Books for teens are often criticized by adults as containing too much dark or disturbing content (example of protest). I myself sometimes warn in a review that a book contains mature subject matter, because some people choose not to read that, and that is their choice. However, I strongly believe that there is a need for books with this content, and that people have the right to access it.
One of subjects that sends parents and censors into protests is sexual abuse. The thing is, I personally know a shocking number of people who were abused or raped before they were twenty. As much as we would like to think this never happens, it does, probably even more so because people are too embarrassed, afraid or ashamed to talk about it and the abusers aren’t stopped. Teens going through this or who have in the past need to know that they are not alone. They need to see that others have gone through a similar experience and survived, found a way to cope and move on. Books are a fantastic way for them to see this, and reading is a private enough activity that many will feel comfortable doing this before talking to someone. If these teens only saw happy teens with perfect lives in literature they would feel even more outcast, and likely be less likely to read since books would not ring true to them. It is my understanding authors of books about abuse get tons of letters thanking them for giving a person the courage to talk about what happened to them.
Teens who have never been abused can benefit from these books as well. Like Melissa mentions it creates empathy. I would also argue that it creates caution. I don’t want these kids to be afraid of everything, but I do want them to be aware that not everyone is trustworthy, that not every date you go on ends well and you need to avoid dangerous situations, and stand up for yourself. Teens who have never had any exposure to the idea of date rape are much more likely to be susceptible to it.
Drinking and drugs are another big topic to be protested. I understand why there is a drinking age and why parents often have a no tolerance stance, BUT preaching against drinking because it is illegal and irresponsible pretty consistently leads to some rebellious consumption. It is important that teens know to recognize their limits and understand the dangers of substance abuse, just in case they do break the rules and drink or experiment with drugs. Reading about people overdosing, drinking and driving, becoming involved in crime, or getting addicted can be disturbing but for the most part it doesn’t make teens want to go out and do the same – just the opposite. Teens who have read about fatal alcohol poisoning are more likely to get help for their drunk friend.
Suicide, depression and self-harm are also hot topics. Depression is often misunderstood or brushed off as being over-dramatic, especially with teens who are stereotypically moody. If no one in their life has been depressed or understands the depth of their depression teens feel even more isolated and hopeless. Reading about suicide prevents more suicides than it causes (and I would argue it doesn’t cause any because those people who kill themselves after reading a book about suicide were already thinking about doing it), it makes teens take their issues seriously and consider getting help. Ignoring an issue does not solve it, and reading about other people with the same issues can help.
Again, like I said about abuse, teens who have never been depressed or suicidal learning about what others go through is a positive thing. It won’t make them depressed, sad sure, but in cathartic empathy building way. They will be more likely to be compassionate towards those that are depressed and not take talk of suicide lightly. They could save someone’s life by recognizing the signs they became familiar with in a book.
Many teens struggle with suicidal thoughts because they don’t fit in. Maybe they are LGBTQ in a homophobic community, maybe they disagree with the faith system their family follows, maybe they are the only one of their race at their school….Reading allows teens to relate to someone, to see themselves as a part of something, and providing access to books that help these minorities can make a difference.
I believe that libraries have the responsibility to continue to make books with controversial subject matter available to youth who may not otherwise have access to it.