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Reading Difficult Books

Monday, March 12, 2018

I saw a tweet the other day from a parent wondering if The Handmaid's Tale was suitable for their teen, and I wanted to write a little bit about teens reading difficult books like that.

Firstly, of course, I believe that anyone can read anything, if they feel they're at a level to deal with the story contained within. Adult books don't have to be for adults and teen books don't have to be solely for teens. I believe staunchly in giving trigger warnings, because I want readers to be fully aware of what kind of content they might encounter. Triggers can be literally anything, but the main ones can be around mental illness, self harm, suicide, death, substance abuse, and so on. I try to always warn for this kind of thing, which is why I do reviews in the way that I do.

For me, one of the great things about Young Adult is that so many different types of stories are represented. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but things have come on so far in just twenty years. When I was a teenager, I went straight from reading Sweet Valley High and Babysitter's Club to stealing Maeve Binchy novels from my mum. They probably weren't the most suitable books for me, which is why I'm glad that YA novels exist. They deal with difficult subjects like sex and abuse, like coming out, like bad families, like any kind of subject you can think of. Kids are often dealing with hard things, and deserve to see that reflected back at them. I know that if I had been able to relate to characters in books when I was (especially) a younger teen, I wouldn't have felt so alone. I believe that it's often good to have pages in books with lists of where to find help and advice on the issues contained within. There's so much information out there these days, and not all of it is good or useful.

Often I read a book that is ostensibly for adults but I think it is suitable for teens, so I try to review it in such a way here so that teens would know whether it is suitable for them. I trust teenagers, I trust that by and large they know what they can cope with and aren't stupid. Of course, most teenagers in school are taught books that are supposedly for adults but which have themes they can understand. For instance, no one is arguing that To Kill A Mockingbird is a YA novel, but it's often taught to teenagers for exams.

I first read The Handmaid's Tale when I was about fifteen. I read 1984 first, which I'd heard about because bands I liked talked about it in interviews. (I love musicians talking about books they like, I think it's one of the best ways to get teens into reading). Then I think a teacher heard us talking about 1984 and recommended The Handmaid's Tale as being similar. They definitely have similar themes and ideologies, but the sexual violence in The Handmaid's Tale make it a harder read for me. I was so shocked at the rape scenes (with the Commander and Serena and Offred... it isn't often referred to as rape but I believe in calling it what it is... Offred doesn't have the freedom to say no, so she isn't consenting to what happens...) and even now find those very hard to read (or indeed watch, as I've seen most of the recent TV series with Elisabeth Moss).

I didn't fully understand the book, and I think a lot of that was because I didn't fully understand the political context behind it. I didn't know then what I know now about evangelical Christianity and especially its place in the United States. I think if your teen was going to read the book, it would be important to give some of this context, especially in the light of more recent events like the Trump government. I can think of a hundred books that might need some context giving, even YA ones. For instance, wouldn't it be good to give a reader not familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement some information about that as they were reading The Hate U Give? Of course some teens will be familiar with it, but for those who aren't I feel like good information would be important.

I also think that telling a teen that they can ask you anything about a book is important too. They might need context, they might need information, they might be worried about some part of themselves or their lives that they've seen reflected on the page.

Basically, I think that involved parenting is helpful for teenagers, but that mostly, teens can be trusted to read difficult books, and that they deserve to have safe spaces to ask for more information if they want it. What do you think?

My copy of The Handmaid's Tale is this edition, I "borrowed" it from 6th form college and never gave it back. It's annotated by a previous student and I love to read their notes alongside the text!

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