As my daughter entered her teen years, though, and as I began to post more and more reviews, I ran into a new problem that I think it's time to think through. What should we cautious parents do about "bibliotherapy" novels--stories that address disturbing, yet all too real, issues that affect today's teens either directly or indirectly? These include issues like rape, eating disorders, racism, sexual and gender identity crises, alcoholism, parental neglect, and many more. As much as we may want to shield our precious teens from heavy, painful issues like these, the fact is that many are experiencing them--and if they aren't, there is a good chance that they soon will, either personally or through someone they know who is struggling. What do we do when our teens want to read a YA novel that may help them process an experience or a struggle that is too heavy for them to bear alone but too embarrassing or painful to talk about with an adult?
Providing the teen with a non-fiction self-help book that dovetails with one's family values is one possible alternative, but there is at least one major problem with this idea. Fiction can often speak to us more powerfully than self-help advice books can. In fact, I contend that the power of story over lecture is the biggest reason your local bookstore carries so much more YA fiction than YA non-fiction. Walking beside a character in a story can be cathartic and therapeutic, because it doesn't teach. It illuminates and reveals truth and sparks understanding and insights in ways that self-help books simply can't.
I am thinking in particular of Laurie Halse Anderson's acclaimed novel, Speak, which is reviewed here on What's In It?. This novel draws the reader into the tortured, damaged mind of Melinda, who has descended into voluntary muteness as a way to cope with the traumatic experience of being raped by a male schoolmate. The novel is beautifully written, but it is dark and painful, not meant to provide mere entertainment. Speak is meant (I think) to enlighten those who have not suffered sexual violence and to throw a lifejacket to those who have. It has been passed around from teen to teen and used in therapy situations many times--a clear testament to the power of story to heal.
So again, what is a concerned parent to do about books like this, if we notice our teen sneaking them or even outright asking to read them? Do we keep our battle lines tightly drawn against vulgar language, violence, or whatever types of content we want our teens to avoid reading? Or are the potential therapeutic and enlightenment benefits worth pushing our rules aside temporarily? Each parent must answer that question for himself, but for me some balance makes the most sense. I have to remember that part of letting my teen grow up means loosening the reins little by little. I also have to consider my teen's general maturity and sensitivity, and then I have to weigh that against the book's content. This means that if my oldest daughter asked, I would allow her to read Speak. Her sister, however, who is less than two years younger, is highly sensitive to dark, vulgar, and sexual content and is thus in a different place than my oldest daughter. She is a different kind of person and is just not ready for Speak. Maybe next year she will be.
To some, making such concessions might be a sign of moral weakness or indecisiveness. For some parents any therapeutic value is not worth the immoral content their teen will have to read in order to experience the benefits. They might figure that the book might be considered a helpful tool, but since many have coped with disturbing issues without the help of fiction for a long time, their teen can, too. I respect this decision; for all I know these parents may be right. Maybe it is the better route to take. But as someone whose life has been powerfully affected by books, who has had my life course actually altered by books, there is a point at which I figure I need to trust my teens to choose wisely. I have to trust that I raised them well and that any specific content of concern to me, such as swearing or violence, is not going to affect them as negatively as the overall story may affect them positively. And then I must let go and remind myself that God is still walking with them, even when I am not.