Bad Books for Kids by David Mills

Bad Books for Kids

A Guide to the World of Youth Literature & What You Can Do About It

by David Mills

You may be surprised, if you don’t keep up on these things, and few of us have any reason to, how tawdry and sometimes depraved are the kinds of books being offered to teenagers by the major publishers and bookstores, and even the schools. This is true especially of the books supposed in some way to describe “real life.”

Before I came across a short essay on what’s called “young adult literature” a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine that the books were more than mildly offensive, with a few news-making exceptions. (The popular Face on the Milk Carton describes the main character’s increasing intimacy with her boyfriend, utterly unnecessary to the story, with lines like “She could touch him in places she had never touched another human being.”) I was shocked, and I think of myself as someone who is not easily shocked, by the evidence of commercial depravity.

And these books sell in huge numbers, mostly, judging from the books on the tables at our local chain bookstore, to girls. So many books read by so many will have their effect, and it is not likely to be good.

I went to Barnes & Noble one evening to look at what they offered, and particularly what they were pushing by setting out on the tables in the central aisle, tables you have to pass to get to the children’s section at the back of the store. Of the fifty or sixty books on the two tables, none were overtly Christian and, as far as I could tell, none were implicitly Christian either.

There were no classics, not even modern classics like The Diary of Anne Frank or Animal Farm. The books were all fiction. There were no true-life stories, biographies, autobiographies (though most of the books I looked at were narrated as if they were autobiographies), histories, not even any sports stories.

They were mostly “problem books,” the problems usually being the typical teenage struggles with boyfriends or girlfriends or the lack thereof, cruel teachers, clueless parents, vicious peers, bad skin, bad hair, fat thighs, insecurity, and fear, though they are sometimes serious problems like sexual abuse and drug addiction. A few of the books are obviously “realistic,” of the sort whose cover copy emphasizes the problem it describes, and perhaps uses the words “realistic” or “gritty,” the rest more obviously fictional and apparently lighter.

About one-quarter dealt with supernatural subjects, especially vampires. Of the several hundred books on the shelves, from one-third to almost one-half had supernatural subjects, vampires dominating. Only a few of these were traditional fantasy stories.

“Real Life” Stories

I picked up a representative selection of the books intended to reflect “real life” and found a chair. The twelve books were a mixed bag, morally and otherwise. You could find something to enjoy and some lesson of value in almost all of them, but also something that undermines moral clarity and promotes one or more of several popular sins. They are not all simple-minded celebrations of hedonism, because often the real “real world” intrudes.

David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

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