Dare I recommend a book?

Well. Do I?

Some discussion broke out the other day after my review of Losing It. I was halfway to sending an email to a young reader of my acquaintance, suggesting he/she read Losing It, when I came to my senses and thought I might have to ask permission from the parents first. And my next thought was that they’d think ‘there goes that tiresome woman again’. So I didn’t.

Steve Augarde left comments saying he thought recommendations were fine, but even he felt he’d prefer it to come to him rather than directly at any child of his. I brought the subject up with some visitors to our house yesterday. They also felt recommendations were OK, but they too would like any ‘sexy’ recommendation to come via them.

So we’re back to my old complaint about school libraries where they are afraid of parents turning to the press if any child comes home with a dubious book.

I could position myself in a bookshop near the shelf that hopefully houses Losing It and point it out to prospective readers. How long until they kick me out? I know it can work a treat with ‘ordinary topic’ novels, but probably not with sex. And as I said the other day, there is really very little of it in Losing It.

When I read Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden a few weeks ago, I was struck by how sensitively, but graphically, she wrote about the taboo lovemaking. It made me compare it with William Nicholson’s Rich and Mad, which the press have written about a lot more. Presumably because that lovemaking is OK, where incest isn’t.

I’m doing a lot of remembering all of a sudden, wondering why old people believe that young readers will copy any behaviour they read about in a book. Someone I knew had a son aged fourteen at the time Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now was published, and she felt that if her son was allowed to read HILN, he would automatically assume that sex between young cousins is perfectly all right, and go ahead and do it. Why would he? Reading such a marvellous novel won’t instantly change your intelligent child into someone with no sense at all.

Let’s face it. Do young readers even want old people to recommend books with a potentially sexy content? We’re embarrassing.

And did Son clear reading Doing It by Melvin Burgess with me? He felt a strong need to vet it. You can’t let a mother read just anything, can you?

7 responses to “Dare I recommend a book?

  1. Fascinating question. I have no answers for you, but I do feel solidarity. As a bookseller, I am constantly evaluating my tastes against readers tastes, and trying to find things that fit with theirs, while at the same time hopefully stretching their range a bit. Some people I work with just recommend books that they happen to like, thinking that everyone will. I have a problem with that idea. With me, it’s more trying to guage the level of violence that’s acceptable in crime fiction to any given person rather than ‘adult themes’ in young people’s books, but it’s the same kind of problem.

  2. When I started reviewing books, I did tend to flag up parental no-nos – just in case? Not sure why really, since I wouldn’t dream of censoring anything my own kids read – but then I decided it was a bad idea. If writers are writing for parents, not children, then something’s going wrong. So why would reviewers review for parents?

    I came by an illicit copy of The Story of O as an early tween (don’t ask, it had passed through many sweaty adolescent hands before it got to me) and I died a thousand deaths when my mother found it under my pillow whilst changing my bed sheets. She – wisely – just remade the bed and put it back. Never said a word, but I swear I blushed for months.

    Ultimately, while we talk about books with our kids, and we also (hopefully) talk about sex with our kids, there is an element of both things which deserve some privacy. As you say, reading about sex won’t have them rushing out to do it (lose it!), any more than reading about bullying turns kids into bullies, or about knife crime turns them into murderers.

  3. Better not say what my best childhood friend had hidden under her bed…

    What would make you people come after me with a pickaxe? What level of reading can I put in front of your babies without enraging you?

  4. With Losing It the subject matter is clear. Sexual content is hardly going to come as a surprise, and so any recommendation will be on the assumption that the reader is mature enough to appreciate what the book is essentially about.

    More difficult, for reviewers and librarians alike, are those books that merely contain sex, or some reference to sex, without necessarily being about sex.

    YA novels will have a target readership age of perhaps 11 to 15 – a massive range in terms of maturity and experience. Sexual passages that might be a joy to one reader might very well appal the next. The changes that will take place during those few years make this perhaps the hardest age group to write for, nigh on impossible to find one that size fits all. I’ve been very strongly advised in the past (with X Isle as it happens) to strike out all sexual passages. Too ‘icky’, my publishers felt, liable to both alienate the lower end of the age range, and invite the opprobrium of parents.

    It’s a bugger, really. Nobody wants books to carry warnings – which can be both misleading and unnecessarily off-putting – but at the same time we have to recognise that an 11 year old is not a 15 year old. Small wonder that many writers avoid sex altogether and stick to wizardry.

  5. Young adults have so many influences pushing and pulling at them that quite frankly I could only pray they would be influenced by a well written book! I think we are getting ridicuously over protective of children as a society and we seek to put more and more restrictions on their lives in an attempt to keep them ‘safe’. Young adults will go out and grab at sex, drugs, booze and every other vicarious thrill even if you try and put a media black out around them. Its what teenagers do. I’m the mother of two young girls and I hope they squeeze every drop out of life when their time comes. Yes, they will make mistakes and do stupid things but as parent you can only hope you never find out too much and they get through into adulthood in one piece (and a little bit wiser). And I agree, books should be written for their young audience, not the adults around them.

  6. I like what JK Rowling said about the influence of books on kids, vis a vis Harry Potter — something to the effect of “it hasn’t caused a whole generation of kids to become wizards.”

  7. I like too. She’s a sensible woman, that JK.

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