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Bottomed out?

Books and Movies 2006 | Many recent Young Adult novels are raunchy, but some now urge responsibility

Issue: "Books and Movies 2006," July 1, 2006

The world of Young Adult publishing stirs up at least one controversy per year, like last summer's Rainbow Party, an exploration of oral sex in high school. Earlier this year, a New York Times essay called "Wild Things" caused a minor dust-up when feminist Naomi Wolf questioned the appropriateness of three Y/A series for girls.

The characters in Gossip Girls, The Clique, and The A-List range in age from 13 to 19 (but the readers are as young as 11). "Lifestyles of the Rich and Raunchy" might have been a better series title for these super-glams who cut the edge of fashion, relentlessly put down the uncool, and seduce each other's boyfriends.

Ms. Wolf's suggestion that impressionable young girls might spend their reading time more profitably was met with indignant cries from reader circles and author blogs. "Teenagers can definitely make decisions on their own," was the general consensus, along with bristling at the idea of warning labels on books (a measure Ms. Wolf never suggested).

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The world of youth literature has changed a lot since I was reading Cherry Ames, Student Nurse during summer vacation. The taboos that began to fall in the early '70s are not going up again; "edgy" Y/A is here to stay. But there are edges, and there are edges: One pushes the reader's self-knowledge, and the other merely pushes the envelope.

Ironically, one of the authors most responsible for kicking down taboos in Y/A fiction was a devout Catholic, Robert Cormier, whose 1973 novel The Chocolate War stimulates lively discussion even today. Set in a parochial school, the story of a struggle of wills between an ambitious headmaster, a manipulative junior, and a freshman of principle recalls Lord of the Flies. It's also one of the most depressing novels, for any age, I've ever read. In spite of that-or because of that-there's enough truth in The Chocolate War for it to be read with profit by mature teenagers.

The same can't be said for Judy Blume's Forever, another taboo-breaker about teen sex, graphic enough for a how-to manual and 100 percent values-free. Y/A publishing brims with novels about underage victims of the adult world, who learn to accept their sexuality, heal themselves of parental abuse, or come back from bad experiences like rape or the murder of a loved one. But lately a few titles have emerged in which teen protagonists are held accountable for their own bad behavior.

The main character of Inexcusable, by Chris Lynch, graduated from every self-esteem program devised by man. Keir Sarafian is reasonably good-looking, respectably athletic, modestly ambitious. All he wants is for the world to regard him as highly as he regards himself.

But on the way to graduation, some disturbing events shake his fragile confidence. Like the late-season football game in which he injured a receiver-"No, that's not right. I didn't cripple a guy. He got crippled, and I was part of it. The difference is important." End-of-school hijinks, which seemed like the work of "lovable rogues" at the time, look more like vandalism and cruelty by the mean light of day. Finally, after a long drug- and alcohol-addled graduation night, he's accused of rape by the girl he regarded as his best friend.

Keir's delusions are striking, and true, and may even cause a perceptive reader to wonder, "Do I lie to myself like that?"

Less subtle is R.A. Nelson's Teach Me, about an affair between a high-school senior and her English teacher, which ends abruptly when he decides to do the right thing. After Mr. Mann dumps her, Carolina Livingston becomes a stalker, a conniver, a plotter of revenge-all of which she justifies to herself until her actions lead to near-tragedy.

Mr. Mann suffers for his own sins, but in the end he is finally able to teach Carolina something worthwhile: that the human soul is a mystery we can't fully understand or heal. "For once I stopped trying to rescue myself and thought about somebody else for a change." Go thou and do likewise: To the carnal knowledge she was all too eager to learn, Carolina adds self-knowledge, a bitter pill that may do her good.

These novels contain profanity, violence and sex-not necessarily recommended. But if they indicate a trend that reflects a fallen nature and urges responsibility, they are welcome.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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