A literary award sparked debate on suitable content for young adults. We asked two Atlantic Canadian book industry insiders to weigh-in
In November 2014, When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid (Arsenal Pulp Press) was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s text. Some critics have called the book vulgar, with “gratuitous graphic language and imagery” (Quill and Quire). An online petition with over 1,800 signatures requests “that the Canada Council for the Arts revoke the Governor General’s Award for literature from Raziel Reid… given the offensive and graphic nature of the words and images used.” The Canada Council, which adjudicates the award, says they stand by their decision and will not revoke the award.
The coming of age story is about a flamboyant, fashion-loving transgender teen named Jude, trying to cope with school. It’s one of five novels that will be featured on CBC’s Canada Reads debate March 16-19, discussing books that break barriers. There’s no question that the book sparked debate on what content should be considered suitable for ‘young adults’. But when the industry standards classify young adult as ranging from 12-18, there’s no easy answer.
“We do discern between books for young readers and young adults,” says Rebecca Rose, president of St. John’s-based Breakwater Books. “Young reader titles are typically aimed at audiences in both elementary and junior high school, and we consider young adult titles to be aimed at high school audiences upward to adults. But there’s a lot of crossover between all of these categories, and it’s not easy, nor do we want, to limit any particular title to just one classification.”
But is there a place for so-called ‘adult topics’ in young adult literature? “Where better a place?” asks Rose. “Young adults are on their way to adulthood, and in this day and age, I think they have more access to information and, let’s be honest, misinformation about adult topics via the Internet. Shouldn’t we be offering them great literature that reflects their realities, with emotional depth and characters and stories they can empathise with and actually learn from? It doesn’t make sense to me to want to ‘dumb down’ adult content or censor what some consider offensive language. I think that would be a disservice to today’s youth. We publish YA fiction, but we’re in the reality business.”
In terms of handling the treatment of adult topics in young adult books, Rose says it’s about the integrity of the story. “If it’s the truth, if it honestly reflects the real world, then we don’t interfere with the way an author writes about a particular topic. If young adults don’t relate to a character or a story, if they can’t hear the echo of their own lives, then they’ll put the book down. While there are no easy answers to these complex issues and topics, we hope our books can at least offer our readers some guidance and comfort in the knowledge that they’re not alone.”
In 2014, Breakwater Books published Queer Monologues: Stories of LGBT Youth, a collection by queer youth sharing their personal stories. “Publishing the book was an opportunity to grant those who sometimes feel silenced a chance to be heard,” says Rose. “We didn’t censor the book at all. Staying true to the authentic voices of our contributors and their real-life experiences was far more important to us.”
Queer Monologues was produced by For the Love of Learning, an arts-based charitable organization for young people between the ages of 15 and 30 who are facing socio-economic obstacles.
“We work with young people to build their self-esteem and we use projects that involve the art community in the city to reach out to those youth,” says executive director Gemma Hickey, who absolutely believes there is a place for adult content in YA literature. “I think it’s important to educate young people and make them more aware as to the issues that are affecting their peers and even themselves in some cases.”
Rose says it was easy for Breakwater to categorize the book for a young adult audience because it was written by young adults. “I think adults should read it too,” says Rose. “Maybe some will find it offensive or graphic, but those superficial reactions won’t make the stories any less true. We should all read these YA titles, not in an effort to censor or hide things from young adults but to actually become aware of the realities they face.”
Off the shelf
When Reid’s book was initially presented to Woozles Children’s Bookstore in Halifax, NS—the oldest children’s bookstore in the country—they decided not to carry it. “We have a lot of books that deal with LGBTQ issues, that fit with what we tend to carry and what we know that people tend to look for here,” says Lisa Doucet, the bookstore’s co-manager. “With that particular title, we were advised this would definitely be for a more mature audience. We have others that fill that role for us, so we just chose to avoid it.”
Then it won the Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s text. “We thought, that’s kind of a mark of being appropriate for YA, given the category in which it won, and there will likely be people looking for it,” says Doucet. Woozles brought in a couple of copies but since reading the book, Doucet says they will now only be taking special orders.
“Having read it I really feel that it would be a book that we would all be uncomfortable selling,” says Doucet. “I would want all the staff to read it, or I would brief them on it and we would make sure that every person who brought it to the cash were well aware of what they were getting. And that feels like a lot of pressure. To have a book like that on the shelf, that you’re concerned would create alarm for a large percentage of people who shop in our store.”
Doucet says she is not making any judgments on whether or not the book should be carried in a general bookstore or the library. “But we are a children’s bookstore and even just by virtue of stocking the book, it’s us giving our seal of approval, in a sense.” She says while they are happy to special order anything for anyone, they have to make choices about what goes on the shelf.
Extreme sexual content, and excessive and unnecessary violence in a book might make them decide that it’s too much. “There definitely are many solidly YA books that are clearly written for a teen audience that feature more sex than a lot of adult books do, so it’s not necessarily that that will eliminate it as a contender for being on the shelf,” says Doucet. “We certainly want to be aware and know how gratuitous is it. Is it really necessary for the book, for the plot, for what they are trying to achieve in that book, or is it really for shock value? That certainly is a major consideration.”
Like Breakwater Books, Woozles have arranged their categories differently than the industry-wide standard. “We made a deliberate choice because we do feel a huge responsibility to our customers and generally speaking, industry wide, when people refer to YA they define it as being for ages 12 and up. There is a huge difference between what 12-year-olds are reading and what 18-year-olds are reading,” says Doucet. She explains it doesn’t mean that readers don’t read in between the categories, but they’ve structured the shelves according to grade level and approach age groups by dividing novels into elementary fiction (ages 8-11), middle fiction (ages 11-14) for middle and junior high grades and YA (ages 14 and up) for high school.
They also carry a separate shelf of carefully handpicked adult books selected for high school readers, books chosen because there is strong interest, a subject or a character at a time in their lives that speak to teen readers.
As for Reid’s book, “having read it, I do think that there are some exquisite passages,” says Doucet. “I think he is a beautiful writer and on a personal level I would actually be very interested to read other things that he has written. I think he has a real gift with language and many of the passages have beautiful imagery, beautiful turns of phrase so I can see it from that angle.”
Doucet is curious to know what exactly the criteria are in terms of age for the Governor General’s award for children’s text. “I would be surprised that it would even be considered for an award that would be for anything under, say, 15 or 16. As with any time a book wins an award, I see that this one tackles a certain issue that anyone reading the book would feel very important but I do also feel that there are lots of other solidly YA titles that tackle the same issue and definitely in less controversial ways.”
Rebecca Rose thinks the controversy is wonderful. “It’s drawing more attention to the real issues young adults face, and to the book and its author. Raziel Reid and his publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, deserve every award and prize this country’s literary community can throw at them. It’s as simple as this—good books incite conversation and debate. And good writers tell stories that need to be told. Rather than attack books that reveal difficult truths, I think our time as a community would be better spent fighting the violence and homophobia that made Reid’s book necessary in the first place.”
Top photo from Arsenault Pulp Press. Credit: Evan Eisenstadt