On Mondays, I sometimes like to interview readers. Today is Saturday, but hey, it’s also not my blog. I have a guest today, who I will name “Bella,” after her dog, because she’s not itching for internet fame.
Bella is a stay-at-home-mom currently residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is married with two children that she holds close to her as little miracles. And, she’s a book lover with an opinion about “clean teen reads.”
The subject of “clean” books for teenagers came up in conversation recently, and we both thought there’s enough wiggle room to start a tag-team battle royal between those who view clean as “G” and those who might go as far as PG-13, depending on the intended audience.
In advertising January Black as a “clean teen read,” I have employed the word “fairly” to clarify that it’s almost yet not quite. By comparison to much of the YA section at my local book store, it’s certainly cleaner than many of the books there, but “clean” means different things to different readers. First, though, let’s get to know a little bit more about my guest.
Wendy: Bella, could you tell us about your lifelong affair with books?
Bella: While both of my parents loved to read, my mother was the driving force. She has her Master’s degree in French literature and taught for over 30 years as an English and Literature teacher at our local public high school. To say that reading was mandatory at our house would be a gross understatement. The first “real” book I read was Les Miserables, the unabridged version. I was in third grade. My mother guided me patiently through it; helping me with words and concepts with which I was unfamiliar. The Count of Monte Cristo was my second book, and it didn’t stop there. It was never a battle or a power struggle. We all loved to read and we were just closely guided and taught. I loved it.
Wendy: Poor grammar doesn’t bother you at all, I’d imagine.
Bella: *eye twitches* Not any more than my correcting it bothers the people who use it. I think that’s a fair trade of annoyances.
Wendy: What do you prefer to read now? Fiction? Non-fiction?
Bella: I like a mix. I only like fiction if it’s written well, and I am very picky about it. For non-fiction I really enjoy a good essay type book, CS Lewis being my favorite “thinker.”
Wendy: I know you’re a fan of CS Lewis’s fiction as well. Which do you think is better? His fiction or his essays?
Bella: His essays are eons ahead of his fiction.
Wendy: Has CS Lewis shaped your opinion of Young Adult fiction at all?
Bella: I’d classify his fiction more in the children’s category, rather than young adult. But that’s the really annoying thing. What is a young adult novel? Clearly I was raised that a quality novel is for anyone, regardless of their age. I don’t understand the need for the distinction, other than for purposes of distinguishing appropriate content, which seems to be all but ignored by most YA authors anyway.
Wendy: That’s a really great question. What is YA, really? I have heard it defined in terms of reading level by some and maturity in subject matter by others. Readers vary, of course. Some are ready for complex language before mature subject matter. Others can handle the content before they can read the language. Young Adult fiction should, in my opinion, split the difference: keep the language simple enough for most teen readers while keeping the subject matter appropriate for most teen readers.
Before we move onto “clean teen reads,” what’re your thoughts on most Young Adult books you’ve read?
Bella: I like your definition. It makes sense.
When they are well written, they are my best source of stress relief. I love to disengage my mind and just get lost for a while in the pages of someone else’s imagination. I love the fluffy type the best; real heroes, real villains, and real happy endings. I think what I like most about it is that things are black and white. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. None of this rubbish about making sure you have a flawed hero to make them relatable. I have other books for when I want to learn or think, but nothing beats a good YA book for escapism. Okay, let me correct that… other than chocolate, nothing beats a good YA book.
Wendy: Ooh, “chocolate” reminds me that I have leftover Easter candy.
You mentioned authors ignoring what’s appropriate in YA books, which is where we start getting into gray area. What is “clean” and what is not is more a matter of personal or parental discretion than a hard and fast rule. To give an example, my novel “January Black” has been promoted as a “clean teen read.” It has been reviewed by two blogs that look for such books. Both reviewers wrote positive, thorough, and very fair reviews, but one agreed that it was a clean read, and the other disagreed. If you knew nothing about my book, and you had these two reviews to go on, what decisions would you have to make?
Bella: Well that is a loaded question!
Wendy: You are talking to me. *wink* You can be honest. You won’t hurt my feelings.
Bella: If I honestly knew nothing about you or your book, based on those reviews I would probably never read it, which is a real shame. I would put it in the category of “I wish it were clean so that I could read it.” There are a lot of books and movies in that category for me. Of course, I am of the opinion that a “clean read” should really be squeaky clean, like a “G” rating. Beyond that, there should be gradations of “clean.”
However, if I had read your own description of it (“a fairly clean read… containing underage drinking, scattered profanity, and some allusions to masturbation and sex.”) I would have been much more informed and comfortable about reading it. For someone to put an ambiguous and completely subjective stamp of “clean” or “not clean” on a book is not really much to go on. You never know what their parameters are or their hot button issues. I therefore always assume the worst. I’d rather avoid it than risk wanting to drink Clorox over what I’ve just read. There’s just no way to clean your brain of some images. I am particularly sensitive to this, so when in doubt I just avoid things.
I think that’s why the ambiguous terms of “young adult” and “clean reads” annoy me so much. What is a young adult? A 10 year old? A 15 year old? 18? And what is appropriate and clean for that age group to read? Again, totally subjective. I really would like to see an actual rating system in place for this. Something informative and specific. Information is power and I hate making decisions blindly. For instance, I’d rate your book a PG, maybe a PG13, and then include your own description of it. Then everyone knows what they’re signing up for. They can choose for themselves whether or not to read it based on real information, rather than the subjective opinion of a stranger.
Wendy: As an author, I write the books that I would like to read. As a marketer, it would be silly for me to try to get everyone to read my book, because not every reader likes what I like. We all have hot buttons, content that we will enjoy, content that we will read through without trouble, and as you said, content that will make us want to bleach the images out of our brains. To reach the widest receptive audience possible, I have to push the book out to the entire Young Adult audience, while at the same time being as honest as possible so that I don’t waste readers’ time.
So, when you say that “January Black” is PG or PG-13, you are relying on the content advisory system for movies used by the MPAA. Would you apply it just to reviews, or would you like to see it on the books as well, the way DVDs and video games are labeled?
Bella: Actually I think that the ratings system for movies is horrendously flawed as well, but it was the most recognizable example of what I would like to see done. I was referring to your book as a PG-13 mainly because I think the content of January Black wouldn’t be appropriate until someone is at least 13. Which is what the movie indicator is supposed to mean, though the PG-13 of today was yesterday’s R and is only rarely appropriate for the intended audience, but I digress.
I think it’s a tricky question. Mandating a ratings system seems so… fascist. I’m a firm believer that the government should stay well out of our lives in most instances. So I’d never want to see anything like this mandated, or even regulated, by them.
However, I do think it would be wonderful if authors or publishers voluntarily put some type of rating or content advisory on their book covers, and not just a rating because those are also quite subjective. I would like a rating and a small blurb about the content that necessitated the rating. I would love to see it on reviews as well. Basically any place that you would get information about the book, plot summary or what have you, I’d love to also get content information. I would be much more likely to give a book a chance if I had that type of information about it. Likewise, I would go out of my way to support publishers and authors who voluntarily supplied me with this information. I would see it as a service to me, and reward it with consumer loyalty.
Wendy: And what business doesn’t like customer loyalty? Thank you, Bella, for having this conversation with me today. I’m feeling somewhat obligated to send goodies you’re your house.
Bella: It was my pleasure. And in lieu of goodies, you could just make me some of your amazing crawfish etouffee next time you’re in town. I need to watch you more closely so I can try to replicate it.
Wendy: You’ve got a deal! And I’d like to thank Nikki for letting me hijack her blog today. I hope you all have gotten as much out of this conversation with Bella as I have.
About January Black
Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn has never fit in on The Hill, an ordered place seriously lacking a sense of humor. After his school’s headmaster expels him for a small act of mischief, Matty’s future looks grim until King Hadrian comes to his rescue with a challenge: answer a question for a master’s diploma.
More than a second chance, this means freedom. Masters can choose where they work, a rarity among Regents, and the question is simple.
What was January Black?
It’s a ship. Everyone knows that. Hadrian rejects that answer, though, and Matty becomes compelled by curiosity and pride to solve the puzzle. When his search for an answer turns up long-buried state secrets, Matty’s journey becomes a collision course with a deadly royal decree. He’s been set up to fail, which forces him to choose. Run for his life with the challenge lost…or call the king’s bluff.