Over the course of the last few months, I’ve seen quite a bit of talk online about “clean” YA, and keeping YA safe for teens. Now, I know YA is primarily FOR teens but more adults are buying it and therefore the content is being skewed a bit more mature to cater to the adult readers (which is a whole different discussion) but I often take issue with what constitutes YA as “clean.” There seems to be an overwhelming aversion to any sort of physical intimacy or cursing but an alarmingly high tolerance for violence. I happened across a website that had a clean YA index, but also had a clean YA with light violence section, and it really left me scratching my head as to WHY violence is any more tolerable than other “mature” content, especially given all of the violence induced hate and tragedies happening all over the world.
Being from the United States, this trend is not surprising to me. I see it in the way movies are rated, the content that’s allowed in children’s cartoons and video games- violence is seen as less provocative, less threatening, and we’re much more desensitized to it than to hearing someone drop an f-bomb or seeing any sort of nudity. Yet it’s still disturbing to me to see this trend bleed into children’s and young adult fiction, where it’s completely normal to see an elementary school age student reading The Hunger Games (which literally becomes more violent and disturbing the more I think upon it as I age). I do recognize some of these YA titles with violence have also been banned/discouraged in certain communities, but overwhelmingly violence tends not to be the trigger when talking about “clean YA” and it really infuriates me as a reader and potential future parent. Why is it OK to think teens need to be sheltered from topics like sex, romance, abuse, language, etc. but sure, throw a bunch of kids in an arena or on an island and watch them hunt and kill each other and no big deal??? I recognize my stance could change if I am a parent one day, but I really hope it doesn’t, because I think the message this sort of mentality sends it’s really harmful- be ashamed of your body, of your relationships, of expressing yourself, but find it OK to absorb and revel in violence.
Thoughts on YA books with violent themes aside, the whole idea of “clean” YA rubs me the wrong way, starting with the verbiage itself. The use of the word “clean” implies that books with mature content are dirty, in the wrong, etc. which is another dangerous message to send in my opinion. Sure, there could be a myriad of reasons why adults (or even teens themselves) gravitate toward YA with milder content, but the framing of a text as being problematic or dirty or shameful just because it’s got complex and mature themes, relationships, etc. sets a dangerous precedent. On the whole, I’m not big on promoting “clean” YA in general either, as I think it’s important for younger readers not to feel shamed or censored by what they’re reading. Growing up, my parents weren’t readers but that didn’t stop them from making comments about what I was reading and how they thought it was “inappropriate” because of the cover art (A Great and Terrible Beauty), the title (Memoirs of a Geisha) or a random page they happened upon (TTYL) yet they weren’t doing any research into the actual content behind the books or having a discussion about it with me. On the other hand, I was allowed to read things that were probably a bit mature for me (like The Princess Diaries when I was in fourth grade) because my parents associated it with a Disney movie or a cute-sy title or cover. If you ask me, this is such a problematic way to go about monitoring reading habits. Granted, when I was younger “middle grade” wasn’t really a thing and YA selections were limited so there wasn’t quite as much material available for a wide variety of readers at different ages and emotional levels, but I turned out OK and a more voracious reader for it.
Ultimately, I know it’s none of my business what other people want to read or want to expose their kids or teens to in literature. However, as an avid YA reader and blogger, I would love to see the community challenge the terminology behind “clean” YA and take a long hard look at why many interpretations of “clean” YA don’t bother to ban violence. At the end of the day, you do you, and read whatever you want (that’s the beauty of reading, you don’t have to pick up a book that you’re not into!) but I think a little more critical thinking can always be done when looking at our choices and the reasons behind them.
What are your thoughts on “clean” YA? Do you find the term or idea behind it problematic? Have you ever found yourself baffled at the titles that do or do not fall under it? Let’s discuss in the comments!