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June 24, 2005

Kids! They Are Just Impossible to Control...

by Ron Hogan

I mentioned the Rainbow Party hysteria earlier this week; it turns out--and I'm not surprised--that's just the tip of the iceberg. Sally Beatty charts what's happened to YA fiction, which has become "full of mature themes and unflinching portrayals of sexual activity," for the Wall Street Journal (go ahead, click it, it's free!). There's a bit of alarmist suggestion in her tone ("do you know what your child is reading?"), but for the most part Beatty tackles the issue from the economic angle--despite the controversies, these books sell, which means they're circulating, so parents had better pay attention.

Sure, there's the bits that make us laugh: "The subject matter is rarely clear from a book's title or graphics," Beatty warns. "Rainbow Party features tubes of lipstick on the cover--though it isn't about girls discussing makeup, but a teen oral-sex party." Hello? Freudian Imagery 101! (Also, it's not as if adult fiction's subject matter is always clear from the title or graphics, either; I haven't gotten yet to the part in Melissa Bank's new novel yet where we learn what a "wonder spot" is, but I've got my smutty guesses, just like you.) Actually, the part that really cracked me up was the story of how John Feinstein's YA novel was sold:

"Bestselling author Mr. Feinstein says he wrote Last Shot for his then 10-year-old son, who found it tough to read his father's grown-up books. When Mr. Feinstein's agent approached his longtime publisher, Little, Brown, they were 'lukewarm'--so she went to Knopf, which offered him a $125,000 advance. Little, Brown says it countered with a 'modest' lower number because it already had a children's sports author in its stable."

To which my immediate reaction was, "Yeah, but he isn't John Feinstein, is he?" But I'll admit that I honestly don't know whether or not a strong reputation among adult readers genuinely translates into parents' willingness to buy books by that author aimed at younger readers. Anyway, to get back on track, for all my earlier joking, the actual notes on the nine novels she surveys are very effective, not especially preachy, and would probably help parents take an active role in fostering their childrens' reading lives.

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