Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Sex, Violence and Swearing

How much swearing is too much? Is it appropriate for 12-year-olds to read sex scenes? What about violence - will a gory story upset your child or turn him into a knife-wielding maniac?

Should parents, teachers and librarians protect children from difficult and controversial content - and if so how? Maybe there needs to be a rating system on books, as there is for films and videos? Or how about a content listing - this book contains sexual references, violence and offensive language?
These subjects have been discussed in several blog posts recently. Nathan Bransford opened a fascinating discussion about ratings here and writers Meg Harper and Gillian Philip wrote about violence in children’s literature, and how it can be censored by publishers, teachers and librarians.
The debate says a lot about the way we see children nowadays. Where’s the trust in their ability to think and judge for themselves? Is it because adults don’t have the time to talk to them about what they are reading? Or because parents believe by shielding them from reading about unpleasant subjects they will never come across them?
We don’t read books to learn about ourselves - how boring would that be? We read to touch other people’s lives, imagine situations we have never been in. We learn empathy, we learn about people, we learn about the world. The most protected and privileged children are the ones in most need of books which will open their minds to the problems that life can and will bring.  If parents have strong beliefs and ideas that they wish to pass onto their children, then books are a good way to let the children test those principles. They will be doing that in the real world soon enough.
There’s also a lot of snobbery about certain books for children. Actually almost any book helps develop the imagination. Compelling series shouldn’t be sneered at - we can all learn something from their power to grab readers. Children need to be encouraged to read not censored. If they love a book they should be encouraged to talk about it, not censured for their taste.
I’ve been reading the excellent YA book Catching Fire this week, sequel to  the equally brilliant Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Set in a futuristic world, the US has turned into Panem, where 12 poor miserable districts are ruled by a rich capricious Capitol. Every year children from the districts must compete in the Hunger Games, the ultimate reality tv show in which the 24 tributes kill each other one by one until only the victor remains.
These books are packed with horrific violence. Much of it is gratuitous, it’s impersonal - and that’s exactly the point. Suzanne Collins often puts the reader in the place of the audience who lap up the excitement and the entertainment of the Games. It’s a very clever, perfectly pitched piece of writing, completely compelling and, yes, potentially upsetting. How could a rating sum up what Collins does so cleverly? How many parents would want their children to read a book if a content panel on the back warns you that a boy is torn apart by mutant dogs, or a girl is stung to death by venomous hornets? But these are important books for children to read.
My books contain violence, swearing, some sexual content. It's all necessary to tell the story I want to tell. My 9-year-old read the first five chapters of When I Was Joe. He enjoyed it - OK, he had to say that -  but he thought it was too old for him. That's fine. He was able to make that choice.
 Parents - when your children are reading, look away. Let them get on with it. They're growing up as they read.
But when your child recommends a book, or wants to discuss it with you - say yes, and get reading. It's your best chance to talk about things that really matter.


  1. Well said, Keren. My 11 year old son is mad about horror films and one of his all time favourites is The Shining. (He watched it with his dad. I can't face it!) He is fully capable of dissociating what happens on screen (or in a book for that matter) from reality. Fictional horror doesn't give him nightmares or spook him. But if there's a spider or a wasp in the room... Well that's another thing!

    I think parents can get way too prissy about sex and violence. Kids don't want to read or watch sex in my experience. It's 'yucky'. And they know the difference between fiction and reality. Maybe that's the problem they're better at dissociation than we are.


  2. I think it's a matter of knowing and trusting your audience. If you know children of the age you're writing for you then you understand instinctively the right tone and voice. Unfortunately, some parents don't know or trust their own children.