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Oh boy

I call bullshit on Daniel Handler’s Sunday New York Times essay about the need of teenaged boys for dirty books. Of course, yes, kids read for the dirty parts, girls as well as boys. And you could make an argument, and I don’t understand why Handler didn’t, that the prurient interests of girls are better represented in YA fiction, but then girls are better served all around when it comes to YA novels.

But as Handler himself says, he was a reading snob as a teen (and I don’t fault him for this; so was I) and found plenty of wank-worthy scenes in the adult books he was reading. Those books are still around, and they have been joined by countless more in the intervening forty years. Why does he think it is the responsibility particularly of YA fiction to provide such stimulation? Like he did, kids today can read all kinds of books.

YA fiction has definitely gotten sexier in those same forty years. And as its readership (and market) has changed to older teens and adults, the messages of the genre have become more sex-positive, appreciating and depicting sex for its own sake rather than necessarily as a lesson in responsibility. Most often from a girl’s point of view, as I said above, but then so was Delta of Venus.

Most perplexing and distressing of all is Handler’s charge that “the guardians of young people’s literature get so easily riled up about sex.” What the actual FUCK, Daniel, you know that isn’t true. It is the guardians of young people’s literature who got sex into books for kids in the first place. It is those same publishers and librarians and teachers and booksellers and book reviewers who ensure that it stays there and that books with dirty parts can be read by everybody. The difficult thing now is to convince young readers that page twenty-seven of The Godfather has charms that cannot be matched by the boldest internet porn. Who’s got a booktalk?




Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I think one of the problems from the essay is its over simplification. And I, not reading the essay carefully enough, thought he was recommending “get these great books in the hands of your reluctant readers” not just “dirty-up your YA fiction.” But in fact, while you are right, Roger, that it is “publishers and librarians and teachers and booksellers and book reviewers who ensure that [the sex] stays there and that books with dirty parts can be read by everybody” the opposite is also true a lot of the time.

    Publishers do cut out a lot of sex scenes, ask for graphic images to be toned down, etc. Not all the time, but plenty of times. I can think of a rocking headboard that was cut at the request of B+N, books that were re-titled to be less “in your face” about their sexual meaning, or the following example from a popular series. One of the protagonists was a teenage boy who was blackmailed by a cougarish 40-something woman into sleeping with her, and the publisher asked that that element of the plot be removed. The author, British, also used a lot of explicit sexual terms that the publisher asked her to cut. Another time, I worked with an adult romance writer who was writing a paranormal romance for teens, and I asked her to reduce the graphic content quite a bit–I remember that we laughingly started singing “You’ve got to tone down the hand job” to the tune of “Roll Out the Barrel.” Why did I do that? Because the teen, girl, YA readers we were marketing too wouldn’t expect that kind of in-your-face graphic content in a paranormal romance. The book was written to be a popular genre novel in the norms of the day. To speak generally, again, I think there’s often a push-pull in publishing between getting a book to the largest audience and letting the writer’s original intent stand. Barnes and Noble asks for changes, Scholastic asks for changes, and often we do it, if it doesn’t drastically alter the book, to get the sale. So, yes, we’ve fought to a lot of content in, and in print, but we’ve also taken a lot out.

    I like your point that we are still underserving the teenage boy. I think we should all be book-talking Mambo Kings because, and I expect to be criticized for saying this, I think you’ll get a lot of boy readers to pick it up when they hear “more blow jobs per page than any other novel.”

  2. Therese Bigelow says:

    Yea Roger!

  3. Jen Mason Stott says:

    Aaaaand Handler steps in it again. (I’ll never forget his racist comment about Jacqueline Woodson.) The headline is provocative-those boys and their one-track minds!- and the article doesn’t make up for the fact that he leaves out all girls and queer boys. He and I are both Gen-X. I can assure him that while he was snobbing out, my friends and I were also combing our parents’ bookshelves (The Joy of Sex, anyone?) and reading those books across the coffeeshop, possibly rolling our eyes at guys like him.

    I agree, Roger, YA currently underserves boys in this regard. But adult fiction has plenty of sex, and every high school library carries adult books. How about Handler makes like a librarian and provides an inclusive book list of contemporary* (and if he must, classic) adult books to scratch the itch? As some commenters pointed out on the NYT page, good books with dirty bits provide readers much needed context for sex. Context is lacking in porn – which has its place, but is increasingly violent and degrading to women; see Dr. Gail Dines’ carefully researched Pornland, which opens with a depiction of a scene of torture.

    *Contemporary doesn’t mean his high school favorites, which are now 30+ years old.

  4. Totally agree, Roger! And the other really important thing discussions like this don’t seem to address is that often in our industry, we ignore the fact that for many teens, “sexual freedom” may actually be the freedom not to have sex … I mean that in every sense from the straightforward to the most tragic and sinister. Of course, what one wants to read about and what one actually does in one’s life have a complicated relationship to each other — the greater sexualization of our YA literature now does not reflect the fact that, on average, kids are having sex slightly later than, for example, my generation. But still, I think a blanket statement about either teen desire or the interference of professional “gatekeepers” is too facile and not useful. Like the recent Teen Vogue article about anal sex — which didn’t mention important physiological differences between anal sex for men and for women — and which, just as weirdly, didn’t mention the particular resulting role anal sex plays in gender power relations right now — I think occasionally, absolutely without intending it, we err on the side of cultural coercion, especially given the experience of the traumatized.

  5. >>Publishers do cut out a lot of sex scenes, ask for graphic images to be toned down, etc. Not all the time, but plenty of times. <<

    Elizabeth has it right. To my knowledge, authors are often gently queried and pushed to remove or downplay many sexual elements. (In my most recent novel, I originally had a plain reference to a main character masturbating, in Chapter 1, sentence 1. My editor asked me to downplay this, so that the book would have a wider audience that could include younger girls. It became "thinking about her.")

    Frankly, in terms of sales, I am pretty sure my editor was correct…. much as it hurt me to change wording that I knew was more authentic to the character. There is still an enormous push against frank sexual references of any kind in the library and school market. I was reminded of this again earlier this month at ALA, when a librarian congratulated me on how "clean" this book of mine (AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR) is. "I can booktalk this," she said. "Other books, I can have in my library, but I can't booktalk them." This book contains two on-screen kisses (one heterosexual, one lesbian) and this was fine with her. That the book contains murder and some swears (including "Namaste, motherf*cker") was also okay. But sex had to stop at kissing. And yes, I confirmed all of this in conversation with her.

    It also is true that for many younger girl readers, delicacy — enough to dream on — is all they need and want.

    It is a complex topic. My writer friends and I believe that in fact, there was more room for frankness when YA was less popular and less commercial, when (say) a few thousand in hardcover sales was good enough for most publishers and would sustain a career. Daniel Handler likely doesn't have to worry so much about losing his publisher, but most of writers do.

    -Nancy Werlin

  6. Nope, I gotta agree with Handler here. There ARE gatekeepers, both at the corporate level as Nancy and Elizabeth have pointed out above, and at the personal level. I work with parents every day who seek to police the erotic content of the books their teens read. Most of them don’t seem to worry about the violent content. “Oh, they’ve watched Walking Dead, they’ll be ok.” Well guess what, mama, they’ve watched Brunette Gives BJ in Car, too, so…

    I don’t, however, believe in the headline thesis of the essay – suggesting that boys don’t read because they’re not offered enough sex in print is criminal oversimplification. I mean, for one thing, male types have been shown to prefer visual erotica while female types prefer the written word. And in fact, my most reluctant male readers are made uncomfortable by explicit sex in books. Those boys want violence and redemption and some of them would prefer not to read about girls at all – girls are confusing.

    And as Tobin points out, kids are starting to have sex later, a trend that some have attributed to the availability of porn. Maybe they’re intimidated by the way sex looks when done by professionals. Maybe their curiosity is satisfied. Who knows?

    But it certainly couldn’t hurt to have more healthy consensual sex in YA novels. Not because it’ll suck ’em in necessarily, but because it’s good for ’em. What you don’t get with porn is the representation of the inner life, the doubts and disappointments and ecstasies of sex. The scene I remember best from my own youthful reading was from some Sidney Sheldon novel, when the main character, having lost her virginity to the hunky billionaire (I’m guessing, I don’t remember), farts in bed. She is mortified, but Cable Peckerman or whatever his name was just laughs. He reassures her that intimacy is not fantasy.

    So, the most difficult-to-breach gatekeepers are definitely those parents. But give me a couple of sex scenes that exemplify responsible respectful humping (whether that’s realistic or not) and let me explain how books can provide models for good behavior – as well as providing tips for how to murder your peers with a bow and arrow.

  7. Jen Mason Stott says:

    Paula says, “There ARE gatekeepers, both at the corporate level as Nancy and Elizabeth have pointed out above, and at the personal level. [parents]” The nerve Handler touched that fired up my particular Facebook feed – he included youth librarians in his list of gatekeepers. We got our noses out of joint because we’re damned-if-we-do/don’t; we’ve been giving kids books with dirty bits since well before Judy Blume, and getting slammed as smut-pushers because of it. He is lucky that in addition to protecting readers’ private inner reading lives, we are also forgiving of authors who irk us. We still buy their books, if reviews and kid-demand compel us.

    Tobin’s comments are spot on as well. I’d love to hear more from teenagers about the article, about their reading, watching, how it does or doesn’t impact their own sexual decisions. Unfortunately, most of them are probably not reading The New York Times opinion section. Anonymous survey, anyone?

  8. I find it most interesting how we’ve all read the same article and came away so many different messages. I see in Handler’s article a buried feeling of hurt that his recent novel has been deemed too sexy for the YA crowd and is going to be marketed for adults. I think if it becomes a popular book, teen readers will find it.

    Of course publishers are gatekeepers of children’s literature as are librarians and educators. There are reasons why children’s literature exists separate from adult lit. The problem I see is when changes are made in texts at the bequest of vendors (B&N, Walmart, Amazon and the like) to improve their sales. It seems children’s books exist more for the sake of the sale that for the sake of the literature.

    Perhaps we’d get a better count of boys reading if we expanded the definition to be decoding meaning from a text which could be anything from a novel to a text to an automotive repair manual, which was the only thing a former student would read. That doesn’t explain away the over abundance of the female voice in YA, but it allows us to see boy readers from a perspective that doesn’t build from a deficit way of thinking.

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Certainly, there are gatekeepers and certainly among them are those who inhibit sexual content. I wonder, though, if Handler is not aware that there IS sexy stuff in a lot of gate-kept YA fiction.

    I would also bet that some teen readers prefer their dirty parts to come from places other than YA. Precisely because the genre is gate-kept and not purely market driven, readers (and parents) have some expectation that YA books will be “worthy” in some way. So maybe some kids appreciate this guarantee of “safety”? Plus, let’s not overlook the power of the forbidden to provide its own extra zing to salacious material (Orwell took this one up in 1984). How dirty can a book be if it comes with a gatekeeper’s seal of approval?

  10. Elizabeth Law says:

    Edith Campbell, of course children’s books exist more for the sale than for the literature! Who pays the advances, the marketing fees, the editors’ salaries? Publishers who hope/plan to make money on the books they sell. Acquiring editors often successfully argue, “This book will get excellent reviews in the trades and be supported by the library community” when they want to publish a “literary” book, but still, in today’s hyper competitive market, they’re under pressure to make every book on their list count. I don’t know if it’s simply a case of “the olden days were always better,” but I always thought it would have been fun to be a children’s book editor in the 70s, when libraries had big budgets and no one had to show book jackets to Barnes and Noble.

  11. Anonymous says:

    So, moralists, with your “modeling” of hygienic, healthy sexual relationships in kids’ fiction: that other perfectly natural process – making babies, as about 17 million teenage girls do annually – is that something you’d like to see modeled in YA – or is that less pleasing somehow? Is sex minus babies the only socially acceptable kind?

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Anonymous brings to mind Rita Williams-Garcia’s second novel, LIKE SISTERS ON THE HOMEFRONT, which opens with a pregnant teen girl being frog-marched to the abortion clinic by her mother. I wonder if that would be published today. Otherwise the portrayal of teen mothers or pregnant teens, while staples of the early problem novel, does seem scarce in today’s YA fiction.

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