Adult Books, Adult Themes and Teens that Read Them

Last night, I attended a Skype event at my bookstore with Richelle Mead. It was fantastic and I was able to ask many questions. The fact she wasn’t there in person might have made it easier to keep going. I could barely contain my excitement when she came in person last year. I spent most of the time trying to come up with the perfect thing to say while she read my books. “Hi, I love you,” sounds kind of creeperish, you know? I needed something with more class.

One of the best aspects of the event was the hour or so before where I was able to chat with other fans. When I come to these events, I sometimes fear it’s going to be full of tweens who have only read her young adult books. It’s so odd to me, seeing 13-year-old freaks out about the book.

Yes, Richelle Mead has earned much of her fame due to her YA series, but, if you ask me, her adult series are so much better. I particularly love Succubus Blues. Then I think about that 13-year-old again, who, like others at the event, may have traveled for a few hours just to talk to their favorite author. Does she love Richelle Mead enough to try and read ever book she ever wrote? Should a 13-year-old be reading an adult book about a succubus, however reluctant?

While I never read anything with as many sex scenes as Succubus Blues in middle school, I did read my share of adult books. I favored these big, thick volumes and all my parents had was pride. I remember one of the first times I gave my father money to buy a book for me at the store (he worked in the city, meaning he had access to a Borders or Barnes and Noble). He was beaming when he came home, talking how he had told his work buddies about this 800+ page book his tween daughter wanted him to buy. I don’t know that it ever crossed his mind that an adult book may, while being at a higher reading level, also include adult themes.

Sometimes, I felt like I was getting away with something when those scenes popped up. Also in middle school, I read a manga series about a romance between a brother and sister rebelling against God. They didn’t ask what the books were about, though, and I didn’t share. They were just thrilled I was reading so much.

Despite that, I now sit in these author events hoping the youngest there haven’t ventured to Richelle’s adult books. In my experience, parents rarely ask too much about books their kids read. I’m sure they could read all her adult books if they really wanted without any concern from their parents.

Should they be able to? A very long time ago, I wrote about how books influenced who I am today. They opened my mind to different worlds, different lives and the struggles of those different from me. I never liked cut and dry ideas of good and evil, meaning I often read books where villains had redeeming qualities and heroes had flaws. Just like that, I lost the ability to think, “gay people are the devil” even if, at the time, I thought being gay was a choice and was wrong. I lost the ability to think, “Your religion is evil, so you’re going to hell” because I understood how a faction of evil could rise in a belief founded on peace.

My ideas also shifted when it came to sex. I lost the ability to think, “you’re having sex, so you’re going to hell,” because I had fallen in love with these great characters who weren’t celibate. Of course, my evolving world views included more than just reading, but what I read did carry a lot of significance. In my 24 years, I’ve found people who read a lot tend to be more open-minded and accepting than those who don’t. I really wonder if there’s something to that? Is there something about reading many books and/or a diversity of books that makes a person more open to different people?

When it comes to sex in books, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s okay. If that 13-year-old reads all of Richelle’s young adult books and decides she wants to break into her adult books, that’s great. Maybe that’s surprising after I talked about the power of influence books have. The thing is, reading has always been the pure thing to me. When I was a teenager, no one bothered discussing the content or rating of books like they did video games and movies. All the adults were too worried about getting us to read to bother worrying about the content we were reading. As such, I was able to explore my own ideas, my own concepts of morality and ask questions of the world I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Knowing what books can hold, I’ll probably pay a little more attention to what my children choose to read when I become a parents. I don’t think I will ever be able to tell them no when it comes to books. Instead, I just want to be there to have a conversation with them about how what they read influences their ideas about the world.

Do you know of any authors who have written both adult and young adult books? Know that adult fiction often includes more mature themes, do you ever worry about young children reading them? If you knew an adult fiction book had a handful of sex scenes, would you feel comfortable with a child around 13 reading it?

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36 thoughts on “Adult Books, Adult Themes and Teens that Read Them”

  1. I think I would be a little uncomfortable letting my thirteen year old kid (if I had one, of course( read a book with sex scenes. There are certifications on films for that reason, and I think I would practice the same kind of theory.

    1. I think it’s be hard to know, unless it was clearly a smut novel. A lot of YA books have sex in them and a lot of children that young read YA. What I’ve found, though, is that YA will describe emotions and leave out most of what happens physically when clothes come off. Adult novels will often include both emotional and physical descriptions.

      I’d personally be fine with typical YA, but I would be worried about anything being too descriptive. At the same time, I love that I was unrestricted in what I read growing up. I’d hate to take that away from my own child.

  2. I think Judy Blume is a great example of a prominent YA writer who has also written adult books with adult themes. Wifey and Summer Sisters both contained plenty of sexuality. As a kid/teen I often read adult material and I was able to enjoy it without necessarily understanding it all. I don’t worry about young readers and adult themes; I think a young reader will probably just skip over something that they are too young to understand. As an adult I’m always surprised to go back to books I read as a young teen as see how much I missed! If your child is around the age of thirteen and you know they are reading a book with sex scenes or sexual content doesn’t that make for a great opportunity to engage in a conversation about sexuality?

    1. I remember the sex scene I came across reading The Wheel of Time series in middle school. The language was so…. different… from what I usually read that it didn’t really dawn on me what was happening. If someone would have asked me, I would have said the characters had sex. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how or why they had sex. If anything, it was a good experience for me. I didn’t read that book and think “To Hell these people will descend!” They were just characters, human beings who loved each other. I understood the emotional connection and impact more than anything else.

      To your final point, I think that’s why I’ll pay attention to what my kids read but I won’t restrict what they read. I just want to be aware of the ideas they are encountering so I can have an open dialogue with them about those subjects. I want to answer their questions.

    1. Yeah, I had a friend in high school who lost her virginity around 5th grade. Most children probably aren’t having sex around that age, but that’s no reason to shield them completely. I don’t know how likely it is a 13 year old will engage in sex, but they’re already engaging in sexual topics at school. All it takes is one kid talking about their sexual experience.

      I’ve seen interviews with college students where they can’t define what sex really is. The last I checked, almost 1% of all pregnant teenagers n the United States thought they were still virgins. Sex is something that should be discussed so children can make knowledgeable decisions as the topic becomes more frequent. While I wouldn’t let my child read something like a Harlequin romance, I’d probably be okay with general sexual themes. It’d make talking about sex a little less uncomfortable because I could talk about it through the actions of book characters.

  3. I was allowed to read anything I liked growing up. My mum even let me use her library ticket so I could borrow books from the adult section. I was a voracious reader so my family – especially my gran – encouraged me to read things that stretched me, expanded my knowledge, broadened my horizons. Certainly there was content that was adult but I wasn’t growing up cosseted anyway. I was that kid who tells others in the playground how babies actually get made. I don’t remember ever being shocked by adult content in a book. I remember being annoyed by sex scenes slowing the pace of a book but no confusion or titillation. Furthermore, as a teacher, I was getting kids as young as eleven to discuss what are arguably grown up themes and dark content and challenging ethics in Shakespeare plays. Maybe I’m a hypocrite or a cultural snob for this but while I largely adhere to age guidance on movies for my kids to watch (and definitely with video games) I can’t see me ever dissuading them from reading a book.

    1. I can’t see myself preventing kinds from reading any book they want to either. I might tell them not to read harlequins and books that are essentially nothing but sex to a certain age, but even that seems hard for me. I don’t think kids talk about books enough. My boyfriend has a niece who loves to read. I always try to engage her in discussion about the book and the issues it covers. I get very animated and excited when I talk about books, which I like to think makes kids see how interested I am in what they have to read.

      While my family was excited I was such a reader, rarely could I talk in depth about a book I loved with them. That’s why my book club in high school thrived, though. Everyone was heard and everyone was encouraged to be excited about what they read. I think being present and interested in what a child reads is more important than any sort of censorship.

  4. Hmm. I’ve got another 13 years or so before I need to worry about this one, but here’s how I think I’ll play it:
    I’ll try to pick up some of the same books as they’ve read after they’ve read them. Shouldn’t be too difficult, I’m going to be lending them my books, so fair is fair.
    If I find questionable gender roles I’ll have to have a talk about it with them. If it’s all vanilla stuff, equally empowered folk all having a good time, I’ll put it down as a better explanation than I’d ever want to give.
    Way to pick a tough topic! 🙂

    1. oh and this reminds me, a series of YA books I read in highschool by Tamora Pierce had some pretty dodgy stuff in them, but I didn’t even notice at the time. It was a fourteen year old wild mage girl trained by a thirty something wizard, and they get it together by the end, despite the age issue and their professional relationship(!)
      So I guess Adult Themes can slip under the radar into YA…

      1. Vampire Academy was similar in that the main relationship was between a 17-year-old student and her…. I think he was 24- years-old…. instructor. The story is way more than that, but their relationship runs in the background. There was definitely sex happening as the books went on as well. While the characters were in their late teens and early twenties, I’ve seen plenty of fans in 7th and 8th grade. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if their parents have any idea of the sexual topics their children are reading about. I don’t believe knowing about sex and how it works promotes teen sex, but enough people do that I imagine some would be surprised to see what their kids read.

  5. When I was 12, I probably didn’t really “get” the Satanic Verses, but I wanted to find out why 1/3 of the world’s population wanted this man to be murdered because of the book.
    I can’t really think of any examples of authors I’ve read who wrote YA books and then books full of sex. Ursula K LeGuin can get a bit subversive at times, though, such as mentioning in passing that this or that character is a homosexual and including *gasp* interracial couples, but any sex was never explicit.
    As for what 12-13 year olds were reading, if I were their teacher, I might mention it to the parents if I caught them reading something like The Crimson Petal and the White or to the guidance councilor if I caught them reading something like The Story of O.

    1. Richelle mead write adult fantasy first, and while they weren’t strictly romances, there was definitely detailed sex in them. Only after that did she start writing YA. Not sure I’d be okay with a 10-year-old reading her adult books, but I’d probably be okay with someone in high school reading them. I mean, it’s not like they’re promoting sex in any way.

      While I have not mentioned the books you say you’d tell parents if their kid was reading it, I’m not even sure I could go that far. Curiosity is natural. I’d try to engage them in a conversation about what they were reading first. Coming from a conservative family where there was no sex talk and sexuality was a mystery to me, I imagine a 12-year-old reading a book like that may just be trying to get some questions answered. I’d be too afraid that, by telling the parents, they’d end up like I was in high school, completely ignorant when it comes to sex.

  6. What kids are exposed to in movies and music on a daily and hourly basis, as well as what other kids are exposing them to, makes this almost a non-issue to me. To really address the issue, all of culture and society would need to “clean up its act.” That’s not going to happen. I do find it interesting though how you described your parents pride in your reading. I remember my parents, my mom in particular, objecting regularly to the music we listened to but she never objected to us reading, regardless of what we read. And my parents also had strict rules about what we watched on TV and at the movie theater. So, everything I learned about sex as a teenager I learned from the books I read.

    1. “…as well as what other kids are exposing them to, makes this almost a non-issue to me.”

      That’s the key. I mean, everything my parents tried to prevent me from listening to or watching I learned anyway through my friends. I imagine they would have probably preferred they guided how I thought about those topics on their own, but it’s too late now. I think the fact what I read wasn’t regulated made them that much more of an escape. I mean, I read a manga about a brother and sister in love while my parents debated whether I should listen to Alanis Morissette’s “I’m a Bitch.”

      (I know this because there was this corner I could sneak to where I could see the TV but my parents couldn’t see me. After they had made me go to bed, I’d sneak to the corner and watch whatever they were watching without them knowing. I distinctly remember listening to them discuss me listening to the song while watching the song play on TV)

      Whatever they were trying to protect me from, pretty sure I was exposed to it through books. The only censorship there was my own imagination.

  7. I worked on a list some of my favorite authors, and it seems I gravitate toward historical fiction with strong female main characters:
    Eva Ibbotson
    Esther Friesner
    Terry Pratchett
    Brandon Sanderson
    When I was younger, I read a bunch of the Piers Anthony, but as time went on I got more annoyed at the misogyny. Probably contributed to my liking of Robert Jordan. I don’t think I’d mind too much my teens reading things a little more “adult” oriented, just as long as it doesn’t go to extremes, reading only the naughty bits and ignoring the rest of the book or picking up a book just for the sex. That’s not reading, that’s ogling.

    1. Ah, Robert Jordan. He was huge to me when I was in middle school although I never finished The Wheel of Time series. Last year, I started reading it again so I can finally finish the series. I’m on book seven now.

      I started with historical fiction, but I find I like urban fantasy more these days. I think you’re right. When it comes to right and wrong books for teens and tweens to read, it’s more about why and how they read than the content of what they read. That’s why I always try to engage kids in a discussion about the books they read. I want them to think critically about the messages in the books.

  8. Kerstin Gier – though I was already 17 when starting to read her books. But 12 at “Bridget Jones”, 13 at first volume of the “song of ice and fire” and 14 at my first experiences with BL manga – I’m sure you heard about them. Or are they no topic an American manga/anime conventions? – About the parents thing: mine trusted me I could decide for myself whether to read a story or not, even read them themselves when what I told them sounded interesting. But I wasn’t allowed to read the crime stories by Henning Mankell and Charlotte Link either.

    1. I’m not sure if my parents were open to me reading about those topics or not. Given the way they tiptoed around the subjects, I think they would have stopped me if they knew some of the things I read. I wouldn’t even say it’s because they didn’t trust me. I think there’s just this idea that teens don’t need to know about certain subjects, as if learning about them will somehow scar them or something.

  9. I’m a fan of Mercedes Lackey. I’ve been reading her Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms Series off and on for several years. I don’t worry about young children reading mature themes because when I listen to the music they play on the radio and surf the net, I can see that what’s written in books is fairly mild in comparison. Also teens, for the most part I believe, know about sex and the like before they start reading books. For example, J learned about porn at the tender age of 5 and I learned about it at 6. My dad taped over my Pokemon VHS, I was confused/sad/angry all at once… really wanted to watch Pokemon 😦
    Sex is largely a part of our world. I’d honestly rather my child imagine a well written sex scene in their head than sit on RedTube and watch them happen due to the fact that at least with a book your get to decide how graphic you want to picture the event.

    1. Someone here said, depending on the age of the child, mature themes might just go over their heads. I mean, I remember encountering things, like porn popups I wasn’t expecting when on the web and such. I knew what it was and what it was for, but I didn’t really comprehend at that age.
      I really don’t see a problem either, but I feel like many would. For me, reading gave me such freedom, I was so unrestrained. I don’t think I could take that away from another child.

  10. The only “adult” books I read as a kid were probably classics like Wurthering Heights and Jules Verne. And anything untoward would just have gone over my head. But my parents never ever told me what I could and couldn’t read. My dad frequently read whatever I read, so I’m sure they had a good idea of what I was reading and would have started a conversation if they were concerned about something.

    1. The only thing I read that was adult in terms of sex was a romance in high school because I was curious about all the old ladies checking them out (I worked at the library). I found it very odd and I don’t think it’s a type of book I enjoy.

      Funny, though, how we are generally fine with adult themes surrounding violence, politics or culture, but God forbid there are sexual themes.

  11. Unfortunately, (well perhaps not unfortunately) most adult novels contain sexual references at some point or another. There are different levels at which it is written at well – from mild, insinuations to practically porn. We, as parents (I have a wee one at home, just learning to read) should pay attention to what literature is falling out of their backpack – well I suppose Kindle would be more appropriate now? Communication is a good thing and a book topic is a benign way to start. It will open the doors to conversations about so many things – and that is a good thing.

  12. It would depend on the book for me. Erotica, no, inappropriate. Other stuff, I probably wouldn’t care. When I was too young to really grasp what was going on, I was, well, too young to really grasp what was going on.

    Regarding books making people more empathetic towards others… I’m writing my senior thesis on the topic, so yes, I think they do. 🙂

    1. I’d like to say I’d draw the line at erotica, but when I saw all the old ladies checking out Harlequin romances in high school, I got curious and read one. It was creepy and I didn’t care for it. That said, I was 16 or so at the time. That’s far different from an 8-year-old reading that. Those are easy to catch, but then there are ones like the Succubus Blues book I mentioned. That’s not in the romance or erotica section. Those are fantasy. But maybe that’s too much thought. Really, if parents just stay in tuned with the lives of their children, they’ll know what they’re reading. I think it’s more important to engage children in a discussion about what they are reading then it is to censor their reading.

  13. When I was growing up, my parents locked down what I could watch on TV and in movies (Dirty Dancing was a no-no because “just look at the title!”). However, they never questioned the books I read. In 5th grade, I picked up The Color Purple. I kept waiting for purple to make an appearance. While I didn’t fully understand the domestic violence and sexual themes, I hated Albert, liked Shug and pulled for Celie.

    I agree with redbrickreads that what is too mature for that particular child will probably just get skipped or overlooked.

    I think books, more than movies, put you in the characters’ shoes. You learn the reasons for certain actions and, like you said, understand that not everything is black and while.

    1. My parents were similar. I remember not being allowed to listen to the Spice Girls because of reasons I don’t even know. I don’t see them as being worse than any other music group. Books was one thing I could do as much as I wanted and where no one controlled what I could and couldn’t read. People were just happy to see me reading. They could have cared less what I was reading.

      I know a lot of people who can read while being outside the book, if that makes sense. But, when I read, I quickly get absorbed into the main character. I am that character. It certainly allows me to see the world from a different perspective.

  14. Very deep topic. I love it!

    Ever read Neil Gaiman? He wrote “Coraline” and the screenplay for “Mirror Mask,” but he also writes books with definite adult themes. I assigned his “American Gods” to my intro to literature class last fall and had a student approach me to say how reading the book in class made him feel like I respected him enough to treat him like an adult.

    I feel as though my parents didn’t try too hard to censor the movies I watched and didn’t try at all to censor the books I read, and honestly I wouldn’t do any different with my kids. I don’t feel like exposure to sex or violence ruined me in any way. I don’t have a porn addiction. I can enjoy Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast as much as I can enjoy Pulp Fiction and Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical. I always advise people considering some form of censorship to think deeply about their goals in doing so. “Yes, that’s how things are traditionally done, but what do you think will actually happen to kids who are exposed to this?”

    And yes, there is a connection. Studies have shown a relationship between high-level thought processes and open-minded behavior. Reading–especially uncensored reading–is great for exposing people to the finer complexities of situations than they’d normally get associating with their (presumably) like-minded friends and family.

    Great topic!

    1. I have heard of Neil Gaiman and have seen the movie Coraline, but I don’t believe I’ve read any of his books. I’m pretty happy my parents didn’t censor my reading, but I think I would have benefited from some kind of validation or interest in what I was reading. As it was, some books dealt with topics I was afraid to ask about. I wonder, if my parents read some of those books too and instigated those difficult conversations, if there would have been any benifit.

      When it comes to my own children, assuming they arrive at some point in the future, I don’t think I’d censor them at all. I would, however, encourage them to discuss the books they read and maybe look into reading some of their books myself. I want them to have the escape of a good book and I also want them to know their ideas and questions are valid.

  15. Hi Tk, great topic, and great comments. I have been a reader right through my growing years and now have a son who turns 13 next weekend, so yes, this topic very much concerns me.
    Having enjoyed reading and learning so much from it – sex, perspectives, cultures, opinions, history – I encourage my boys to read extensively as well.

    Yes, the television is filled with fairly explicit sex scenes, schools are discussing sex in Growing up sessions, and I do believe my boy is not a naive 13 year old to be. He has heard the words, the O word, has vague ideas of homosexuality and is obviously forming his opinions.

    He does not read YA novels yet, but I guess I could start him off – coz as someone said, television just shows you the physical parts of the act; you don’t really understand the emotions involved with the act and as a mother, I think he needs to understand that.

    Why would i get him to read YA books if he has not yet discovered them? Well, I would like him to read something that is sensitive and not trashy; I would like him to know that sex is a normal healthy act; not something you indulge on the sly. I think honesty from our side as caretakers can go a long way in young people having a good opinion of sex and what it can be. If any of you wonderful people can recommend some good YA books with authors names, it would be greatly appreciated.

    Please note, we live in India, so our norms are fairly conservative as compared to other countries. Kindly recommend accordingly. Thanks for your help, and TK for the great post.

    1. I’m not sure if I know anything specific to recommend you. In my experience, YA doesn’t get too specific about sex. It’s far more about the emotions, feeling close to a person etc. etc. A lot of adult books do that too, but they also describe the act in detail.

      Personally, my favorite YA series is Vampire Academy. It deals with sex and issues of depression. Sex and romance happen, but they are far from the main plot of the story. I admit, though, I don’t know if you’d agree that the topics as discussed are mild. The best thing I think is for you to pick up a YA book. If you like it and think the topic is appropriate for your son, you can recommend it knowing you approve of the material.

  16. My mother didn’t want me to watch Harry Potter because it was demonic. I eventually did out of curiosity. I have noticed that many of us have a desire to see why something is forbidden. I now think that parents who tell their children not to watch, read, or do this or that can sometimes be making a mistake.

    I of course dislike many things in books and movies and don’t think they are a good influence, but at the same time, I come to the conclusion that I dislike something AFTER I have seen it. This is something that I think about often and wonder what is the approach I should take with all kinds of information. It also gives me more reasons to not have kids because I do worry that they will get screwed up in the head from all the violence they will see being promoted.

    1. Ii have a friend who through the Harry Potter books out because they were turning her evil. She said there were satanic symbols in them or something. Whatever. I’m just now reading through them. I’m not really impressed with them and still don’t understand the obsession. I definitely don’t see anything satanic either.

      My Catholic school would sometimes send home pamphlets about books that we shouldn’t read. The Golden Compass (which I did not enjoy as a movie) was one. They claimed the movie was a dumbed down version of the book made to get kids to ask parents to read the books to them and that, at the end of the series, the kids in the book kill God. Whatever. I was overthrowing religions in my video games and no one batted an eye. Banning books makes no sense to me. It just makes me want to read it more.

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