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‘Beyond Titillation’: What Type of Reading Material Can Young Brains Handle?

6 Apr

The subject of appropriate reading material for teens is one of much debate. Please share thoughts and critical feedback in the comments section.

The UK differs substantially from the US in that there are are not a tremendous amount of challenges to sex to scenes in young adult literature, or objections to sex education for teens. However, I still found that Beyond Titillation: Sexuality and the Young Adult Novel, presented by Jason Kurtz and Dr. Nicholle Schuelke at YALSA Symposium 2010 provided insight into what teens are able to handle when it comes to other types of reading material and challenging subjects such as sex and violence.

Jason Kurtz started by stating that teens bring their paradigm to books they read. This worldview is pre-formed by experience with parents, peers, and similar. As Schuelke says, the assumption is that reading changes people. But reading doesn’t shift that; parents, school, community all have a much greater effect. Teens interpret the books they read based on the way they already understand the types of experiences they’re reading about.

This may appear to be an obvious bit of finding, but it’s important to consider in the context of challenges and censorship of books. When librarians receive complaints about books for teens, the person lodging the complaint often deems the book inappropriate or offensive. What does this mean? The person requesting removal of the book is usually worried or scared that the book will psychologically damage young people and give them a distorted understanding of social codes. We worry that a book that portrays bad decisions teaches bad decision-making.

Those fears might be exacerbated by Kurtz’s statement that for some readers, reading the book is “almost like asking an adult [for advice], but not exactly.” However, he goes on to say that readers look to YA for topics they’re not comfortable with (and don’t feel comfortable asking about), and that they read to experience something that is not their own experience. They are vicariously experiencing things through the book. Vicarious exploration is far safer than going out and committing these ask oneself. As the controversial YA author Melvin Burgess writes, reading “an opportunity for readers explore moral issues in a practical way” that precludes acting on their impulses.

Moreover, if a book and it addresses sexuality (or violence), it’s assumed that the end result is going to be the young adult reading it engaging in a similar. However, research has found otherwise: people do not practice what they read![1]

Books for young people are often seen as simply existing to “teach them to behave” (Schuelke), but of course teen readers usually seek books that violate this dictum, preferring to make their own judgements rather than being lectured by the author. This is not unreasonable, as teen brains possess critical reasoning faculties. It’s not surprise that teens are eager to exercise these.

Schuelke pointed out that when a teen finds a book that upsets or disturbs them, they will self-censor. If a book isn’t aligned with their worldview they’ll put it down. I have seen teen do this many a time (“it was too much” “I didn’t like the part where [something that upset them] happened, so I decided to stop reading”), and I always encourage them to follow their instincts. If a book feels too overwhelming or too abrasive, it’s okay to put it down. If they’re still interested in the material, they can always return to it when they’re older and feeling better equipped to handle subject matter.

While this is not a definitive look at how reading morally challenging material effects teen readers, the implications are heartening. The majority of teen readers appear prepared to read critically, to use books to explore new experiences and evaluate them, and to set aside materials for which they feel unprepared. Of course, this does suggest that external forces, like adults and peers are important influences who may get a great deal wrong. That is a topic for a different post.

[1] People also generally don’t practice what they watch. A 2007 article from The American Journal of Psychotherapy titled “Horror Films: Tales to Master Terror or Shapers of Trauma?” (authors: Bruce Ballon and Molyn Leszcz) suggests that in the few cases that people have been driven to reproduce in real life the gruesome scenes from horror films, the people involved were already suffering severe psychological problems unrelated to that or any other film.

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Giving Teen Genre Readers Time (or) Fighting Tyranny of Reading

4 Apr

Last week when I updated about the YALSA symposium session on Street Lit I forgot to mention one of the most crucial pieces of knowledge I gained from the session.

One of the presenters (I believe it was Beth Saxton but can’t be certain) mentioned that teens who begin reading Street Lit usually branch out from the genre after a time. How long? Usually about a year after they begin to devour street lit novels.

A year is such a brief period of time, especially if it is that period of time that reifies reading as a lifelong habit. On the other hand, it can be difficult to watch a reader who is clearly capable of reading more sophisticated work returning repeatedly to a genre or author they are already comfortable with. Some teens I work with read virtually nothing except the Twilight saga for an entire year. They would cycle through the saga, and then, as soon as they were finished, start the first book again! These teens also wanted to relive details of the books, not debate their underlying themes. The only teen in my reading group not taken with Twilight was a diehard horror fan who refused to read anything else. It was a trying time.

Since then, I have seen every member of the group blossom into readers with great curiosity and diverse interests. It seems that’s how many of us become readers – we experience a passion for a subject or genre of stories or even a certain book that is so consuming that we must read everything within that area, repeatedly, until we feel exhausted with it.

It’s easier to place a measurable value on this if the teen in question is a history buff instead of, say, a paranormal romance fanatic. The former is academic and might lead to an illustrious career whereas the comprehensive value of the latter is more rigorously questioned and debated[1]. Devising a critical theory of the value of the romance story is beyond the scope of the this blog. However, based on what Saxton and Honig said, it seems that readers of any genre will benefit from having access and encouragement to read in the area in which they are passionate. After a time, they are likely to become curious and branch out. As mentioned before, when teens say “I want a book just like it” doesn’t mean “I want a book with the same plot” but one that makes them feel as intensely as the book they just finished did.

It has taken me a long time to conquer my own bibliophilic impulses and learn that the best reader recommendation is one that fits the individual, not one that molds them to my idea of who a reader should be or what they consume (I have come to think of the process of forcing books upon poorly matched readers as The Tyranny of Reading). The keys to readers advisory are flexibility, knowledge, an open mind, and active listening.

[1] For those interested, Read React Review is an excellent blog on romance novels. Its author is a philosophy professor who both enjoys the romance genre and interrogates its ideology and general theories of desire.

“Meet Them Where They Are and Open the Door”: On Assumptions and Pop Culture Reads

31 Mar

Meet Them Where They Are and Open the Door: Urban Teens, Street Lit, and Reader’s Advisory was presented by Beth Saxton and Megan Honig at the YALSA Symposium 2010. Below is my summary of and speculation about relevance of the content to UK librarians.

Although as far as I’m aware, there is no street lit genre, many of the assumptions about the reading habits of young people are based on their appearance are the same in the UK as in the US. Assumption: “these kids don’t read” = “his jeans are baggy he must be illiterate” “these kids won’t sit quietly in the library with a book in their hands.”

There are two bottom lines: first that certain types of teens with certain appearances are born readers and others aren’t, and second, that certain types of books are more worthy than others. Scrutiny of these assumptions demonstrate their inaccuracy: the worth of various types of books is subject to constant and often contradictory debate, and there is a good reason for that oft-repeated aphorism “Appearances can be deceiving.”

Teens’ clothes do not effect or indicate their reading habits, but those habits are prescribed by certain important factors.

Parents have a huge impact on what – or perhaps more accurately whether – teens read. Whether parents encourage or discourage, value or disparage reading for pleasure, if will have a considerable impact on their teen.

Teachers have a significant on what young people choose to read. As Saxton stated, young people will ask for books at the level of reading they liked when they last had a teacher who made reading interesting/fun. Even if the books they remember fondly are below their reading level, they will ask for those books because of their positive associations with the material.

Of course, media also effects teen reading habits. Wired teens don’t ask for books until they’re in the media. Media makes certain books or films immensely popular, but only briefly (a month or two). Teens’ interest is held for a little while “as long as it’s on TV.”

So how to we react to books that are “on TV” or capture teens’ interest but strike us as “low” or inappropriate? Megan Honig answered some of these when she talked about Why Street Lit Matters.

Adult and street lit books deal with issues we wish teens weren’t dealing with: violence, sex, homelessness. Teens enjoy the books because they are fast paced, interesting, relevant/true to their experience (OR) takes them outside of their everyday lives, and are relevant to popular culture. Teens read Street Lit for many of the following reasons:

identity affirmation
reflection of lived experiences
engagement at a safe distance
entertainment
wish fulfillment
voyeurism
risk-free thrill (“naughty” book)

Thus, although a book may not meet strict adult approval, if has the potential to hold great appeal for a teen. I have often heard librarians repeat both happiness that teens are able to find solace in books that reflect difficult or trying experiences they face and support for teens experiencing certain illegal or potentially harmful things within the safe pages of a book, rather than outside in the real world.

“Teen Readers’ Advisory Toolkit”: Matching Books to Teens

30 Mar

Some time ago I was granted the opportunity to attend the YALSA Symposium 2010. My first session of the day was Teen Readers’ Advisory Toolkit, led by Crystal Faris and Stephanie Squicciarini. Below is some of the advice I gleaned from the session. It has been slightly modified and annotated, but is mostly paraphrased from the aforementioned presentation.

Although teen users visit the libraries for myriad reasons, one of the main ones is to pick up books for reference or education. Read the below for ideas on how to become a trusted source of knowledge and recommend books to young people.

Build an active or nearby presence in the teen area of the library, but don’t be invasive. You want to make teens feel comfortable approaching you, and engaging with you even if they’re not looking for a specific material or not certain what they want. Clearly many of our libraries don’t have reference desks in the teen area, so tidying or editing books or other useful but non-invasive area maintenance may be useful. Simply looming in the area may make teens feel spied upon. If you linger nearby, teens who need help will eventually ask you for your advice.

When advising teens about their reading material, the most essential thing is to listen actively, and “with a purpose.” Be direct in vocal expression and maintain open/relaxed body language, because teens are still developing the prefrontal cortex and learning to interpret body language and facial expressions. Teens don’t just want a good listener, they want to engage in conversation, so express that you’ve heard them, and engage them with active questions. Faris and Squicciarin pointed out that when teens say “I want a book just like it” doesn’t mean “I want a book with the same plot” but one that makes them feel as intensely as the book they just finished did. They add: “Make sure you’re not just heading for the fiction section, but that you’re heading for what the teen really wants to read.”

When you do get around to recommending a book, use active, exciting and descriptive language and keywords to pique their attention (as Faris said, use “words that create active images and pictures in your mind”). This always makes me think of the film The Princess Bride, in which the grandfather (reading the story The Princess Bride to his grandson) describes the book as containing “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, [and] miracles.” I recently sold the Lord of the Rings trilogy to a tween using a similar description!

Ask teens four questions:

1) Are they looking for something specific?

2) Do they read a great deal, or not so much?

3) What was the last book or movie they enjoyed? Or: what is their favourite game? (Faris the example that teens who enjoy world-building games are more likely to enjoy SF/F books, shooter games might indicate interest in war books, action books such as Young Bond.)

4) Ask whether they’re read anything recently that they loved or hated.

Advising parents is a delicate art. One should try to speak to the teen directly (if they are present), and gauge their actual reading interests. However, it is also important to make the parent feel as though they aren’t being talked over or ignored. If the teen isn’t present, write down your contact details and tell the parent, “if these [books] don’t appeal to them, here’s my card, email or come in and I can give you some other suggestions.”

YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium 2010: Preconference

6 Nov

Today: teen services, books, heaps of swag, kind librarians, one anecdote about an addiction to the Goosebumps computer game (CD-rom).

Visual confirmation of above boasts:

Free stuff (except for the book on the bottom, second from the right)!

Proof that I am really actually truly in America (Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be precise):

BOWLING. Plus nail spa.

Proof that I am doomed to be uncool forever:

Yes, that's me with the sincere Icee bear. I LOVE YOU ICEE BEAR.

I’ve been live-updating on Twitter from all the sessions. Full length posts with gleaned info to follow!