Thoughts on “Clean” Young Adult Literature

Posted March 20, 2019 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Discussions / 5 Comments

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.

Let’s Discuss!

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!

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5 responses to “Thoughts on “Clean” Young Adult Literature

  1. I think this is a complicated topic.

    I agree that it’s generally seen as a US cultural thing that we’re more likely to allow violence and not sex, but there are definitely parents and educators looking for YA books that are low on the violence, as well. I have librarian friends who are specifically asked by parents for books that are not violent like The Hunger Games because their child is reading YA but not yet a teen or because their child doesn’t like violent books or can’t handle them.

    And I think this is where I come down on the issue of different types of content in YA books. In a lot of these conversations, I see people saying things like “I read Stephen King books when I was 8 and I’m just fine!” or “I read Fifty Shades of Grey when I was 12, so teens should totally have erotica!” But people are different. I’ve also seen commenters say things like “I read a graphic sex scene when I was 12, and I was not ready for it, and I still think about how traumatized I was to this day.” You have to know the reader. Some of them do not want sex or violence in their books, and having lists of books that would be good for them is important. I don’t equate monitoring children’s reading with censorship, but rather with good parenting or good educating. (And I do think that people who have kids themselves or who work with kids are more attuned to the importance of doing this than people who don’t work with kids–in which I am including teens, especially younger teens.)

    As for the term “clean,” I get your point that it applies the opposite is dirty, but it’s also the word we use in English to describe this stuff. People generally know what it means, and I don’t know offhand what word we would use to replace it. “Clean” romance is different from “no romance,” and it seems pretty unwieldy to say something like “books in which the characters kiss or hold hands but do not have sex” or “they might have sex, but it is in no way described, just implied” or something. I also think the word is used specifically to refer to sexual relationships, and one could definitely have a list of “non-violent YA books,” but the word “clean” just wouldn’t be used in English to describe that, and no one would really expect it to.

    Briana @ Pages Unbound recently posted: Do You Hype Books That You Haven’t Read?
  2. I’m completely with you on this. I never really thought about how violent the Hunger Games books are until now haha, which is ludicrous. I don’t like the term clean at all either – the implication that books with teens having safe sex or conversations about sex are “dirty” feels similar to abstinence-only education, and we all know how good that idea is. I can partly understand not wanting kids to read books with sexual themes until they are a certain age, but I also feel like I will be the kind of parent who wants my kids to understand consent and other sexual topics at an earlier age, so it’s less of a taboo topic. Again, making things like this taboo does not help promote SAFE options at all. Usually the opposite happens. Sure, not every single YA book needs teens who are sexually active, because not all of them are, but there should be a better mix of books with and without that kind of content? I don’t think it benefits anyone, in the long run, to avoid all books involving sexual content in that way, especially healthy or safe portrayals of it. I feel like I got super ramble-y and maybe this makes no sense, but I agree with you hahaha

  3. I think it’s important to offer a wide variety of maturity levels within YA. I worked in a high school for over 10 years, and each kid did not come from the same background and therefore, did not bring the same level of maturity or experiences with them. A parent has the right to pre-approve their child’s reading choice, but there should be an array of choices for all readers to choose from

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  4. I’ve never really thought in depth about this before but the more I think about it, the more it makes no sense! You’re absolutely right: why on earth is violence so normal (almost natural to have in any kind of plot line) whereas sex and other types of physical intimacy are labeled as ‘mature content’ when really, sex is a natural part of the human life whereas violence, arguably, should not be. I guess it just speaks to what we’re willing to normalize because of how our history influences our perspective on what it means to be ‘age-appropriate’. And regarding the ‘clean’ title, it makes no sense to me either… Again, sex is a natural part of life and to label it as ‘dirty’ makes me think of how, during some points in history and in some cultures the sexuality of women is controlled via this kind of language. I’m all for having ranges of content but this kind of labeling is absurd. This is just such an insightful post; I’m going to be thinking about this every time I read or watch anything marketed for teens.

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

  5. I’ve never really thought about this topic before, but I 100% agree with what you’re saying. Banning any mature content from YA doesn’t make sense to me. Rather, books could be a perfect place to introduce younger readers to topics such as sex, etc. in a healthy way. I’d rather see relationships and sex be portrayed in an “appropriate” (whatever that means) way in YA rather than left out altogether and have young readers go to for example New Adult where a lot of relationships portrayed are incredibly unhealthy and overall not what I think inexperienced readers should be exposed to.

    Thank you for writing this great post, Cristina! It’s really made me think and I think it’s a really important topic to address!

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