By Carolyn Shields
Looking for Alaska by John Green, published in 2005, is sold next to Green’s three other novels for young adults, but unlike the others, explicit oral sex scenes, profanity, and binge drinking play a large role in this novel; however, Green states that “the book has never been marketed to twelve year olds. Never. It is packaged like an adult book; it doesn’t even say it’s published by a kids’ book imprint on the cover, and it’s never shelved in the children’s section of bookstores.” That’s fair. But as previously stated by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the young adults genre is for twelve year old readers. Looking for Alaska was awarded ALA’s top honor for “young adult,” and this novel is in Barnes and Noble’s YA section. It is important to note Green’s comeback: “There are some adults who think that the only kind of ethics that matter are sexual ethics. So they miss everything else in the book.” Looking for Alaska was used as part of the 11th grade curriculum for Depew High School in New York after parents received a letter advising that the book contained controversial content.
A similar author who faced such criticism was Meg Cabot, New York Times Bestselling author of over forty-five YA books, particularly the The Princess Diaries series, with over twenty million copies sold and two spin-off Disney movies (Michael, by the way, still ceases to ever have wooed me, though his awkwardness has always been endearing). The main character in this series, Mia, is an aspiring author and princess. Due to its success, Meg Cabot wrote a book using the synonym of Mia Thermopolis, titled Ransom My Heart. Clearly, the young adult readers of this series would be the primary audience for their heroine’s novel as well—a truly creative idea on Cabot’s part. I mean, I wanted to read it. And I did at the age of fourteen or whatever. Nevertheless, Ransom My Heart also contains several explicit erotica scenes, including oral sex.
VUHT. I did not sign up for this.
Though more often than not, these sex scenes are not overly fantastical but gritty and real, one can certainly make the case that literature is a safe domain to learn about sex and other real life issues, but my argument is when these scenes fail to teach or impart a lesson on young readers, than the publisher must rethink the necessity of incorporating it in the text.
Let’s look at Looking for Alaska again. Shortly after the oral sex scene, Green could easily have placed regret or confusion on the protagonist, or any lesson other than how to have a better blow job. If Green wants other ethics to be recognized in Looking for Alaska, maybe he could have laid off the imposing sexual scenarios. But in fact, Green subtly contrasts this "physical intimacy scene" with "emotional intimacy."
Patricia McCormick is a YA author known for writing on provocative issues such as self-harm and human trafficking. Her latest novel, Sold, was published in 2006 and is an award winning fictional account of a thirteen-year-old sexually trafficked girl named Lakshmi. McCormick wrote Sold in vignettes, a form of theatrical writing in which encapsulates short, evocative scenes which focus on one particular moment. What sets the exploited scenes in Sold apart from those in Ransom My Heart or Looking for Alaska is that the entirety of the novel is an awareness billboard for an end to this form of modern slavery. The scenes are meant to make you feel uncomfortable and hallow. Shannon Peterson, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, stated, “Young adult novelists don't shy away from tackling the deepest and darkest issues that teens face, from identity struggles and sexual abuse to drug/alcohol use and suicide. Authors like John Green write about the best and worst of adolescence fearlessly and honestly, building a trust within readers.”
It must be restated that I do not feel that all sex in YA literature should be nixed or watered down. I encourage authors to incorporate sexual content into literature or that would be neglecting a large portion of “real world” motivation, struggle, and other issues intrinsically linked to sex; however, though young adults should learn of the real world in their reading, it should also be remembered that literature is sometimes an escape as well.
Though there is no rating system which could assist teens in preparing themselves for the content, it is still these young adults’ responsibility to do further research if they feel that inappropriate content may be included due to easy access to some rating system. One proposal to this rating came with St. Martin Press coining the phrase “new adult,” a budding genre with protagonists in their early twenties. It is too early to see if this trend will continue and could potentially clarify the diverse age group for YA lit.
So let’s continue this conversation.