The Dark Alleys in Young Adult Fiction
Editor's Note: This post was originally featured by Desiring God, a ministry of John Piper, and can also be found at Marian's website.
“I’m just glad she’s reading,” your mom says while you sneak off to your room after dinner with dessert: the latest pop fiction novel all your friends are reading. Mom thinks it’s great that you’re enjoying literature. And it is great.
Your parents assume any book you’re ingesting is better than hours in front of a screen. But they may be blissfully unaware of some current trends in young adult (YA) fiction.
This article isn’t primarily about censoring yourself from the world of secular fiction, but about knowing what’s out there and guarding your heart through prayer and critical thinking (Proverbs 4:23; Philippians 4:6–8).
As a preteen, I read a dark urban fantasy novel fraught with sexual tension, even though it contained no explicit sex scenes. Afterward, I felt dirty. I sat on my bed staring at the book, wondering what the consequences of burning a library book would be.
That was my first encounter with what I later labeled “emotional porn.” Then one day I stumbled upon a quote by Stephen King where he explains why Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga became so popular. King flipped the way I viewed YA fiction on its head.
“[Meyer is] opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. . . . It’s exciting and it’s thrilling. . . . A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”
Elsewhere, King referred to Meyer’s series as “tweenager porn.” He rightly thinks young girls aren’t prepared to deal with these feelings yet. But the believer should go even further. Does the sexually charged content in these books edify anyone, at any age? Do unmarried teens and twentysomethings honor Christ in their singleness when they immerse themselves in a world that flirts with sexual immorality?
King understands the power of literature better than many readers and authors. Reading a book is not the same kind of experience as watching TV. Although they both tell stories, books will always have a power over the mind and body that TV never will—especially for women. Women are emotional creatures. When it comes to sex, we are less likely to seek visual stimulation like men are. We care more to be desired and desirable—and not always in a sexual way.
Look at that Stephen King quote again. I believe he’s saying that through modern storytelling methods of showing (not telling) by using internal and external sensations, a reader can feel what the character is feeling. They can taste, hear, smell, and see what the protagonist is experiencing. This is a wonderful thing! Unless the author uses this power irresponsibly, or worse yet, uses it against the reader in order to wreak havoc on their heart—perhaps for the sake of creating that money making, late night, can’t put it down, full of tension, page turner.
Hazy and Confused
So exactly how pervasive is this content in pop fiction? YA author Cyndy Etler relates advice she received from hundreds of teens on how to write for them.
“You’ve got to give them the dirt most adults won’t touch. Real language—meaning cuss words, if you can deal. Real sex stuff, instead of cutting the scene when the going gets going. Real substance use. . . . It feels like it violates some sacred oath: ‘Protect the children!’ But here’s the thing: the children aren’t protected. They’re doing this stuff.”
Etler goes on to say writers should cut parents out because teens want autonomy. Although she ends her article with the lesson “include hope,” many YA books simply end up teasing the emotions. They take their readers on a roller coaster of tension, leaving their hearts hazy and confused, not more virtuous or mature.
In the past decade, over thirty women have confided in me that they struggle with sexual addiction. For some, the habit began before the age of ten. Years later, they still struggle, hiding it from their spouses in shame. One friend, a married woman, confessed pop fiction as her main source of temptation. She is far from unusual. For a woman, what could be more enticing than a story that pulls at your heart and ensnares your emotions?
Whatever Is Excellent
So how can we practically guard our hearts while choosing what books to read?
First, we can set before ourselves “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8).
Occasionally, a book’s front cover will be a dead giveaway. If the characters are already immodestly dressed and kissing, the story inside the book will almost certainly go further. Most of the time, however, we’ll need to dig a little deeper to figure out what’s really inside a book. Take time to familiarize yourself with the jargon of book descriptions and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. For example, if the love interest is described as “mysterious and alluring,” the story will likely include sexual overtones and center around an infatuated teen.
Blurbs and reviews are not often so straightforward. To get a better sense of the book, try reading the first chapter. I recently picked up a book where the female protagonist says a boy’s lips look “achingly kissable” on the first page. That description signals something more to be expected later in the storyline.
Second, we can pray that God will guard our hearts, as Paul says in Philippians 4:6–7: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Pray through the Psalms and other passages that focus on our affections. For example, we can pray along with Song of Solomon 2:7 that we will “not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Or we can take up Psalm 1:2 and pray that we will desire to “delight . . . in the law of the Lord” instead of in the all-too-common teen infatuation of YA stories.
The Right Weapon
Don’t be discouraged about literature. Many books out there present wonderful, character-building stories—some of which are written by nonbelievers. And all Jane Austen fans worth their salt know a romance story can edify as well as entertain.
Stories are incredibly powerful. They’re a weapon in the hands of the author. Let’s make sure that weapon looks more like the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), and less like a wrecking ball to our love for the Lord.
Marian Jacobs lives near Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She occasionally finds time for photography and writing stories about monsters and magic. Her work has been featured at Desiring God and Speculative Faith. You can find more about her and her work at her personal website.