.

While the episode did end on a semi-preachy note, it depicted the following things: teens getting drunk without suffering any consequences other than a severe hangover.  Adults getting drunk. Ditto.  Someone (can't remember who) making the observation that drinking is fun.

All I could think as I watched this was that this episode, which was probably watched by literally millions of teens, was something you just couldn't get away with in YA literature.  

I wonder if this is because people still have the idea that literature's purpose is to instruct rather than entertain.  Whatever the case, I know that I, and many other YA authors I've spoken to have been asked by editors to tone down references to drinking and sexual activity in our YA novels.

Now, I do not want to dump on editors--unlike their colleagues on the adult side of publishing, YA editors still really edit their books. Their attention to our work is one of the reasons that there's such a boom in quality YA literature right now.  To put it another way--if YA literature is, as a whole, of a pretty high quality right now, that's because editors are forcing us authors to make it better.

But editors also have to be concerned about commerce as well as art, and they are afraid of including content that will cause your book to be avoided by librarians and teachers.  For the most part, this means sex and alcohol (and, I suppose, marijuana and other recreational drugs.)

So in literature aimed at teens, we have to avoid telling the truth about two pretty important facets of teen life.  You can depict these things under certain circumstances, but you pretty much have to show these actions having consequences that they don't always have in real life.  

Let's put it this way: I don't know anyone from my circle of friends and acquaintances in high school who hadn't been sexually active and drunk before graduation. (I mean by the time they graduated.  Not, you know, right before graduation, though I'm sure that's true of some of them as well.)  Yes, both sex and booze sometimes have terrible and tragic consequences, but mostly they don't. So in depicting a world in which sex and intoxication are always fraught with big consequences, YA fiction is fundamentally not telling the truth about the world in which teenagers live.  

This terror of teen sex also leads to a kind of perversely sex-negative and anti-feminist culture in YA fiction. By which I mean this: I have read way more books in which girls are sexually assaulted than books in which they have consensual, enjoyable sex. 

Because TV is only expected to entertain rather than educate while entertaining, it's able to tell truths about teen life that YA literature can't tell.  This is a shame because reading is already not the most popular leisure activity.  How can we get teens to turn off the TV and read a book when even a fantasy of teen life like Glee is able to be more truthful about teen life than most YA fiction?

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