How's this for a plot outline for a young adult novel? A teenage girl lives with her widowed father, who regularly impregnates her and purchases abortion herbs from the local witch. After his accidental death, she gives birth to a beautiful baby girl and is beginning to make a new life when she is attacked and raped by five local boys, leading to another pregnancy and a suicide attempt.
And that's just in the first 50 pages.
Tender Morsels, by Australian writer Margo Lanagan, is described as "lurid." To be fair, it isn't. Its shocking events are cloaked in fantasy and rendered in a literary style that is often striking and beautiful. It might even be seen as pro-life, in that the much-abused heroine, Liga, wants and loves her babies in spite of their nightmare conceptions. A magical providence grants her an alternate reality, where no one threatens. But Liga eventually learns that life in the real world is preferable to a private heaven, because even though the dangers are great, so are the possibilities.
But how much is too much in a book marketed to impressionable teenagers? Tender Morsels was published as an adult novel in Australia, as young adult (YA) in the United States, and as both in the United Kingdom, with the inevitable disclaimers. Says publisher David Fickling: "Terrible things are out there in the world. And in the real world they tumble into children's lives in an unexplained way, [such as] on the news. . . ."
As for protests, blame the usual suspects: "It was the Puritans who were worried about people's private desires," says former children's laureate Michael Rosen. "Attempts to control reading are the last tendrils of Puritanism."
Actually, Puritans worried about immortal souls. And actually, questions about appropriate reading for minors are legitimate. And actually, gang rape, incest, and retributive sodomy (that's in the last 50 pages) are probably not among the "terrible things" that young adults will have to face, unless the world is even worse than we thought.
Teens who want to explore the seamy side of life can find everything they're looking for at the local Blockbuster. So it's not mere exposure but the medium of exposure that raises concerns. Even teens find the book disturbing, especially if they expected to curl up with a retold fairy tale (this one based on "Snow White and Rose Red") and encounter a fairly graphic miscarriage in chapter 2.
Lanagan's U.S. editor sees the target age as 15 and up, noting the mature style and content will screen out younger readers. "Ultimately, I think it's about learning to live in the world-accepting both what's beautiful and terrible. It raises really interesting questions about whether it's possible to live a full life if one is protected from all harm. If you don't know danger or fear or loss, can you know true joy or love?"
Regrettably, the dangers in Liga's world are represented solely by men, and the victims are all women. One of her daughters achieves a "full life" by marrying the only decent man in the story. The other discovers magical powers that allow her to wreak a terrible vengeance on her mother's attackers.
Recently I heard of a woman who grew up in a dysfunctional family. In the chaos of her home life she found solace on TV-not in topical dramas about troubled teens but in a show known for its fairy-tale sunniness: Father Knows Best. The stability and love of the Anderson family showed her what family life could be.
As in many YA books, the positive theme in Tender Morsels is overwhelmed by negative terms. Grown-ups can appreciate a "message" of accepting life's tragedies along with its joys. But those who haven't gained an adult perspective first need some idea of joy. The evil, the false, and the ugly can be borne only if one knows something of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.