Room on the Shelf: Why Edgy Books BELONG in Young Adult Fiction by Guest blogger extraordinaire, Cherylynne Bago

Cher-y-lynne {sher-uhl-lin} –noun 1. One who formerly sold and recommended children’s books at a bookstore; a specialist in young adult, middle grade, and picture books. 2. A para-educator at a middle school. 3. A struggling young adult writer. 4. A lover of chocolate and popcorn. Archaic: An Audiology and Speech Language Pathology major at Brigham Young University.

I thought I’d talk about why teens should (not just “should be allowed to” but “should”) read edgy books.
Let’s face it, the teenage years are difficult. You feel like an adult, but adults treat you like a child. You’re supposed to make decisions that will affect the rest of your life before you’ve even figured out what kind of person you’re going to be. Peer pressure is a constant in your life, and everything that you either give into or walk away from determines your reputation, and your reputation is everything. Add to this the fact that your hormones are completely psychotic and over-the-top, and…well, let’s just say that you couldn’t pay me enough to relive those years. 

Now, I can see why parents don’t want their children reading certain books. They’re trying to protect them, keep them from learning about particular evils in the world, keept them as pure as possible for as long as possible.

I hate to break it to you, though, but teens have already been exposed. Unless your child never leaves the house, never speaks to peers, never watches TV or listens to music, they’ve been exposed. I was hearing explicit sex jokes in the third grade. Being fairly innocent, I didn’t know what they were, and just laughed along with everyone else in order to fit in…I didn’t actually understand those jokes until years later.

“Well, I can’t stop that kind of exposure, but books are something I can control, so I should control it.” I disagree. The difference between books and movies or lewd jokes is that books generally work themselves out. They take these issues and work through them. Edgy YA that is done well is a constructive way of working through these kinds of problems. Even if the character makes the wrong choices, we are able to watch it, from a safe distance, and point out exactly what they did wrong.

Now consider how much more likely a teen is to make the right decision when they’ve essentially “lived through” the wrong decision.

No matter how much we would like them to, teenagers are VERY unlikely to come to adults to figure out their problems. They want nothing to do with adults. How limited will they be if they only have the advice from their peers? I admit, edgy YA books are a hidden way of getting teens to take advice from adults. And as long as the moral isn’t heavy-handed or didactic, TEENS WILL LISTEN.

I really think we need to change our views on edgy young adult fiction. It’s not damaging our teens. It’s giving them an opportunity to work through bad decisions and difficult times without negatively affecting their lives.


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12 responses to “Room on the Shelf: Why Edgy Books BELONG in Young Adult Fiction by Guest blogger extraordinaire, Cherylynne Bago

  1. Toni Pilcher

    Hear hear! I’m actually presenting a paper on this topic at the AML conference this weekend. Should be fun…

  2. CLW

    This post could be a bit from a research paper. I think it’s something really worth exploring.

    Once, a googillion years ago, my book True Colors was banned in the very state where it won a children’s choice award. Some parent said I had written about sex in the novel and that meant it shouldn’t be read at all. This was AFTER the children’s vote, mind you. After a year + with the book on the shelf. After I had won and was thanking students for reading and liking the story.

    I was banned from three schools. Why? One school heard that another had banned the book and others followed suit. I didn’t know until I was walking at of a presentation this had happened. I remember the librarian walking me away from the school, horrified, telling me the rest of the visits were canceled for the weekend. That I wouldn’t be meeting with the students who liked the novel.

    The thing that got me the most was that no one who was banning TC had even read it. There is no sex in there. Not even a whisper. Someone thought there might be.

    Good post, Cherylynne. I’d love for us to really explore this issue at some point. Maybe you can take the lead for us.

  3. Amen.
    Cherylynne, I think we should be friends.

  4. I disagree. First, if we all learned from other mistakes, we’d be perfect. My problem isn’t with edgy books, I’m not for banning, I’m for parents and children working together for a mutual benefit.
    What is edgy? And why SHOULD anyone have to read it?
    My daughter read two 350 page books yesterday. She eats books for breakfast lunch and dinner. There’s no way I can keep up with what she’s reading, so she really could be reading edgy without me knowing, but she doesn’t want to. I suggested a couple of books that I love and she turned her nose up at them, and they were only slightly hard/life-difficult books.
    We’re authors, we’re writers, we’re lovers of books, but I think we are mistaken when we feel that reading someones experience helps us live it. We can close the pages, walk away, and forget. LIVING a certain hell doesn’t go away. I’ve read holocaust books, seen movies that make me cry, but in no way have I lived it through them.

    Also, there are consequences for what we choose to read. I banned a video game from my house (a mario one) that was just a bunch of fighting because after they played it, they were shorter and more violent with each other.

    I was the mean mom when my daughter in 3rd grade was assigned by the teacher to read Ann Frank. (She was an advanced reader.) Great book, but the severity of attraction involved with both the boy and between another girl wasn’t something I felt she was emotionally ready for. I know, you can burn my house down.

    It’s just, my mom claws come out when it’s suggested my children “should” read edgy books. Life is the teacher, people are our teachers, our experiences teach us. Not that we have nothing to learn from books, we learn about different points of view, insights on one persons experience with a mother with mental illness.

    I have to argue with the thought that we are somehow naive or sheltered if we don’t somehow experience terrible things. You’re lucky as hell if you’re not abused or have a parent hooked on meth. We dont’ have to partake of evil to know there is evil.

    I write for those who understand the pain and need hope. Not because I need the child who hasn’t experienced similar things to understand.

    This is a great topic that I think gets people talking, obviously. And talking is good.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with this entirely. If I don’t allow certain movies and certain types of music in my house, I think it’s okay to have a certain standard when it comes to literature as well. For instance, I don’t allow the “Captain Underpants” books in my house. I’m trying to teach my boys that potty humor is the lowest form of humor, and they don’t really need to go there.

    Also, I think there is a difference between edgy and trashy. I think as a parent it is okay to draw a line between the two. Just like I would never let my boys watch pornography, I wouldn’t allow my girls (if I had any) to read pornographic literature. I consider my own taste in literature to be quite edgy, but I’ve put down books many times because I though they were junk.

  6. TA Demings

    Very thought provoking topic. While I agree with Cherylynne, I find these other arguments by Lucinda and Tiffany very interesting.

    Perhaps “edgy” needs to be defined. Because I think we all probably have a different idea of what edgy means.

    Speaking as one who was recently a teenager (and still feels like one), books have definitely helped me experience different things. I am not a parent, so I can only speak from the child/teenager point of view. (You can never make me call myself and adult).

    When I was a junior in high school I set a standard for myself to not watch pg-13 movies (or R movies), and to keep with that idea, I felt horrified that my English teacher made our whole class read “The Grapes of Wrath.” That book had sex, and filthy characters, and faulty preachers, and swearing out the wazoo. At the end of the book we had to write a paper about the book. My teacher said that this book was realistic and that there were real people in the world like the fictional characters. I wrote about how I didn’t need a book to show me the real word because it was already around me. I could experience sailor swearing and faulty preachers and everything else on my own–indeed I would have to do so. I didn’t need to read about it in a book. (my ideas about that book and books in general have changed a lot since then)

    I also thought that if I paid attention to all the things that my older siblings and my parents did wrong, then I would never have to make the same mistakes and therefore would never have to feel the same heartache and misery. While I may not have made the same mistakes as my parents and siblings I still was not prepared for the situations I’ve faced. I almost want to say it’s because I didn’t read enough, but that’s a lie–there aren’t any good books out there that would have ever helped me know how to deal with my situation. But there could be. And there ought to be–even if they’re a little “edgy.”

    I think the best point Cherylynne made is that edgy YA, when it is done well, really allows the reader to see the characters and their choices from a distance and to see how to work through difficult situations–that one CAN work through tough things, and that there IS hope.

    I’ll just use one more example. My favorite movie is rated R. It’s called Dangerous Minds (yes, the one with Michelle Pheifer). It is rated for bad language and thematic elements. It depicts hard characters who are in tough situations, and who make stupid choices sometimes. If it were a book (and it might be somewhere because I believe it was based on a true story) it would probably be considered “edgy.” But that movie is about real people. It is about Hope. It is about education. It is about teens working through very hard experiences.

    It may not be necessary for anyone to experience or even read about “evil” things. But who decides what is evil? Honestly, as a Mormon, I find the Bible and the Book of Mormon far more edgy than most YA books. For me, when I read I find that sometimes the characters’ experiences become my own. Sometimes I learn a few things about life. But mostly, I learn to connect with someone that I would never have connected with before. I learn compassion for people in certain life circumstances, and I realize that I can’t judge other people based on what I see on the outside because they’re people just like me and they have difficulty just like me, even if it is different. That is why reading (even the “edgy” stuff) is important.

  7. Juliette

    I agree that “edgy” should be more clearly defined. I like a lot of edgy YA (I write some edgy YA) and I agree some books can change your life. When I was a teenager I was hanging out with the edgy crowd and considering taking drugs. Then I read “That Was Then, This is Now” by S E Hinton and decided not to take drugs. That book could’ve very well saved my life. It, at the very least, improved the quality for my life.

    However, I do on occasion run into a book that I find inappropriate for teens. One example–I recently read a book about a girl who decides to lose her virginity to a guy she barely knows while on a beach vacation. The author didn’t address the emotional or physical consequenses at all. She simply made it seem like casual teen sex is totally normal and fine. Plus the scene was too romanticized and graphic. So I guess, for me anyway, it really depends on what we mean by edgy.

  8. Maren Jensen

    I appreciate this dialogue and everyone’s different viewpoints.

    I think there is a difference between “edgy” and “trashy”, and definitions will vary from person to person. For me, if a book deals with real issues and reveals characters who work through and change from working through those issues, that can be helpful for teens. No, a girl without eating disorders who reads “Wintergirls” will not fully understand what it’s like to suffer from them as if she had lived through it, but it will give her a glimpse. It will broaden her horizons. It will help her have empathy for those who do have eating disorders. It will help her on her journey to becoming whoever it is that she is to become.

    And that is valuable, indeed even crucial to adolescent development. And to my own adult development.

    The problem for me lies in when the questionable content goes from honest (a realistic character going through a realistic struggle) to gratuitous. If there is sex just for the sake of sex, then I have a problem with that. “Duff” comes to mind. Lots of sex in that book that didn’t serve a greater literary purpose. Where as the sex in “Story of a Girl” revealed layers of experience and pain in the MC, that told us who she was, where she came from, and helped us understand her pain and her journey.

    It is similar with people who declare they won’t watch rated R movies, for no other reason than they have (rather arbitrarily, one might argue) received an R rating. Often I see people rejecting movies that tell true stories of vital importance to humanity, and embracing gratuitous, mind-numbing movies instead, simply because of it’s label. The violence and nudity in “Schindler’s List” only helps me better understand an element of the human condition, but the car explosions, female objectification, thinly shrouded sex, and crass jokes of most PG-13 movies is supposed to be okay.

  9. I agree that gratuitous sex and violence in entertainment — literature, movies, whatever — is not something I want to see, or want my children to see. But I do want to expand their horizons, provide them with greater sympathy and understanding for others and help them find places where they can feel understood (outside of me). My twelve year old daughter read Carol’s The Chosen One last summer and afterward she told me, “Mom, I feel so blessed in my life. I’m lucky to have the life that I do.”

    I am working on a manuscript that most people consider dark or edgy. It’s about abuse. I’m treating the abuse scenes with delicacy and there’s a lot that’s implicit in the text. I’m writing it because I know it’s hard to go through childhood/life feeling like nobody understands, like nobody could know what it’s like to feel this way. In my experience, when a person can find a piece of literature that helps them feel less isolated, it promotes dialogue, starts to assist in the unraveling of difficult feelings and can start them on the road to healing. I used to work with at-risk youth, and I’ve seen this in action.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thanks for a great thought-provoking post!

  10. I agree with the difference between allowing “edgy” and allowing “trashy”, and you’re right, I should have more clearly defined that. This is such a huge topic, and difficult to fit into such a small space! I also should have made it more clear that I only feel this way about well-written “edgy,” like some of the books that have been mentioned lately by S.E. Hinton, Laurie Halse Andersen, or our own Carol. I recently read a book that I felt glorified suicide, and I rail against giving that to any teen. Yes, it’s “edgy,” yes, it has a “happy ending,” but it’s unrealistic and makes it seem as though the only reason you shouldn’t commit suicide is if a cute guy swoops in to save you. I don’t feel that book is beneficial in any way, and I don’t think that teens should read it.
    So, in other words, I don’t believe in reading edgy for edgy’s sake. I believe in using edgy literature as a tool to help young adults with the topics they struggle with.

  11. Wow, that’s a good topic. I’ve got both girl and boy teenagers at my house right now. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, depending on the book. Personally, I really enjoy YA books, as well as adult books. Some that I’ve read, I knew I never wanted my kids to read. Some I rave about until they give in and pick it up. I love it when they find their own awesome book and beg me to read it. Anyway, I want them to explore, but I’m still a mom. *Sigh* Here’s to finding a safe middle ground!

  12. Let me start by saying I agree with Maren Jensen, it does vary form person to person, and trust me, a lot of stuff in PG 13s just isn’t PG.

    Being a teen myself, I agree with this , to a point. Like others have said, I think there should be a line, but people also need to recognize that there’s a difference between what they THINK is edgy and what isn’t. If EDGY is reading a book with even a mention, not the act, of sex, then that means the Twilight series shouldn’t be in school libraries. That means The Giver is hypocritical.

    I’d like to know what edgy is to a parent , because I realize that I can’t understand that until I’m in my forties and ready to have kids.

    Besides, just because a book has sex in it people think that’s all its about. It not. I can give you a list of books that mention it, that mention drugs and drinking, but that also show what this stuff can do to you.

    Small kids shouldn’t be allowed to play games like True Crime or Grand Theft Auto, yet I’ve known parents that allow that kind of stuff and block literature that has the same content.
    Parents that have allowed rated R movies but not bloodless fighting sims like Super Smash Bros.

    My mom doesn’t let me play violent war games or see some R rated movies ( she watches them first than decides if I can take it), but I am allowed to read most books. I’ve read The Giver, I’ve read Twilight, I’ve read Harry Potter. I’ve read books about teens fighting to get out of the streets. I’ve read Speak, Restless,Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, Year of Wonders, and Teach Me. I’m not doing the stuff in those books, and I don’t have a shorter temper.

    And while that may not be me living it, I can still appreciate the lessons that YA authors put in their books . Teens are much more intelligent than some adults take us to be.
    I enjoy reading dystopic novels, but that doesn’t mean I believe it’ll happen. I’m reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy right now

    I’ve read books that just say that ” this is how REAL teens live, this is how you should live”, that have stuff like Gossip Girl (early seasons) in it. Those are not only terrible, but they are irritating because they aren’t believable . I’m a high schooler and I can tell you I’ve never seen or done any of the stuff in that. The other books though, the ones that actually show the hard things that people have gone through, and how they got out of it, help me to understand others more, and to accept others’ point of view much more easily.

    I’m sorry for Getting on My Soap Box, as my mom would say, so I’ll state this again. Every book that has sex in it isn’t trashy. But there should be limits to the things we are exposed to. So if you see something that you THINK is trashy, read it and determine that after reading it. I said I have freedom to read most things, but my mom does look through or read or see the things I read/watch and she tells me if its too adult or whatever ( It does bother me from time to time, but I know she does it to protect me from the worse things out there, and not to shelter me from everything).


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