What’s wrong with readin’ that?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

The Guardian book blog recently had a piece entitled nothin‘ wrong with teen fiction’ which discusses the ‘raised eyebrow and indrawn breath’ that we all remember so well when we were caught reading something that was (disapprovingly) considered ‘teen fiction’. You remember the books – the ones by Judy Blume or VC Andrews – the ones that your teacher regarded as something akin to eating Lucky Charms for breakfast rather than whole-grain granola, in the belief that teenagers should be eating a diet of classics by the likes of the Brontes, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.

Now that I am in the midst of final edits to my own young adult WIP, I am reminded of the snobbishness with which high school teachers seemed to regard these popular teen books and I’m starting to wonder, with the advent of bestselling series such as Harry Potter and Twilight, whether the same prejudices still apply when it comes to genre or mass-market teen fiction. Are teachers still curling their upper lips and flaring their nostrils or are they just relieved to see teens reading anything at all?

My own guilty pleasures as a young teenager included Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean thrillers, a drippy historical girls’ school series in which I got to channel my fantasies of going to a Swiss finishing school and marrying a doctor, and various TV/movie tie-in books which had all the literary merit as a bowl of cocoa puffs. I have to also confess to devouring Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, but at least this was something my English teacher could relate to…she reserved her horror for the girls who tried to do book reports on novels by Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel.

There is only one book, however, that I remember was (virtually) banned at my school. It was a coming of age book called Puberty Blues and for a young teenager (I must have been about 12 at the time) the fact that my own mother disapproved of it was enough to ensure that I had to clandestinely procure a copy. Now I think back I can’t understand what all the fuss was about – except for the sex and drugs there was nothing controversial:) Today’s teenagers would no doubt think it very lame.
So here’s my question – what books do you remember drawing the ire of your parents and teachers? What ‘teen fiction’ books were you guilty of enjoying? Do you think any of this snobbery has changed or are popular teen books still looked down and frowned upon?

18 thoughts on “What’s wrong with readin’ that?

  1. I remember reading CANDY and LOLITA in high school on the sly. Where I grew up every book you’d want to read was pretty much banned except the King James version.

    The word I had to verify was Louse

  2. I remember feeling guilty glee when reading Portnoy’s Complaint. I wasn’t told not to read it–I would have been embarrassed to be discovered, however.

  3. As a lifelong voracious reader, my tastes and reading ability outstripped my grade level at an early age. YA books, such as they were in the ’60s and early ’70s, didn’t hold my attention, so I moved on to adult-market thrillers and crime novels in early adolescence. Those of a certain age will remember those years as the age of the obligatory sex scenes that could really get quite graphic. I learned a lot from those books. I don’t think my parents were really comfortable with it, but they never told me not to, and I certainly never brought it up.

    Teachers never fussed at me about my reading choices. Throughout high school, we had to read one book every three weeks and write a report on it, selecting from dozens of titles that varied according to the theme of the particular 6-week concentration. Grades were tiered based on the complexity of the book you chose and the detail of the report you wrote. One of the highest grades I ever got was for the report I wrote after reading THE GODFATHER. (By the way, I still remember that the hallway sex scene is on page 27 of the book.)


  4. I didn’t discover Lolita until I was older and I’ve never read Candy or Portnoy’s Complaint – boy was I a boring teenager! I do remember the books doing the rounds with the pages with the sex scenes dog eared:) I doubt teenagers have changed much but I wonder if parents/teachers bother to seem outraged by their reading habits anymore?

  5. Luckily, both my parents were and are voracious readers and encouraged me to read anything and everything that would hold my interest. I was like John in that I immersed myself in adult books, but I liked (and still do) the big, bold sagas: HAWAII, SHOGUN, PENMARRIC. Thank goodness there was no such thing as censorship at my house!

  6. I never knew of these books until recently. Like John R. M., the area I grew up in was quite conservative and still is. I must have seemed very boring to my peers back then… Of course, there was always the Song of Solomon. (!)

    I do however remember a fabulous scene in a YA that I read in high school. It’s title was something akin to “Heart of Darkness” but had nothing to do with the famous novel. The hero, now an orphan of sorts, slipped his hand through the loose shirt sleeve of the girl he was betrothed to…

    Clare, as a high school teacher I can tell you that teenagers haven’t changed but their methods have. Just google “Sexting” for the modern equivalent of the dirty picture. I’m sure wikipedia has an informative article on the practice. Essentially, the books with the dog-earned pages have been replaced with electronic devices.

  7. There was no censorship in my house. My mother signed me up for BOMC for my 17th birthday. I used to love ordering books and having them appear. When I didn’t order one, I received books i didn’t order, and there were some real losers, but I read most of them anyway. The first novel I remember buying was IN COLD BLOOD, and I still have that copy. It’s not a first edition, but a third or something. One of the few investments I’ve made that appreciated over time.

    I think I got Portnoy’s Complaint from BOMC I think, and LeCarres Smiley books and others I still have in a box somewhere in my shed. Mostly I can’t remember my teenage years due to the late sixties.

  8. When I was 10, in the 5th grade, I had finished all of the Tintin series at our local library and decided to go for some grown up fiction. I read a few Louis L’Amour and tried a couple Don Pendleton books and found them quite intriguing. Then I picked up a SciFi novel titled “World War III”. It was a Planet of the Apes type story and very thick for a kid my age. Somewhere about the middle of the book there was an extremely confusing scene describing multiple ape-men doing something to the heroine that involved parts of their body reacting in ways I could not comprehend. In my confusion I showed the scene to my 5th grade teacher and asked him what it was talking about.

    Apparently inter-species fellatio was not an acceptable reading material for 10 year old boys in 1978. The ex-hippie school teacher’s eyes got huge and it was the only time I think he supported banning a book from the library, or at least keeping it way out of reach of kids.

    After that reaction I tended to stick with L’Amour.

  9. Well Basil at least you were out there ‘flying the flag’ for outraging teachers everywhere! Daniel, I should have guessed the electronic media would be the thing now – and I’m sure teenagers today can now find things that would make my hair stand on end – although Basil’s book on a planet of the apes style orgy would have been quite enough to get me suspended from school:)

  10. “That page” was probably well and truly memorized by then, Mysti. Joe, I devoured all of Ian Fleming’s Bond books but the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were not my thing – too American I suspect:)! I was such a nerd I read Doctor Who books…

  11. Are you kidding?–when I got books from the library, my mother kept stealing them because she wanted to read them, too!

    I never had the problem with teachers disapproving of what I was reading. When I started reading science fiction, I even had a teacher who recommended books like Azimov). The only true trauma was when the book Carrie came out. It was in this small catalog the school passed out, and we could order from it. That was probably the most daring I got, because I expected someone to object–and then the book club goofed up on my order and didn’t send it! Eventually I received it.

  12. Ooooh Clare! A Doctor Who Chick? If neither of us were married to someone else I’d ask you out! I was a total Dr. Who addict throughout my childhood and teen years. I used to wish I could look out my window and see the Tardis materialize in my back yard to take me to another planet, because the Dr. never seemed bored.

  13. Basil – I even have my very own Dalek and Cyberman on my desk (fake of course but I do enjoy ‘exterminating’ my pens now and again). I even watch the latest episodes. I was totally psyched when they revived the series – My husband just rolls his eyes…:)

  14. Everyone seems to be wondering what teenagers are like these days when it comes to books. Why not ask some teenagers?

    I’m seventeen and I’ve always read a lot. When I was eleven I read my mom’s V.C. Andrews books and I loved them. My dad will tell me not to read a book and will stop movies that he doesn’t think I should watch because the content is innapropriate. However, my mom wouldn’t censor anything. I end up reading whatever I want and I don’t care if anyone thinks it is innapropriate.

    I have good grades, I don’t get into trouble, and reading an ‘innapropiate’ book won’t change that. By the way, I liked the post and everyones comments amused me.

  15. Star Trek novels. I loved them in high school. This did not help with my gangly, welt-faced image.

    But without them I would never have learned about Ceasar crossing the Rubicon or have any understanding about physics. They were great glosses to me: turning me on to other books, other subjects, and getting me to look at the world a little more broadly.

    So I’ll always be grateful. Sure, I’ve moved on and read everything now, but occasionally, a Peter David New Frontier or Starfleet Corp of Engineers (compiled short eBooks in printed form) still sneaks its way into my backpack.

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