Won’t someone think of the children? And should they, really?

Here’s something that’s come up a few times in the debate over Twilight, and I’ve been mulling over it for a couple of weeks: Does a writer have a responsibility to, for lack of a better phrase, set a good example for his or her readers?

My stance with Twilight is that it depicts as its central point a relationship with abusive tendencies. You are free to disagree with me, but let’s talk about a hypothetical book that does depict an abusive relationship. Or, say, drug use or anorexia or racism or gang violence or what have you. Is it an author’s responsibility to make it clear that such behavior is bad? Or is the author’s only responsibility to tell a story as well as he or she is able?

(Just to clarify a point here: I’m not saying that the characters have to suddenly blink and go “Wow, the drug use/anorexia/racism/gang violence I’ve been engaging in is bad! I shall stop and devote my life to saving tiny helpless kittens!” Although that’s an option, what I’m really talking about is a metatextual way of showing that the behavior is unhealthy or destructive, like a reliable secondary character showing concern for the person engaing in the behavior.)

If we’re talking about fiction intended for adults, I have no problem saying that the author does not have to moralize to his or her readers. Grownups can handle themselves, and if they can’t, well, that’s not the author’s problem. You want to have a serial killer as the sympathetic hero of your adult novel? Fine, go for it. I have no problem with that.

But when you’re writing for kids or young adults…well, that’s when I get all muddled.

Look, kids are smart. Many people have said that in response to my Twilight review. I’ve said it myself. I think kids are great and I respect their intelligence. If someone walks up to them and says “Hey, smoking’s a really good idea!” or “You know what would be awesome? Committing crimes,” they’re not gonna go “Okay!”

But kids don’t read critically. They don’t go “Hey, I disagree with the central thesis of this text.” If it’s printed, it’s gospel. This isn’t their fault. When kids are taught to read, they’re taught to comprehend and absorb what they’re reading first. Analysis comes later. This isn’t a problem with the way reading is taught, it’s just how it is. You can’t grapple with the things you’re reading until you’re comfortable with the act of reading itself. So first you learn that “A” says “ah” or “ay,” then you learn to read a paragraph and tell someone else what it was about, and then you learn to talk about the piece beyond just saying what it was about and whether or not you liked it. That’s the whole point of literature classes and discussion questions.

So if a book tells you that certain behavior is normal or acceptable or cool or romantic – you believe it.

I am not exempt from this. When I was 12, I was obsessed with Piers Anthony (and yes, I know he doesn’t write for children specifically. Bear with me). I still own over 30 of his books. In one of them, he stated explicitly an idea that was implied in almost all of his books: that men have simple, black-and-white moral codes, while woman have more complicated, sneaky moralities in which the ends justify the means. And I believed this. I remember thinking “Man, Piers, you are so right” – never realizing that this utterly conflicted with the belief I held then and still hold today that gender essentialism is total bull and saying “men are this way and women are that way because they just are” is an utter crock. (Not to mention the fact that he had me, a feminist basically from birth, agreeing that women were morally inferior, even if I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.)

Now, Piers wasn’t writing for kids or teens, so while I think the idea he was expressing is vile, I don’t have a problem with him expressing it. (Plus I don’t think he was aware that it was vile, which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.)

But let’s say a writer is writing for kids or teens, knows that the idea he or she is putting forth is wrong (boys are better than girls, drugs are awesome, kicking puppies is aerobic and beneficial), and writes it anyway. Is that okay?

That’s the question I keep coming back to, and I have to say I don’t have an answer. What do you guys think?

    10 Responses to “Won’t someone think of the children? And should they, really?”

    1. Rebecca says:

      I think part of what makes this so hard is that a lot of people really aren’t entirely aware of the messages in their work, and that’s before getting to the subject of who decides what’s morally right and wrong at all.

      For example: I think it’s clear reading the Sisters Grimm series that Michael Buckley is trying to present a strong, feisty female protagonist, presumably for girls to identify with. That ought to be a positive thing. However, you and I read them and go, “Yeah, but…” and point to the below-the-surface problems. Or Stephanie Meyer writes what she sees as a romantic, loving relationship, and you point to the subtext and go, “Yeah, but it’s not those things.” It doesn’t strike me (this is pure speculation, of course) that either author was looking at alternative interpretations of their text.

      And that’s without getting too far into questions of privilege and bias — a character in a hypothetical novel might engage in racist behavior and no one calls him or her on it. This could well be because the author him/herself is unaware of it, not because the author is trying to show it as okay behavior.

      So my thing is that, first and foremost, I think authors should to be the most critical, close readers of their own works (or find someone who is) in order to get an idea of what unintentional messages they could be sending. Not just to make sure good messages are presented to the kids (like you, I’m on the fence about whether that’s obligation or just a good thing to do), but to be aware that there are messages being presented, generally.

    2. Alix says:

      “But let’s say a writer is writing for kids or teens, knows that the idea he or she is putting forth is wrong (boys are better than girls, drugs are awesome, kicking puppies is aerobic and beneficial), and writes it anyway. Is that okay?”

      I think the main problem with your question is that the word “wrong” is so subjective. Do you mean wrong by societies’ standards, or the author’s? For example, though I agree that the statement “Boys are better than girls.” is wrong, I actually have a friend who doesn’t. Of course, she wouldn’t put it like that, she would argue that “Men and women have different roles in society.” (And of course, she would say that this isn’t equivalent to the idea that boys are better than girls, but it boils down to the same thing). Would I tell her that she can’t write a novel expressing this value? No. Would I disagree with her? Yes. Truthfully I think if an author is good, consequences for actions should be shown. If they’re writing about drugs they can go on and on about how great drugs make you feel, but a good author should also depict other consequences (upsetting family, doing poorly in school, health issues). Maybe in the end the protagonist decides that they are going to continue to do drugs because they feel good but in a well written story consequences should be shown.

      Of course, there are a lot of books that aren’t well written or realistic which brings me to my next point. Because children cannot always analyze the books they are reading it is up to parents and teachers to monitor what children are reading. As a kid my mother never restricted the books I was allowed to read. She did however read everything I read so that, if she found something she didn’t agree with or made her uncomfortable we would talk about it. For example we both read Pullman’s Dark Material Trilogy and agreed that they were awesome books. However she didn’t agree with the religious ideas presented in the books and we had several long discussions comparing the religion in the trilogy to Christianity as we practice it. (Actually, I think that’s how I got most of my sex education. Mom (about the Alanna series) “See, she has sex with Jon after establishing a loving, trusting relationship. This is good.” and about the show Friends “See, having sex with near-strangers is really dumb! And unsafe!”). I may be showing a bias here, but I think that’s an ideal way to with this situation. Unfortunately not all parents are that involved with their children’s lives. This is why I think teachers also have a responsibility to at least read what the majority of students are reading. I realize that teachers don’t have the time to read everything, but I think it’s only responsible to be fairly up to date on children’s literature.

      So, I guess in summery we shouldn’t control what is written but concerned adults should be paying attention and help students use critical thinking skills when necessary. Er… sorry about the length of this comment. Apparently I had a lot to say.

    3. Jennie says:

      I don’t have an answer, but I’ve been struggling with this.

      On a theoretical level, I don’t want my children’s books to teach me a lesson. And if you have flawed characters, then they kinda need to teach a lesson or then we worry they set a bad example. And, on a theoretical level, I’m against such moralizing.

      But then, I read a book where the protagonist loses a ton of weight using diet pills and laxatives. Where she makes 1 reference to her crazy heart beat, overall, it seemed like a good, safe, effective weight-loss plan. And it made me cringe and I haven’t reviewed it yet, because on one level, I don’t want to say that the book needed to show the downsides of such a weight-loss method, but on the other hand, I think it’s more than a bit dangerous.

      And everyone can say kids can tell the difference between Edward Cullen and real life, but then Facebook flair is full of buttons that say things like “Edward Cullen gave me unrealistic expectations about men.” And if you look at all the comments on your Twilight post about how you’re not allowed to not like these books? It’s kinda scary.

    4. Rebecca says:

      Straying from the subject, but it did get me thinking…

      Jennie: I seriously have to do a meta post about this sometime. I am right there with you on, “on a theoretical level, I’m against such moralizing.” But for me, what it’s about is what comes first — the lesson or the story?

      Some of my favorite kids’ series (the Underland Chronicles and the Books of Ember) are books with very serious morals. But the books aren’t about the morals; the books are adventures with rich characters. The morals are built into the premise, but the books could survive without them. On the other hand, I don’t care for Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, because (amont other, less relevent reason) to me it seemed like if you take away the morals and messages, you’re not left with much of anything. Those were what the book was shaped around, with the story and characters second.

      So basically, I don’t mind moralizing, as long as it isn’t what the book is about.

      But of course, that has nothing to do with the questions Jess asked. 😉

    5. GA says:

      I think that’s why so much YA fiction gets tagged with “cliche” because it’s very hard to examine deep stuff without being afraid of putting out the wrong message. One of the universally accepted ones is, “Good should triumph over evil,” so you get stuff like, I don’t know… Narnia and Harry Potter, where it sometimes gets very two-dimensional. I look back and go, “Hey, the world doesn’t work like that!” But at the time, it was all very justified.

      Even something as simple as Redwall, for example. Looking back, it was actually a pretty racist series, in its own way. The mice, the hares, the otters were always good. The rats and weasels were always bad. Except for a few exceptions. Like, maybe one every millenia or so. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking about that, either, so I didn’t even notice. I don’t think reading it didn’t make me any more subconsciously racist or anything, so I’m tempted to say it doesn’t matter.

      Not that kids aren’t smart… But I think that when we pick up underlying issues, we can do it because we’ve trained ourselves to think about it critically, in that fashion, over a fairly long period of time. Going back to Twilight, I find Bella a disgustingly useless character, but I think it offends me more that Meyer puts forth all these simplistic ideas about relationships. I think it’s preposterous that she gets the guy, as markedly undesirable as he is–because let’s face it, he’s only interested because she smells good and oh, yeah, also, he can’t read her mind. Because on her own, she admittedly has no merit whatsoever, besides having been in advanced placement classes. She does well in school because she’s already done all the courses before. That doesn’t tell me anything about how smart she is. It just tells me that she’s capable of recalling information, which is a really basic function of the human brain.

      But I think if I read this when I was twelve, I would’ve cared less. You’re right; if it’s print, I’d probably believe it. “Oh, she says they’re in true love, so they must be! And Bella is smart and beautiful and amazing!” It could be dangerous, depending on the topic, but on the other hand, I think most of us do grow up and realize that a lot of what we took for granted was really kind of stupid.

      I guess it’s personal discretion, on both the writer’s part and the reader’s part as well. But in general, I suppose if you need to ask yourself, “…Should I put this in?” then maybe it’s better to walk on the safe side where kids are concerned.

      Gothic Author

    6. Jessica says:

      Rebecca: You’re right that it depends on whether or not the author sees the alternate interpretation of their text. I can’t actually think of an example where it seems like the author is fully aware that they’re presenting a negative or destructive message and just doesn’t care. So maybe that makes the whole question moot; it might be an “if a tree falls in a forest” situation. (Which would be good, because then I could stop chewing on it!)

      And you should make that meta post. *prods you*

      Alix: I guess I mean “wrong” by the author’s standards, because you’re right, it is subjective. Some people think a single alcoholic beverage is wrong, others think getting drunk on a regular basis is just good clean fun, and of course there’s a million different opinions between those two extremes. So while someone in the first camp might think a book where teenage characters drink socially is deplorable, the author might be of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with it at all, and I can’t really say that that author is putting forth a negative message.

      And I totally agree with you that the solution is not to control what’s being read, but to make sure someone in the young readers’ life is also reading it and discussing it with them. But as you say, not every kid has someone who’ll do that for them.

      Jennie: I know exactly what you mean by not liking moralizing. But I think you can not moralize and not set a bad example, either. There are plenty of books that are just straight-up adventures, with no particular moral or message one way or the other, and I’m just fine with those. It’s the negative messages that worry me, like the example you cited (gah, that book sounds horrible).

      GA: Oh man, Redwall was ridiculously simplistic morally. Good times, good times. (Unless you’re a rat or a ferret, I guess.) But yeah, I just…I don’t know how I feel about applying ethical restrictions to the writing of fiction. But at the same time, I worry about negative messages being fed to impressionable readers. It’s so hard! *cries*

    7. GA says:

      Damn it, this is annoying…

      Okay, without the faces. XD

      Is it an ethical restriction, though? Since it’s not something outwardly enforced? But personally, if your target audience that is young enough to be impressionable, I think a writer ought to take it into consideration.

      On the other hand, generally speaking, kids can handle more than we think they can. Or rather, they know what they can handle and what they can’t.

    8. Nikki says:

      I kind of disagree with you that kids believe everything they read. I remember just a few times when I believed something ridiculous, morally wrong or which clashed with my beleifs, just because a book I was enjoying said it was so (I would realized they were wrong later.) Most of the time I think I knew where I disagreed with the author and didn’t believe what they said. However, I realize that some kids are much more impressionable than others. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being impressionable.)
      Which brings me my next point. It’s not the author’s job to teach kids good morals. It’s the parent’s job. If a kid has been taught good values right from the start of their life then when they read a book that teaches bad values then they’ll know it’s wrong. And if the book is really bad then they probably won’t like it and, hopefully, won’t want to read it. Thus, if the author extolls bad morals, it will be their own loss. (I know this isn’t always how it works because different people think different things and will teach their children different things. And because not all parents even take the time to teach their kids about what to believe.)
      I agree that an author should think critically about their books or find some one else who can. That way the book would probably have less lessons that the author himself doesn’t believe in. And he’ll be doing himself a favor.
      I don’t like it when a book is preachy or teaches shallow morals that can be summed up in one line (Be honest with your freinds, take care of the environment,etc.), even thought those aren’t bad, exactly. I find books like that boring. But I also find books that teach no lessons to any of the characters at all boring, too. What I like is when a character learns a good deep lesson about herself and/or people in general and develops personally at the same time or as a result of it.
      I hope everything I said makes sense. I’m not entirely sure of what I think of these things, either, to be honest.

    9. Nikki says:

      Not that children should just believe everything their parents tell them either, you know. I mean, it’s good if they trust their parents but they should definitely make jugements and have opinions of their own. If those opinions happen to be the same as their parents, okay, but, like, I think Alix has a good point: that parents and/or teachers should take the time to discuss books and movies and whatever else with kids. That way, after hearing what their parents think, the kid can make better judgments about stuff.

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