Guidance for Reviewing Young Adult Literature

September 23, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Posted in Books, Reading | 15 Comments
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I still remember the day that I left Young Adult literature behind for good.  I was in the 8th grade and looking forward to high school when I found a booklet at the library that listed the 101 books that every high school student should read before college.  I don’t remember what books were on that list, but I decided that because I needed to prepare myself that I was too old to read anything childish any longer.  Goodbye, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, and Girl of the Limberlost.  Hello, Catch 22, All Quite on the Western Front, and Jackie Collins (Mom, if you’re reading this, “Junk in, junk out.”  I know…  Sorry!).

Fast forward 24 years (yikes!) and I have finally returned to the world of YA literature.  I finished Sisters of Misery by Megan Kelly Hall last week.  Suffice to say, times and standards have changed since 1984.  As I mentioned in my Sunday Salon post, there were quite a few references to drugs, smoking, sex, rape and attempted gang rape.  Also, the word c*nt is used.  As an adult, I was fine with all of those things (with the exception of my least favorite word) and really enjoyed the book.

When writing my review, I feel like I should look at it form the YA angle because that is the target audience.  My question for those of you who have more experience reading and reviewing YA fiction: are there any content boundaries or standards for YA fiction similar to movie ratings?  If not, how do you define yours?  I would really appreciate some feedback on the YA fiction of today.  I would hate to write a review making note of content that would be considered standard.  Likewise, I don’t want to leave it out and have people wished I had given them advance notice.


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  1. I have been out of the YA world for a long time and I have to admit I was shocked by the references you noted.
    The Girl in the Limberlost would not have prepared me for this. I had to go back and double check that it was listed as YA.

  2. You know, I don’t care if it’s considered standard or not because their standard might not be my standard. If I find the language or content offensive to me I usually mention it in my reviews. It is sad, but our society has gotten a lot more vulgar and with that comes the freedom to get away with just about anything in literature. It’s no surprise to me that what would have not been acceptable 50 years ago is even given a second glance today.
    I really didn’t start thinking about this at all until I the c word was used. It made “sense” in the context, but the context was very dark. I wonder if there was darker YA fiction out during my youth and I just never found it – or it wasn’t at my public library?

  3. I wrote a review not long ago for a book about teenage vampires that was overflowing with four letter words and discussions of sex and drugs (having sex in public bathrooms, getting stoned drinking blood laced with cocaine, etc). While the story wasn’t bad, the content was shocking to me (considering the intended audience). I mentioned it in my review. I wasn’t saying that it should be removed, but I think menioning that you’re surprised by the content is totally appropriate. I don’t know about making moral judgments in a review, but I think part of what a review should include is a discussion of the type of content. I think that’s true for adult books just as much as YA and children’s books. I don’t want to get blindsided by a book that has loads of x-rated content, any more than I’d want that for my children.
    In this book the sex was alluded to. It wasn’t described in detail. Even the rape that occurred and the gang rape that was planned weren’t noted in any detail. I like your approach of stating what surprised me.

  4. I have to confess that until recently I have no idea what “YA” is. Isn’t that funny? I went as far as looking it up in the dictionary!

    I have a book from this category in line, called The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

    While I encourage students to read classics, I think a update/modification to the high school reading list is overdue. Moby Dick should be removed from it!
    I’m with you about Moby Dick! I absolutely hated every moment of that book. My husband loves it. I think he needs counseling, don’t you? 😉

  5. I review a fair amount of YA lit and I typically don’t make a lot of reference to graphic content, mostly because a) it doesn’t bother me personally, and b) it’s typically within the bounds of what I think teenagers can handle. I think the only time I’d really mention it is if it seemed really inappropriate for the writing level… if the book was really sex-and-violence heavy but was geared for middle-grade readers, for instance. But, I think most 15-18 year olds are capable of handling “mature” stuff and reading “adult” books, so when some adult stuff shows up in teen literature, it’s not such a big deal for me. I mean, I was reading Anne Rice, Jean Auel, Michael Crichton, etc. by the time I was 14, and I think I turned out okay.

    There are other things – like misogyny and the tacit acceptance of emotional abuse – that bother me a lot more in YA literature… I don’t think anyone under 16 should read the Twilight series without a parent sitting down with them and being like “you get why this is Not Okay, right?” So my opinions should probably be taken with that grain of salt.
    I guess that since I read Jackie Collins in the 8th grade that a teenager could very well handle Sisters of Misery. 🙂 This is the first I realized that the Twilight series was YA! I had no idea!

  6. I don’t review YA books on my blog (except for the Twilight series), and I probably won’t start anytime soon, but I do deal with parents and teachers of young adults all the time at work, and we spend a lot of time talking about contemporary YA books and content appropriateness. I was an advanced reader and didn’t mind adult content (and my parents encouraged me to discuss what I was reading and ask any questions it raised), so I’m OK with a lot of content, but it’s rare that I know about a client or teacher’s personal values, so I don’t assume that anything is OK.

    I always mention sexual content or innuendo, drug/alcohol abuse, violence, coarse language, and any thematic issues that can be considered difficult (death, sexual/emotional/physical abuse, etc,). I also think about whether or not I would want my teenage child to read the book, and at what age it would be OK…and when I talk about that, I say something like, “I tend to be pretty liberal about literature, and it’s a great way to foster discussion, but I don’t think I’d want my child to read this before the age of XYZ.” I also talk about whether the characters are good role models, particularly if we’re looking at female characters.

    Of course, the best thing is for parents who are really concerned to read the books with their kids and have their own mini-book groups to discuss the issues.

    Re: previous comments: I didn’t like the Twilight series, but I was OK with content and thought it was YA appropriate up until Breaking Dawn, which was too sexy for teens.
    I am very liberal about books, too. I like that approach. This is definitely not a tween level book, but once a kid is in high school, it would probably be okay. The c word just throws me. I was well into college before I ever heard that word. I would hope that my daughters would never hear that word, but that’s just living in a fantasy…

  7. I agree with all the others. I haven’t read a lot of YA books, but whatever I have were nice with a little bit of words thrown in. Considering what kids today read, watch and experience, this should have been okay. But it’s not. Society mimics movies, in a similar way, kids who read might want to reflect what they read.

  8. I was an English teacher (I lasted a pitiful four years), but one of my favorite parts of the job was reading all the YA/teen books. I tend to think of YA being meant for (roughly) 10-14 year olds, and books meant for teens seem to me wrongly classified if they’re shelved under YA.

    I review teen/YA books because I enjoy them, and because I like to think that some of my former colleagues check out my blog (because it was for them that I initially started it–they wanted to know what I was reading). I try to look at the book from both perspectives: adult & teen. I know there are plenty of books I would’ve liked as a teen that I don’t now.

    And language… well, to me it makes a difference how it’s used. If it’s how that character would realistically use language, I can’t discredit that. (Chris Crutcher, a frequently censored author who’s a fave of mine, has a lot of ideas about this; check out his website:

  9. This is an interesting discussion. Great questions, Jennifer.

    What ages exactly does YA encompass? In the past few years I’ve read quite a few books with my daughter, who is now 14, that I considered YA.

    They have been the nominees for the Mark Twain Award sponsored by the Missouri Association of School Librarians and read by students in 4-8 grade.

    I would have been shocked to find the sexual content or language in any of them (there wasn’t BTW.)

    On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it appearing in a book directed to older teens.

    Rebecca, I totally agree with what you said about having a dialogue with your kids about what they’ve read. I did that with Twilight. I actually read it before my daughter just to know what was there and then we discussed it as she read it and it was quite enjoyable.

    She is now reading New Moon ahead of me, since I know what to expect from Meyer, and I miss the discussion!

  10. I struggle with the YA boundaries too. I actually read a good deal of YA lit. When I review YA books on my blog, I give my honest reaction to it, as an adult.

    I think a lot of the problem comes from trying to define what YA lit is. There’s just too much of a spectrum. The best I can come up with is to treat “YA books” just like any other books and to perhaps flag things like sex and swearing so readers can make their own decisions.

  11. This is wierd, because I just read on Julie’s (Bookworm) site about how “The Catcher in the Rye” is too dated for high school English these days. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. As an adult, graphic words and imagery don’t matter to me, but as a parent and occassional teacher, things like rape and incest and stuff might make me think twice about allowing teens to read some of these new YA novels. Then again, I’m a librarian and libertarian, so I don’t agree with any type of censorship. I don’t know–really. I’m glad I’ll (hopefully) never be faced with this dilemma.

  12. As an English teacher for 9th -12th grade I have experienced the same dilemma that you find yourself in. I have parents asking me if I think certain books will be okay for their freshman daughter. I have found that in the case of young literature, it is best to be straightforward in regards to , , etc. Although there are often references to these things in YA literature, it is better to be safe than sorry. I use a rating system simalar to the movie rating system on my reviews and in my classroom. You can check it out at
    I have had many, many parents tell me that they appreciate the fact that I use a rating system.

  13. I thought I was the only one wondering about this. I just finished Towel Head by Alicia Erian. The author didn’t write it as a YA book but it’s won awards in that category. It also earned some praise/(awards, too?) from fans of erotica. I think the book would have been too much for me at age 14 or 15, but I hate to admit that teens these days (boy, I sound old at age 41!) are exposed to more. I wish there was some conclusive study that says “this is what reading about sex and violence and drugs does to a young mind.” Of course, when my kids get to be teens I’ll encourage them to talk to me about what they read but who knows if they will.

  14. […] with the content, but there were sexual situations, hints of sexual violence, and language that took me by surprise given the intended audience.  Much has changed since I last read a Young Adult novel.  I would […]

  15. […] with the content, but there were sexual situations, hints of sexual violence, and language that took me by surprise given the intended audience.  Much has changed since I last read a Young Adult novel.  I would […]

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