Judging a Book by its Cover

July 18, 2011 by Katy Brown
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How times have changed. Just ask Elizabeth and Jessica.

A few nights ago, my family and I made an after-dinner trip to Books-A-Million (or was it Yogurt Mountain?).  We were looking for books and magazines to take on vacation — light, easy reading that we could start and finish inside of a week.  My 8-year old daughter, Ava, has become obsessed with the Disney summer movie, Lemonade Mouth, the story of a struggling garage band (want me to sing a few lines? I can, you know…).  We looked for the junior novelization of the movie, summarized books that are typically found in the children’s section housed next to all of the other popular flicks of the moment.  I looked by Harry Potter. Not there.  I looked next to Mr. Popper’ s Penguins.  Not there.  I looked by Cars 2.  Not there.  Try the Teen section, the sales associate suggested.

A little voice in the back of my head told me to go alone.  I found “Teen” behind the rows of traditional fiction/literature and next to those weird cartoon books that scare me.  Upon first scan of cover art and titles, I wondered if I had accidentally stumbled upon child porn.  Midriffs exposed, lots of string bikini-clad cliques with Cindy Crawford-toned physiques, eager boys nose to ear with coy girls.  And even with a carton of frozen yogurt in my hand — ironically called “Tart” — I broke out in a sweat (of panic…get your mind out of the gutter!).

I had enough trouble letting Ava watch Lemonade Mouth, as it falls into the same category of the High School Musical and Camp Rock genres.  She just turned 8, so I’ve been trying very hard to keep her in the stacks of Ramona Quimby and Judy Moody.  I’m not overjoyed that she’s so interested in the story of “five high school students who meet in detention and form a band to stand up for their beliefs to overcome individual and collective differences”.  But, it did promote “honesty, integrity, self-expression; emphasizing the arts and the importance of family and friendship.”  At least she wasn’t absorbing the estrogen-testosterone exchange between a varsity baskeball player and his straight-A sweetheart.  But puppy love (in the Doberman Pinscher group) paled in comparison to the hard-core teen books that I found.

Some of the titles on the “IT list of new and notable reads for kids and teens” include:

Lost Voices by Sarah Porter – Luce has had a tough life, but she reaches the depths of despair when she is assaulted and left on the cliffs outside of a grim, gray Alaskan fishing village.

Endless Summer – The Boys Next Door by Jennifer Echols — Two irresistible boys, one unforgettable summer. Lori can’t wait for her summer at the lake –including the two hotties next door. With the Vader brothers, she’s always been just one of the guys. Now that she’s turning 16, she wants to be seen as one of the girls, especially in the eyes of Sean, the older brother.

Still Sucks to be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Smith, Teen Vampire by Kimberly Pauley.  (At least this one made me laugh.  It’s a revenge-of-the-vampire-nerds type of book. No summary necessary.)

Uglies (Part I) by Scott Westerfield — Tally is about to turn 16, and she doesn’t want her driver’s license. She wants to be pretty.  But in Tally’s world, your 16th birthday brings an operation that turns you from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to have a really good time.

Arousing Love by M.H. Strom – When Zach, an 18-year old local boy meets Joanna camping near his beach it is almost love at first sight, until he finds out she’s only 15. He knows she’s too young for him but he has never felt like this about anybody before. She’s sexy and sweet and flirty and free, and the most beautiful girl Zach has ever known.

What’s next? Little Chatterley’s Lover?

I know…my blog always contains the phrases “When I was a kid,” and “When I was young,” and “I remember”.  I tend to live in the past (maybe historical romance is my style).  But, WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, Judy Blume’s books were about as controversial as one could get their hands on.  Our school librarian kept Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret under lock and key.  Deenie and Blubber shared a spot on the highest shelf, out of reach of sixth-grade girls’ grasps.

I realize that teenage girls are going to like teenage boys (or girls), and I understand that young love is a part of life.  But I can’t wrap my head around the reasons why authors want to write these types of books for kids, let alone how they find the guts to write about adult themes for a juvenile market. Call me a prude (please), but I blame these writers for today’s teenage traumas and dramas.  In many ways, these are works of fiction that double as instructional manuals on how to “get into trouble” as my mother used to say.

I walked back to the children’s fiction aisle and told Ava that I couldn’t find Lemonade Mouth, but I was certain there were chapter books in the American Girl section that she hadn’t read.  As a writer and editor, I learned that children’s literature and teen fiction are vastly different genres, just as today’s girls and boys are different from the ones I walked down the halls with at Charleston High School.  Or are they?  Has teenage life always been this way, just kept out of plain view and off store shelves? Dare I suggest that kids used to be discreet?

Either way, I send a stern warning to young adult romance publishers:  This mother is throwing a bucket of ice water on your HOT summer. Will my daughters read a dirty book before they turn 18? Probably.  But they will know that I don’t condone it, which means that you’re not getting my money or their conscience.  So chill out, dudes. Be cool. K?

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5 Responses to “Judging a Book by its Cover”

  1. Karan I.No Gravatar says:

    I have struggled with this a bit. Not in terms of teen literature, as I haven’t really gotten there yet with the kids, but in terms of: will I encourage them to do what I say or do what I did?

    When I was a kid, I read all the time. In 5th grade, I read the A Separate Peace. In sixth, I read Catcher in the Rye; Gone with the Wind; the Godfather; etc. I was past Judy Blume by then (except for reading the racy parts of Wifey).

    Even though the books I mentioned there are basically adult books, I was reading young adult fiction that had more mature themes. Who didn’t love the Outsiders? I read all of Lois Duncan’s books. All of the Sweet Valley High series. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They weren’t necessarily books about hot-and-bothered teens- sometimes the conflicts were much darker. I read Lois Duncan books obsessively and, in retrospect, I wonder how I slept at night- some of them were that creepy.

    Anyway, I’m pretty much of the mind that reading is good. Period. I know that’s way too simplistic a statement and that I will need to monitor books the way that I do TV shows, movies, and video games. But, it doesn’t feel right at all. If there were a movement afoot to rate books like movies, I’d be whole-heartedly against it. Some of my favorite books have been banned, after all, and that makes me nervous.

    Anyway, interesting topic. I didn’t even get to get into the whole “art imitating life” thing. I think teenagers are hot-and-bothered BEFORE they get to reading about it. I agree that children are exposed to sex too early, but I can’t help thinking the young adult literary market isn’t where to lay most of the blame.

  2. Karan I.No Gravatar says:

    Also, I see typos and places where I repeated myself. I’m not fixing them, but I’m pointing it out so that I can’t be accused of ruining the English language via newspaper blog.

  3. Katy kNo Gravatar says:

    I agree that reading is critical. I just want more for them; something better. I want them to value other things. Not all books and writers are “bad” — nor are the kids who read them and the parents who buy them. I just don’t want my girls to grow up too fast.

    When I was in 9th grade, I used to sneak my kom’s Danielle Steel books to school. Innocent? Hardly. I knew those books weren’t meant for me, but I was curious. Did I turn out OK? I think so! I just dread what’s ahead of me as a parent…when all hormone breaks loose.

  4. KatyNo Gravatar says:

    Typo…my mom’s Danielle Steel books.

    Writing on an iPhone at the beach!

  5. KatyNo Gravatar says:

    But, I still hold steady on my viewpoint that most influences start with a written word. TV shows start with a script, Movies start with a screenplay, magazines have articles, ads have copy, music has lyrics. Even Facebook starts with a comment. What fills kids’ heads should be monitored — not banned. I’m just suggesting that patents need to be aware, because I got a shock…and I’m a reader.

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