Since I write young adult fiction, I read a lot of YA and middle grade novels. I also check out reviews from readers to see what types of things my target audience likes and dislikes. I was recently shocked when I read a review on Goodreads in which a woman complained that the MG book, Alice In Blunderland, is too mature for readers younger than 13.
Alice In Blunderland is about a 9-year-old girl and her adventures in the 4th grade. Her activities throughout the book (and there are some minor spoilers here, if you consider them such) include her getting stuck in a snow cave and playing an innocent game of Tarzan with the boy next door (Alice wants him to give her a little kiss, but is too shy to let him actually do anything). If this book were a movie, it would be rated G. Actually, it's so wholesome, it would probably be rated "W."
I thought for a while about what could possibly have put this reader on alert and it finally occured to me: the word "penis" is used a couple of times. But it's not like she and her guy friend were playing doctor or anything like that; "Penis" is mentioned in a scene where Alice's 4th grade teacher tells the class that he and his wife are expecting a baby boy -- and then shows them a scan of the Ultrasound.
Really, a 10-12-year-old shouldn't be allowed to read about or know the name of a male body part? I do think that many of the Alice books are a bit mature for tweens because there are very frank discussions of sex and sexual bodily functions, but in this instance the discussion was about a fetus! I'm sorry, but I just think that banning this book from tween readers is ridiculously alarmist.
I do think that parents should be aware of what their kids are reading and I do think that what's appropriate for a certain kid at a certain age may not be for another. Some 13-year-olds are mature enough to handle something like Twilight or The Hunger Games, but others are still reading Ramona books. Parents should be comfortable with their children's reading material and it's really up to them to decide what this is.
Still, I don't think that YA and MG authors should have to water down their stories to make them 100 percent wholesome, either. I've seen negative reviews of certain Judy Blume books, including Just As Long As We're Together, which again, is about as innocent as you can get. The reason for the negativity? Because the teens in the book talk about getting their periods and sex. These are TEENS. Of course, they're going to talk about sex. Do I think that including a lurid sex scene in a MG novel is appropriate? No way. If I had to give a movie grade to say, the GOSSIP GIRL series, I'd tell moms that it's PG-13/R, definitely intended for older teens/young adults. But I don't see the harm in a 12 or 13-year-old girl reading a story about 12/13-year-old girls who worry about the same things that she probably does -- like when she's going to get her period. For the record, I learned about periods from Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me Margaret... which I first read when I was nine. My parents didn't freak out; my mom simply used my questions about the story to give me some female information. For the record, I'd say that BAND GEEK is PG-13 because my characters say some swear words and there is a heavy makeout scene. This is why I list it as YA and not middle grade.
Like I said, I do think that there are certain discussions that are appropriate for certain ages, and I strongly encourage parents to keep track of their kids' reading/TV and movie viewing, etc. But I do think that some people are a little overly sensitive about what belongs or doesn't belong in MG/YA literature. We may want to keep our kids young -- if I had my way, my 5-year-old niece would stay little and innocent forever! -- but they're going to grow up and learn about life, no matter how much you try to prevent it. Wouldn't you prefer to have a good book prompt a talk than for them to get their information on the street?
Please read and review my YA novel REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD.