Self-censorship is a tricky topic for those of us who write for children and youth. People have very strong opinions about what they think children should be exposed to in stories—and not everyone agrees about it. Fiction may not be technically true, but the best fiction still tells the truth. What truth do you want to tell? It might be one that others have told you isn’t appropriate for children or young teens to hear. (Older teens tend to not worry people.) “That’s not okay!” they’ll shout, and try to get your book removed from schools. Parents can certainly decide what’s appropriate for their own kids, of course, but when they try to take a book away from everyone’s children, it can leave an author feeling attacked. So it can be scary to be bold, but I want to encourage you to be bold anyway, for the sake of creating an honest story for your audience.
It’s true that when we write for children or young teens, in particular, we have an obligation to be age-appropriate. A nine year old does not need to read a rape scene, I think most of us would agree. But there is a difference between being considerate of your audience’s maturity levels versus cutting things from your story based on fear of how it will be received by some adults. If you cleanse your middle grade novels of all the wonderful diversity and various points of view that our world is full of…what are they learning from their reading? That life should always match one prescribed perspective? That people different than you don’t really exist in any real, important way? Instead, young people can follow along with characters of all backgrounds, behaviors, and beliefs, and learn from them even if they themselves may never believe or behave as those characters do. It’s one of the beautiful things about reading. It builds empathy with others who are different than us.
So, if you are worried about including something controversial or “edgy” in your book for a child, tween, or teen—be it a LGBTQ teen, or a homeless child, or an alcoholic father—here’s my message for you.
Trust our kids. Trust our youth. If they find your book too hard for them, they will put it down. If they find the content to be objectionable or confusing, they will put it down. But there may be a kid who needs to hear exactly what you want to say. I say PRESS FORWARD. Yes, your book might be challenged. It might even be banned. And yes, please be sensitive to their ages. But don’t assume that children can’t handle challenging topics or painful themes. There are some who most assuredly could teach me a thing or two about how hard life can be. All children need to have heroes. Your character might become one of them one day.
Check out these five honest and bold books for tweens and kids, with topics considered controversial by some.
By: Ami Polonsky
A sensitive and sweet portrayal of a 12 year old boy who has a secret: “he” is a girl on the inside. There are so few books about being transgender, and I was delighted to find this one for upper-middle grade that was positive and yet honest—really, it would even be suitable for middle grade. There is no sexuality, no language, no romance…just the yearning this young person feels to be a different gender.
The Higher Power of Lucky
By: Susan Patron
Banned and censored for the use of the word “scrotum” in reference to a dog being bit there by a snake, this Newbery Award winner includes a girl listening in on AA meetings in which higher powers are discussed and living with a French foster mother who may or may not be abandoning her. Those are big topics.
By: Lois Lowry
Not to give any spoilers, but euthanasia will come up in discussion from reading this book. Pretty heavy topic, but tweens love this book. It is not uncommon to see sixth or seventh graders reading this book for school, and there are some horrible things in here…things that our hero fights back against the only way he knows how. A powerful story.
The Golden Compass (And its sequels)
By: Phillip Pullman
Phillip Pullman’s trilogy is about some kids on a mission to kill God. I bet that Mr. Pullman sometimes thought as he was writing this, “Wow, parents are going to hate me.” Or maybe he is too confident to care—I don’t know. But his point is that the concept of God is often a very good excuse for doing many bad things. The book brings up issues of faith that young people deserve to be able to discuss with others in a respectful manner. (And on the flip side, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis has been challenged for being so obviously a Christian allegory being used in a public school setting. You will always offend someone with a religious-focused book, so just tell your story.)
And Tango Makes Three
By: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
I always wonder if the author knew that so many people would pitch a fit about this delightful little picture book that is based on a REAL event of two male penguins raising a baby together at the NY Central Park Zoo. It has the dubious distinction of being the most challenged book from 2006 to 2010, except for 2009, when it came in second. It was back in the list in 2012 (# 5 most frequently challenged). I’ll be curious to see if the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage will make some people even more huffy about the book, or if maybe people will stop trying to pull this book from libraries. I hope that even if the author and publisher knew it would cause a ruckus, that they would have gone forward with printing it anyway. It’s a beautiful story, and brings up the topic of same-sex parents in a sensitive and positive way.
So there you have it! Go forth and tell your story as honestly and fearlessly as you can! We all benefit from books that raise tough topics and deal with them in authentic ways. If it speaks to your heart, it will show in your writing.
What are some of your favorite controversial or challenged books?
Amy holds a Masters of Library Science along with a certification in school librarianship. She is a former reading and English teacher, mostly for 6th-8th graders. Her debut book, FAIRY KEEPER, is an upper-middle-grade fantasy, now available from Curiosity Quills Press. She currently lives in Germany with her family, though they still call Texas home. Her daughters are 9 and 11 years old. As you might imagine, middle grade books are a hot commodity around their house.
Amy‘s next book, MER-CHARMER, will be released May 9, 2016.