Education

Want Teens To Stop Hating Literature? Let Them Read ‘Filthy’ Books

by Liz Dwyer

July 31, 2017

My 13-year-old son hasn’t read a single book all summer. In June, he told me that vacation is for binge-watching “Malcolm in the Middle” on Netflix — all 151 episodes of it. Meanwhile, his 16-year-old brother has been dragging around a copy of Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” but the jury is out on whether he’s made it past page 50.

What can get these teen boys excited about reading again? According to one best-selling author, I should be steering them toward books that don’t shy away from sex.

There’s hardly any real sex in young adult books.

At least, that’s the advice offered up by Daniel Handler, who writes under the pen name Lemony Snicket. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Handler explained that he is “frequently asked how I think we might close the reading gap between teenage girls and teenage boys.”

Indeed, a pair of studies released last fall backed up previous research showing that girls are likely to read more and score higher on standardized reading assessments than their male peers. And a recent survey from Scholastic also found that boys have a harder time than girls finding books they’re interested in and are less likely to say they “really enjoy reading books over the summer.”

In contrast, Handler wrote that he realized he never fell out of love with reading because he consumed texts during his teen years that were considered “filthy.” He read books such as Anais Nin’s “Delta of Venus” and Oscar Hijuelos’ “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” which Handler wrote “surely contains more oral sex per page than any other Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.”

He might be onto something given that experts say the best way to get kids excited about reading is to let them choose books on topics they’re actually interested in. At the same time, some folks might worry that Handler’s advice plays to old stereotypes that teen girls aren’t interested in sex, and that teen boys only have one thing on their mind.

“It is a gross generalization, of course, to say that what young men want to read about is sex — or to imply that the rest of us aren’t as interested — but it’s also offensive to pretend, when we’re ostensibly wondering how to get more young men to read, that they’re not interested in the thing we all know they’re interested in,” wrote Handler. The problem, he continued, is that “There’s hardly any real sex in young adult books, and when it happens, it’s largely couched in the utopian dreams or the finger-wagging object lessons of the world we hope for, rather than the messy, risky, delicious and heartbreaking one we live in.”

The guardians of young people’s literature get so easily riled up about sex.

What Handler’s saying might remind some of what author and sports journalist Robert Lipsyte wrote in the Times back in 2011, that today’s young adult literature has become “simplistic problem novels that read like after-school specials.” That sounds boring for anyone to read, but Lipsyte wrote that today’s YA books might appeal more to teen girls because they are “bought by female editors, stocked by female librarians and taught by female teachers.” Teen boys might not want to read about “mean girls, gossip girls, frenemies and vampires” wrote Lipsyte. And the books marketed to them are merely “supernatural space-and-sword epics that read like video game manuals and sports novels with preachy moral messages.”

Handler wrote that his most recent novel, which features a male character with a “heteroflexible sex life” was seen as too racy by young adult editors. The book is being published for adults “partly because the guardians of young people’s literature get so easily riled up about sex, preferring to recommend, say, books about teenagers slaughtering one another in a post-apocalyptic landscape, rather than books about kids masturbating at home.”

Schools still ban controversial books — like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” which Handler is probably referencing — from classrooms and campus libraries, so you can imagine that a book with masturbation is likely to cause a firestorm in some communities. However, history has taught us that an integral part of democracy is ensuring people can read ideas they don’t necessarily agree with. As Handler puts it, books should be “an unlimited resource for young people and their curiosity, not a sphere restricted by how uncomfortable some curiosities make adults feel.”

That might mean adults should worry less about teens of all genders reading books that feature more sex — or it might just mean ensuring that youth have access to stories with diverse characters, stories that dive into complex, relatable situations, and that don’t conclude with pat, easy answers. Whether my own teen sons want to read Anais Nin or Oscar Hijuelos remains to be seen. But as Handler concludes in the end: “Let’s not smirk at their interests. Let’s give them books that might engage them.”

Share image by Samantha Jade Royds/Flickr.

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