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As a parent of a child in their early teens I like to keep my eye on the ball when it comes to what they are reading.

There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, some of our best living authors are working in the YA (Young Adult) or teen market at the moment, and I don’t see why children should have them all to themselves.

Secondly, it gives me a good platform for recommendations for children in KS2 primary who have exhausted our library and whose reading age and comprehension demand more meaty material.

Thirdly, it allows me to vet some of the material that my oldest daughter is reading, and if necessary discuss the issues that some of the books bring up with her.  I have never taken books away from her, but there have been times when I have sat down with her to discuss issues that crop up in books that she is reading to make sure that she is comfortable with what she is reading, that her comprehension is up to the material, and that she is not upset by some of the more graphic material she encounters.

This third point is quite important when it comes to Y/A or teen fiction.

Times have moved on apace for children’s literature and we are no longer in the halcyon days of the Fifties where everyone was good and wholesome and the most dangerous thing anyone did in a children’s book was accept a dinner invitation from a cad and have to run away before things got too heavy.

Y/A fiction spans an enormous age range, from about the age of 12 to 20.  What we read as twelve year olds is not necessarily what we would want to read as 20 year olds, and herein lies the difficulty.

Book shops tend to lump Y/A fiction into either the generic ‘Teen’ shelves or specify an age range from about 13-16.  Within this I have seen books like classics such as Watership Down or Jane Eyre alongside books like Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill, which is a contemporary novel about teenage lesbianism.

It seems, in today’s society, that we have accepted that children grow up fast, and that when they hit their teens there is no subject that is off limits to them.

The problem is that not all parents are comfortable with exposing their children to whatever falls within the Y/A category. Not all children are entirely happy with what they are being offered either. One child in school recently complained that the boys books he was being offered were too violent for his tastes, and the girls books were too girly.  Finding the right book for the right child, particularly at this age can be a bit of a minefield. Particularly when it is currently popular for publishers to promote and publish teen authors who are more adult in their content and approach.

This is probably due to market forces, as it gives these authors’ books what is called ‘crossover’ appeal. Simply put this means that I, as an adult would be as happy to read them as a younger person.  Authors like Philip Pullman and Patrick Ness are good examples of this, and there is an increasing amount of cross pollination going on between the Y/A and adult market.

A few examples of the kind of books that are currently available under the ‘Teen Fiction’ banner:

Ground breaking authors like Melvin Burgess write about teenage heroin addiction in Junk, or burgeoning sexual appetite in Lady: My Life as a Bitch.

Political authors like Beverley Naidoo write about the plight of refugee children living on the streets in The Other Side of Truth.

New authors like Andy Mulligan in his debut novel Trash, explore the brutal life of a child living on the rubbish dump slums of Manila, persecuted and tortured by a corrupt police force for information.

Add to that the proliferation of novels for teenage girls revolving around heroines who are just waking up to and exploring their sexuality, and the absolute onslaught of horror and fantasy novels which have flooded the teen market since the success of Twilight, and it is clear that the world of teenage fiction spans an enormous range of interests, not of all which are compatible with what you as a parent or educator may be comfortable with.

Usually you can be reasonably sure of the kind of content from reading the synopsis, or dipping in and out of the book when you browse it in a bookshop or library.  Other times, troubling material is not so clear.  Recently in our primary school we were researching texts on the Tudors for a year 5/6 topic.  We wanted fiction books, but which had enough fact and colour in them to educate as well as entertain.

The difficulty here is that the realities of Tudor life are not always compatible with the sensibilities of modern life.  One of the books we looked at, for example, has a scene showing the hero attending a bear baiting in which the bear is vividly described killing dogs which were attacking it.  These things happened in Tudor times and were commonplace.  These days, reading something this brutal to children aged 10 and 11 might be too upsetting for them.  You, as an educator or parent can make this call if you know in advance what will happen, and you can decide clearly whether you want to include the book/material or whether you will work round the problem, or whether you will move on to something else.

Inappropriate material does not always mean that the  book has to be abandoned. If you know already that you want to use a book because it is particularly engaging or useful for a topic you want to teach/discuss, you can always prepare sections of the book you want children to read rather than handing them the entire novel. You can read aloud to them and ‘edit out’ difficult sections.  You can cherry pick how you want to present the material.  You can include the material, but pre warn parents and give them an opt out for their children during that particular lesson/section. You can put things in context for children.

Sometimes the most difficult material in terms of propriety leads to the most powerful discussions/lessons with children.  The bear baiting material for example would make a very interesting lesson on animal cruelty and how society has changed over the past four hundred years.

Pointing out the pitfalls in allowing younger teens free range over the entire Y/A, teen fiction section in a book shop or library doesn’t mean that I believe that children shouldn’t be given these books, or exposed to this kind of material.  I am merely pointing out that when it comes to this area of literature, forewarned is forearmed, and it may help you as a parent or educator if you are more aware of what your child/children are reading.