In recent years, a local woman has protested the content of the books in the young adult room of our library. She wrote letters to the editor of our local paper, posted endlessly on the online newspaper forums, held protest rallies in front of the library, called the local radio station’s talk show, and attended library board meetings. She went on to protest similarly at other libraries in the state. While I would agree with any parent who guided their child or teen to what they consider appropriate reading material and would be happy to help them find those books, her position was that no teen should read the books she found inappropriate. Among others, these books included any book with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters; books about witchcraft or New Age religions (such as Conversations with God for Teens); and any references to sex in fiction or nonfiction that didn’t include marriage as a prerequisite. She believed teens should not be exposed to these topics until they were adults.
As strongly as I feel about teens’ right to read what they need and want to read, I found myself second-guessing my selections for a while. My director was feeling the same way, and, even though she trusted my judgment, she would ask me questions now and then when she was hammered with accusatory e-mails from our protester. Forming the answers to support and defend the books on our shelves helped me find my footing again. The only real change I made was to be sure to select more titles with for parents and teens with more conservative reading tastes. The end result was a positive one because our collection is more complete and reflects more aspects of our community.
A few months ago I read this quote, attributed to Josh Westbrook, on a YALSA discussion list: “Teens are living stories every day that we wouldn’t let them read.” While I don’t know the context of his statement, this quote resonates with my views on what we see in realistic teen lit today. As many of you have in your teen audiences, I work with teens who have been molested, have a parent in jail, have been removed from their homes and put in foster care or group homes, have experienced drugs, alcohol, gang violence, self-mutilation, risky sex, bullying, and so on. These teen readers— and I wish more of them were readers—can find hope, direction, healing, understanding, and peace in reading about characters much like themselves. It can be a challenge to connect teens engaging in risky behaviors to books, but books with characters they can relate to is a step in the right direction. I also have teens who have experienced none of these things firsthand—and hopefully won’t. But reading about characters who have had these experiences may help readers develop empathy for their classmates and friends who have—and may lead them to better help a friend. The books with riskier characters allow teens to safely experiment and experience through the characters, and these books help answer questionssuch as “What would happen if I . . . ?” YALSA’s Teen Read Week™ (TRW) initiative is designated to promote teens and reading and teens in libraries. To YA librarians who love working with teens in libraries, this might seem like YALSA is preaching to the choir. Yet after eight years of TRW at my library, I am still finding there are adults out there who want to control and limit what teens read and others who don’t think teens belong in libraries at all unless they are sitting quietly studying or reading an adult-approved, age-appropriate book. Some of those adults are our coworkers!
YA librarians are in the forefront, working in public and school libraries, providing the reading materials teens want and need. Many of us are the only advocates for teens in our own libraries, yet none of us is working alone. We have the support of YALSA, a network of amazing, like-minded people who love teens, books, and libraries, and believe they all go together. I received an e-mail asking me what I found to be most worthwhile about being a member of YALSA.After tossing around a longer list of the many benefits I’ve enjoyed, I had to conclude that it was the people that made membership worthwhile: The generous network of friends, colleagues, and go-to gurus of information and support always willing to share their expertise and experience to make teen service better in all libraries.
I’ve enjoyed many opportunities beyond the walls of my own library because of that generous network of friends, including this new opportunity as editor of YALS. Valerie Ott, our previous editor, has paved the way by establishing YALS as an important journal that not only records the activities of YALSA, but also gives the member readers a medium to share their research and experience. Many thanks to Valerie for her helpful guidance during the transition! Thank you also to our YALSA authors who made this issue possible with their ideas, articles, and research. Enjoy celebrating teens in your library with YALSA and libraries across the nation during Teen Read Week 2008! YALS