No Kids Allowed!

LBenedictAug08 We’ve been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I’m thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it’s also a must-read.

Without further ado…
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.bene_lonely heartscopy

Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.

A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)

I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"

My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.

I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it.  Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.

So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!
Notes From the Handbasket
CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, Now available from Ballantine Books!
ISABELLA MOON, Available in trade paperback

14 thoughts on “No Kids Allowed!

  1. One of my favorite booksellers wanted to buy The Tunnels for their fourteen year-old, and I wouldn’t let them. I explained that it was way too dark.

    And I have to say that what impressed me so much with the Harry Potter series was that even though the early books are well suited to the tween crowd, as Harry gets older, the books become progressively darker. I’d never give a nine year old one of the later books. I’m wondering how parents will handle that, since previously the books were staggered by years, allowing kids to mature along with the storyline.

  2. That’s a very good point to bring up. I remember as a ten year old in 5th grade picking up a scifi book at the library and becoming very confused by an extremely graphic sex scene. I showed it to my teacher in hopes of him helping me figure it out. He nearly choked when he read the paragraph I that most confused me, it was very, very graphic. Hugh Hefner may have been offended.

    Working as a youth minister with over 100 teens looking to me for leadership, I realized that I could not write anything that I would not be willing to say in normal conversation with them or their parents. This was even more of a concern when I recorded them as audio books for the web. Because then even a pseudonym would not cover up the fact that it was me. And I certainly would not want a sex scene a la Ken Follet style being spread around the globe in my own voice.

    While I have not become a best seller in any regard, the audience I have hasn’t complained about getting a military adventure story that contained no porn or F-bombs. For that matter, many have thanked me.

  3. Welcome, Laura, and thanks for being our guest. Your post begs the question: should literature have a rating system like the movies, TV and video games? My inclination is that it does not. The reason for me is that unlike the visual media of the movies or TV, with a book, the story takes place in the mind, not on the page. Since no two readers are going to see the exact same “mental movie”, it would be hard to slap an accurate rating on the cover.

    My books contain a fair amount of realistic language and sex. Like you, I’ve had parents show up at a signing with their kids and ask if their pre-teen would enjoy my book. My answer is always, “They’ll enjoy it but they probably shouldn’t read it.”

  4. Thanks for having me here today, Michelle!

    I was surprised when my sister let her then nine year-old twins read the last couple Harry Potter books, but I know she pays good attention to what they read, so she must have thought them ready. My own nine year-old is a non-fiction guy–funny how they show preferences early.

    Basil, that’s quite the picture of you and your 5th grade teacher! And I empathize with you about being a youth minister–I had to stop teaching Sunday school because some parents were concerned about my writing. It was extremely disappointing.

    Hi, John. Thanks–I’m thrilled to be here!

    Joe–I’m totally stealing your line and absolutely agree with you about the futility of putting ratings on books. Films are, indeed, very different. A bookseller was telling me yesterday about a woman who demanded her money back after her four year-old became hysterical at the fourth Harry Potter film. Some people just refuse to pay attention when they’re given the information up front!

  5. I’m just so delighted when kids want to read that I don’t worry too much that reading will lead them down the wrong path. I spent my youth reading my mother’s potboiler purple passion romances and detective novels and…well…see where it led me. Good point! Keep ’em away from my books, moms! Thanks for visiting us today Laura!!

  6. I must have been around that same age when my mom caught me with one of her Erica Jong books- oops. But hey, I was reading, right? And then our middle school library accidentally ordered nearly every book in the Harlequin erotica line. Far more educational than the sex ed classes.

  7. I’m guessing we all read HUGELY inappropriate books at ridiculous ages.

    I’d far rather kids be reading stuff by us than the misogynistic garbage that was out there on the shelves when we were kids (anyone remember THE FAN CLUB? Talk about horror…)

    Kids are going to find sex and the supernatural, period. I always have that in mind when I’m writing and it reminds me to be moral about it.

  8. I was reading Dean Koontz when I was 12. I had friends reading heavy romance novels at the same age. I think some young readers can be more mature than others, but honestly, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t want my kids reading books with adult content, although, I am more concern about what I call “unsafe ideas”. Meaning, if I don’t like the “message” or “vibe” in the book. All and all in comes down to parent monitoring what their children read.

  9. When my son was growing up, I would buy him any book he wanted to read, without restriction. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try to influence him from time to time, but the decision was ultimately his. The only line I drew in the sand was when he was reading ONLY sci-fi/fantasy. Because it’s so easy for kids that age to get locked into one genre (and one that his old man didn’t write, although I’d like to think that really wasn’t in the equation), we made a deal that every other book would be sci-fi.

    As for sex and violence, I just never worried too much about that. I remember being in 7th grade and my parents were horrified that I was reading THE GODFATHER in school. “Is it because of the wedding scene?” I asked, nearly making my mother choke. I haven’t looked at the book since, but I’m pretty sure that the “sticky wetness” scene with Sonny boffing the bride’s maid is on page 27 of the paperback. Oh, the things we remember!

  10. Michelle, good point about Harry Potter growing older. I wish Nancy Drew had grown up. In fact, that’s what my character Kate Gallagher is like–she’s Nancy Drew, only older, with a weight problem and a potty mouth!

  11. John, we read The World According to Garp in tenth grade, and I’m sure my parents would not have been pleased–but that was long after I read The Lonely Lady. I was already a jaded reader by then.

    Hi, Alex, honey! I’m so glad to see you here!

    Crimogenic–I totally agree with you that it’s the parents’ responsibility to monitor. Also, like John, I think that there needs to be variety–in content as well as message. You’re in Chicago? I’ll be at The Book Cellar for local author night on Wednesday!

    I love all the girl detective imagery that Nancy Drew spawned–all ages, shapes, personality types. A friend of mine who writes YA mysteries describes her heroine as a “slutty Nancy Drew!”

  12. The first day of my son’s sophomore English class, the teacher asked the students what books they had read over the summer. One of the ones my son mentioned was “Lonesome Dove”. The teacher responded that it was good but vulgar. I was astonished. The only thing I could figure she was talking about was the rape scene which encompasses maybe 5 pages of the whole book. Most of kids hadn’t read any books at all, yet she is criticizing someone who did.

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