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Younger Readers Face New Adventures in Censorship

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Since Judy Blume began writing frankly sexual books for young adults in the 1970s, the YA category has come of age and moved on to increasingly harsh and sophisticated topics amid persistent efforts to censor what female teens read.

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Bras and Broomsticks

(WOMENSENEWS)--"Sybil Davis has a genius IQ and has been laid at least six times," goes the first line of the first ever Young Adult novel to contain an explicit sex scene.

The novel, "Forever," was published in 1975, and last year its author Judy Blume became the fifth woman and first author of Young Adult literature to receive The National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Since then, YA writers who admire and emulate Blume as the "mother of chick lit" have been savoring the prize--after Blume's more than 30 years of writing and sale of 75 million books worldwide--as an overdue celebration of their literary niche.

"This means realistic portrayals of girls trying to make sense of and find their place in the world have been ordained 'real literature,'" says Sarah Mlynowski. "About time, no?"

Mlynowski's own YA novel, "Bras and Broomsticks," came out in February and is about a female teen whose younger sister wakes up as a witch one day. The author says the book was inspired by her simultaneously proud and envy-filled relationship with her own baby sister.

"Blume is the one we all grew up reading and she's the one who helped shape our consciousness," Mlynowski says.

Stories about Girls Growing Up

Blume, who wrote "Forever" after her daughter "asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die," is known for her unflinching, intimate portrayals of young girls and women growing up in the U.S. suburbs.

Exploring such issues as first-time menstruation, divorce and family tragedy, her books are viewed as a rite of passage for young women entering and in the midst of adolescence.



A Selection of Controversial Young Adult Books

(WOMENSENEWS)--Young Adult literature has a long history of being controversial.

The following is a dateline of some of the important novels and series that offered dynamic female characters who challenged and diversified the fictional accounts of female experience.

It has been compiled through information from various sources including the Young Adult Library Services Association, VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates), the Tennessee Library Association, and publications of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota.

1868: "Little Women," by Louisa May Alcott

1930: "Nancy Drew Girl Detective" series debuts, penned by Carolyn Keene, a pseudonym for the writer and poet Mildred Wirt.

1936: "Sue Barton, Student Nurse," by Helen Boylston (some argue it's the first YA novel.)

1942: "Seventeenth Summer," by Maureen Daly

1943: "The Cherry Ames" series, by Helen Wells and Julie Tatham

1973: "Girls Can Be Anything," by Norma Klein, Roy Doty

1948: "Trixie Belden" series, by Kathryn Kenny (pseudonym)

1948: "Connie Blair" series, by Betty Cavanna

1967: "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton

1970: "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret," by Judy Blume

1971: "Go Ask Alice," by Anonymous

1972: "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack," by M.E Kerr

1973: "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich," by Alice Childress

1974: "The Chocolate War," by Robert Cormier

1975: "Forever," by Judy Blume

1977: "Bridge to Terabithia," by Katherine Paterson

1978: "Love Is One Of The Choices," by Norma Klein

1982: "Annie On My Mind," by Nancy Garden

1983: "Sweet Valley High" series debuts by Francine Pascal

1983: "Alanna: The First Adventure," by Tamora Pierce

1985: "Alice" series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

1992: "Bastard Out of Carolina," by Dorothy Allison

1997: "Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes," by Chris Crutcher

2000: "Life Is Funny," by E.R Frank

2001: "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," by Ann Brashares

2002: "Gossip Girl" series, by Cecily Von Ziegesar, debuts

2003: "One Hundred Demons," by Lynda Barry

2003: "Wonder When You'll Miss Me," by Amanda Davis

2004: "The Garden," by Elsie V. Aidinoff

2005: "Nancy Drew 'All New' Girl Detective" series, by Carolyn Keene




The National Book Foundation's award--which recognizes a lifetime of achievement and in previous years has been given to such prominent writers as Stephen King, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison--has prompted a mixture of excitement and curiosity within the community of Young Adult writers and publishers.

It comes at a critical time for YA, enjoying new acceptance by the mainstream literary world and receiving what some say is the increasing threat of censorship.

"I am thrilled," says Blume's publisher Beverly Horowitz at Random House. "It is a concrete way to show respect to our beloved author who has been a kid favorite for many years."

Praise for a Ground-Breaker

"I think it's absolutely wonderful, and well deserved," says author Tamora Pierce who writes YA fantasy and science-fiction novels with female heroines. "Judy has been such a ground breaker for YA writers in general, and for writers of books about girls in particular."

For Pierce, who lives in Manhattan and grew up reading YA when it was dominated by male writers and protagonists, Blume's work was a break-through.

Teens losing their virginity and pre-teens worrying about the size of their breasts, as Blume's characters did in the 1970s and 1980s--with lots of surrounding controversy
--is tame stuff compared with today's YA fare, which delves into drugs, homosexuality, self-mutilation, sexual and physical abuse and suicide.

Popular among today's teens are Cecily Von Ziegesar's the "Gossip Girl," an updated version of the "Sweet Valley High" series, those upbeat tales most popular in the 1980s of blond, blue-eyed twin sisters who vie to be named queen of the school dance and inhabit the fictional world of Sweet Valley, Calif., with its perfect lawns and pretty houses. Characters in "The Gossip Girl," by contrast, live in wealthy New York, some of them smoke and shave their hair, some lose their virginity and talk about how horny they are.

"These girls could have written 'Sex in the City' with their eyes closed," reads the blurb on the back of the books.

Female teens are also gobbling up the so-called crossover novels: books written for adults but being read by--and marketed to--young women. These include Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," Jodi Picault's "My Sister's Keeper," and Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina," all of which describe sexual and physical violence in graphic detail.

In a cross current, writers of YA literature also face a resurgence of the general censorship war that reached its latest peak in the 1980s.

Barbara Feinberg, a mother of two, who has written about what she calls "problem novels," likens books in which teen protagonists experience depressing and sometimes extreme life situations as "a good beating" for teen readers.

Trickster's Queen

In last year's "Welcome to the Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir," Feinberg argues against several YA novels, making waves to have two books in particular struck from as many reading lists as possible. They are Sharon Creech's "Walk Two Moons," about a 13-year old daughter dealing with the disappearance of her mother and Karen Hesse's "Phoenix Rising," in which a female teen girl's parentless world is rocked by an accident at a nearby nuclear plant.

In December a group of parents in Georgetown, S.C., successfully lobbied to have Chris Crutcher's "Whale Talk"--about a male 17-year-old who confronts his multicultural heritage--banned from high school suggested-reading lists approved by schools and the state's school board. The author's other books that concern homosexuality and parental sexual abuse have also been struck from reading lists.

Most of Blume's books have routinely made it on to the American Library Association's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books lists, which are compiled by decade. (The ALA defines a challenge as "an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.")

No. 1 on this list is another YA book, Alvin Schwartz' "Scary Stories" series. Other YA novels also dominate the list. The "Harry Potter" series, Leslea Newman's "Heather Has Two Mummies," and that YA classic "A Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Paterson, about a male and female grade school students creating their own imaginary world (a staple on fifth-grade reading lists since it came out in 1977).

Dr. Michael Cart an author and specialist in Young Adult literature at University of California, Los Angeles, attributes the current fight against the portrayal of sex and violence in YA literature to the "rise of the fundamentalist/evangelical movements."

"I would say it's even worse now," he says, referring to censorship efforts aimed at YA books.

Blume has told journalists: "It's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. As always, young readers will be the real losers."

Emma Pearse has written for the Village Voice, ArtReview, Time Out New York and Bitch magazine. She currently lives in Berlin, where she is the books editor for the English-language magazine, ExBerliner.

 
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