Commentary: Why You Shouldn’t Censor Your Teen’s Novels
Updated: Aug 21
V. Tillman (Illustration by B. Li)
A few years ago, a close friend recommended the popular book A Court of Thorns and Roses to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the book’s author, Sarah J. Maas, is not one known for glazing over sex scenes, as the majority of YA novels do. Nor does she shy away from themes of violence, abuse, or suicide. All of her books, as I’d soon find out, describe these in (great) detail without so much dreaming of beating around the bush.
Basically a parent’s worst nightmare, right?
The first book was undoubtedly much tamer than the second--and thus swept me up into the plot without making me wonder too deeply: Would my mother want me to read this? I bought the next book immediately, ravenous for more. Lo and behold, within the first five chapters I had been subject to the most painfully detailed sex scene my naïve eyes had ever read (one of Maas’s less graphic ones, I now know).
I hated the author immediately--it was disgusting, I’d thought--but the plot was so good, so alluring, that I simply couldn’t put the book down. So I guiltily continued reading, but by the time I’d finished the book I’d made sure it was hidden high up on my shelf away from anywhere my mother’s attention could possibly have landed. I hadn’t even read any of the erotic parts, but I was paranoid regardless.
Long since then, I’ve asked my mother if she would’ve been upset with me, had she known what I was reading. She replied that she didn’t believe in censoring me, that I should choose the books I read on my own. I love her more for it.
Censorship in teen literature is an extremely broad topic, which historically includes the extreme controversy surrounding the abundant sex scenes and profanity in Judy Blume’s Forever during the 80s and in The Catcher in the Rye, to name a few. On a more personal level, teenagers are (surprisingly frequently) barred from reading books their parents deem inappropriate. To many parents, this is a way of protecting their children, guiding their way of thinking and morals into what they believe is right. However, through censoring, parents’ good intentions often backfire.
As a teen myself, I know firsthand how it feels to be censored. Perhaps not in my reading material, but nonetheless my mother has prevented me from watching shows that are too pornographic in material. By forbidding teenagers and preteens alike from reading about sex, sexuality, drugs, religion, violence, (the list goes on), it creates within them the belief that they cannot talk to their parents openly about their questions, thoughts, and concerns. Whether or not a parent believes their child is mature enough to read about these topics, the child will inevitably be exposed to them either through their own curiosity or interactions with others. Because of the implications that censoring their teens and preteens creates, parents are in actuality forfeiting their control over the material their children come into contact with. By not censoring, and instead creating an open relationship where discussion about stigmatized topics is easy and regular (which can be, in fact, done via talking together about their (pre) teens’ books), parents can guide their children into healthier mindsets about such topics.
Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist associated with Stetson University, acknowledges the interest teenagers and preteens commonly have in violence and sex. “You can’t really stop them from being interested in it and accessing material related to it, so it’s better to turn it into a positive by talking to them about your concerns and getting your own viewpoint out there.”
In addition to the benefits of discussion an open household can provide, foregoing censorship can allow for more able and mature young adults. Preteens and teenagers are caught in an odd limbo between childhood and adulthood, and it is here that they, more than ever, need to have access to differing ideas, perspectives, and issues--even the heavy, unacceptable, and entirely too real ones. If teenagers are soon to-be old enough to register for the draft, drink, and be expected to care and have the knowledge to vote responsibly, why are they being prevented from absorbing all that they can? Why is there simply a year’s gap between childhood and maturity?
Julie Vignol, a librarian at South Eugene High School, states in a Huffpost article: “If teens are going to be able to vote at eighteen, shouldn’t they be reading the most controversial and interesting books as teenagers so they learn to think and discuss and debate and change minds? Isn’t thinking a big part in becoming a responsible voter?”
This belief is mirrored in a statement by Reenie Jackson, a media specialist in Illinois district school. “How can teens develop their feelings about their place in the world if they don’t have access to the knowledge and imagination expansion of books?”
Parent’s need to allow young adults the resources through which they can better their minds, if not for themselves, then for the betterment of the world.
Okay, that sounds good. But what if my (pre) teen cannot handle sex/violence/sexual violence/drugs/profanity/etc.?
You’re right. Not everyone can handle it--not everyone wants to read about those topics, and that’s entirely OK.
However, what they feel comfortable reading is a choice an individual can make on their own. I’m not saying let your seven year old read 50 Shades of Grey if they for some reason are interested in it--but if your (pre) teen is interested in and ready to read A Court of Thorns and Roses, for example, why not let them?
Maybe they don’t like the sex scenes, maybe they aren’t ready for them. If they aren’t, then your child will not read them. If they want to continue with the book despite them, your child will skip those scenes. If they feel ready to read them, they will.
Teenagers and preteens alike are capable of and will practice self-censorship when they are uncomfortable with certain material, I did when I began reading more sexual books. The director of communications at the National Coalition Against Censorship, Nora Pelizzari, supports this.
Teenagers--we--are much more mature than we’re given credit. And if given the free reign to read about and discuss such topics with our parents, I guarantee it will allow us to thrive.