The staple for teens in recent years apart from the vampire craze, have been dystopian and supernatural romances but there seems to be a growing readership for darker themes and sex.
WITH a title like Anatomy of a Boyfriend, there is very little that is left to the imagination on what makes up the storyline of the novel. In the coming of age tale by Daria Snadowsky, 17-year-old Dominique Baylor experiences first love and her first sexual encounter with her new boyfriend.
No details are spared in the book, and explicit details are shared in a frank discussion between Dominique and her best friend Amy.
When Janet*, a parent came across the book at the young adult (YA) section of a bookstore while out shopping with her teenage daughter recently, she was shocked when she flipped through the pages that described Dominique’s talk about oral sex with Amy.
“Whatever happened to good old Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High?” she laments.
Janet then quickly hides the book from her daughter’s view by putting it on a different shelf in the hope that it would stop her from browsing or reading other books with the same kind of explicit content.
Sex is still a taboo topic that is never brought up in her household. Whenever the family is watching television together in the living room, her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are asked to look away from the kissing scene shown on the television.
Janet also routinely scans the titles on the bookshelves in the study room and monitors the television programmes that the children watch to ensure that they are not exposed to age- inappropriate materials.
“There are too many unsuitable television shows and books, it is hard to keep tabs these days,” she says.
Unlike Janet, the parents of 17-year-old Sheila* are less concerned about the content of the books she is reading.
“My parents were with me at the bookstore when I bought Fifty Shades of Grey, they even paid for the book,” says Sheila.
Her parents apparently are unaware that the bestseller erotic novel by E.L. James dubbed as “mummy porn” depicts graphic scenes of various sex acts and has elements of BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism).
“I have finished reading the sequels of Fifty Shades of Grey. While reading the books, I try to be more open-minded. It is the love story between two characters that I admire, not just the sex content,” says Sheila.
While she finds some of the sex and sensual content in the novel “shocking”, Sheila who is rather shy and bashful when coaxed to talk about the subject says, “I will never stop reading a book just because there is excessive violence or inappropriate content because I hold on to my motto that once I start reading a book, I must complete it.”
Other than the bestseller titles, Sheila reads popular young adult books such as The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. She admits that she will only share what she is reading with parents and teachers when needed to.
What are teens
In a survey of 100 teens by StarEducate, 18% of the respondents say they would discuss the books they were reading with their parents compared to 46% who say they would share what they have read with their friends.
Romance and fantasy are the themes most favoured by the teens. On average, the teens spent about RM50 on books every month.
On the other hand, 65% of the respondents said that their parents and family members read together with them when they were younger.
Tasha* says she will only tell her parents about the books that she is reading on the rare occasions that they ask her.
“I don’t think they will find out about the e-books that we can read for free online,” says the 17-year-old.
Teen Stephanie* says she feels uncomfortable when reading books with graphic sex details.
“I do feel uneasy when reading certain parts of Fifty Shades of Grey and I skip the chapters with intimate content.
“My parents do buy books for me but not always and I certainly never tell them what I read. Sometimes I do share the controversial things that I have read with my friends and we discuss about it just to know their views, both good and bad,” says Stephanie, 18.
Nicole* says she enjoys YA books but there are too many YA books for girls that are littered with romance.
“I have read this book called Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, the character is rather stupid as she goes around kissing boys. It doesn’t paint a very positive image for girls in general at all,” says Nicole. An avid reader, Nicole browses books from other sections as well and she has a preference for crime novels.
It’s not sex that sells
Although sex may be a recurring theme that raises the ire of parents and advocates concerned about age-inappopriate books for children, darker themes have emerged in young adult books following the popularity of stories set in the dystopian world.
The last book in the Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, for instance, has graphic scenes depicting limbs being blown off and bodies melting in the war waged by the regime against the people.
Nicole says even some children’s books have difficult themes which may make no sense to younger readers.
“When I was younger, I read Mark Haddon’s Boom! and thought the book was bizzare and hard to understand.
“It was not until I was much older that I understood the book better after re-reading it,” says Nicole of the children’s book from the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame, which is centred around a runaway child who feels unloved at home.”
Meanwhile, YA author John Green is a runaway success with his four published novels that deal heavily with dark adult themes such as death and depression.
“I feel very sad especially when the characters die in the book even though I know that the death is necessary in the development of the plot,” says John Green fan Ashvin Singh Tiwana.
The 16-year-old says Green’s books are popular among teens because they are able to relate to stories on love and friendship that form the storyline of his books.
He disagrees that death is a topic that is too dark for teens.
“Definitely, teens can empathise with characters who experience the pain of losing a loved one,” says Ashvin.
Another teen, Kelly*, feels queasy about books that go overboard with sex but finds violence in books not only palatable but an enjoyable read at times.
She however credits steamy novels as her introduction to sex.
“My mom loves reading and collecting Mills & Boon novels. Out of curiosity, I picked up a copy and started reading it when I was in Year Six,” says Kelly.
When asked to list down their favourite books during the survey, the teens provided a diverse list from the Percy Jackson books, The Catcher in the Rye to the rather risque books by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
The results confirm a local book expert’s view that teens who love reading would explore books that are beyond the genre specific to their age group.
After all, young adult fiction is a rather new genre created by book marketeer for categorisation purposes.
BookXcess children department head Winnie Tan says the bookstore usually refers to lists on the Amazon website and other local bookstores on the correct genre of the books.
“The profile of the local teen readers and their preference are not too different from teen readers of other countries. However, being a more conservative society, we do practise caution in the selection of books for young readers,” says Tan.
“Anything related to sex will be taken off the shelves except books on sex education,” she adds.
A popular haunt among families who love to read during the weekend, the bookstore has several compartments of YA books.
There is even a section dedicated to “girly books” in the YA section.
Parents may be concerned with suggestive words in the titles of some books Tan says. “Those who shop for books with their children would be the “best judge” on what books are suitable for them.”
“Book lovers who patronise our store know exactly where to look for their books without the help of shop assistants,” says Tan.
For parents who want to monitor the reading habits of their children, web-based nonprofit group Common Sense Media provides age rating for books as well as movies and television shows.
As an example, the website recommends that Mockingjay is suitable for readers aged 12 and above while John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is only for those aged 15 and above.
Parent Leong Lueng Kean practises a liberal approach to the reading habit of his children.
“I do not follow up what my children read because I believe it is their freedom to read anything as long as they know their limits.
“I buy books for them sometimes but mostly, they pay for their books using their monthly allowance,” says Leong.
* Names have been changed.