What this means is that books intended for children are judged by adults, and it seems that problems spring eternal when adults judge standards, set by and for kids, against their own. It causes books, even authors, to be banned from libraries and schools, and it allows adults who haven’t read books to form conclusions about them. Sadly, those conclusions tend to add to the controversy, and before long, children are banned from reading the very books that would be most interesting and helpful to them.
Contemporary (and realistic) YA has had more than its fair share of controversy since the market first started growing back in the 90s. These are stories that tend to deal with real issues, and whacking great big ones at that. Sex, drugs, death, hormones, not to mention family, money, violence, relationships and grief.
When I was a teenager, there wasn’t a huge amount of YA fiction around. There was some, sure, but it wasn’t the trend-driving market it is today. I think the first novel for teens I read was probably ‘Blubber’, by Judy Blume. If you look up Blubber on GoodReads or anywhere else, you’ll see it categorised under anything from 9-12 middle grade fiction to YA. Truth is, nowadays it most likely sits somewhere between the two in an ‘early teen’ section. I was around 13 when I read it. During a recent house-move, I unearthed my original copy, and was sadly forced to put off packing whilst I re-read it…
Safe to say, it’s nothing like how I remember it.
The version of Blubber I own, almost re-lost in the house move!
There are similarities, sure. I remember a couple of things distinctly – an overweight girl being nicknamed Blubber by her classmates after reading a report she’d written about whales in front of them, and how she was then ridiculed and bullied almost continually. I remember a scene where she was put on trial by them one rainy lunchtime. I also remember the main character, Jill, having a strange home life (or at least a strange one by British standards), being looked after in part by a French-speaking nanny. Then there is Jill’s best friend, a Chinese-American, who Jill defends as soon as anyone dare make a slur against her race.
These are the things I remember.
I remember knowing exactly how they all felt. I could see these girls in my class, all of them. I remember that the girl being bullied doesn’t let them get the best of her. I remember thinking that I never wanted to become a bully and I never wanted anybody to say bad things about my friends.
What I don’t remember, is the controversial stuff.
It turns out that Judy Blume is one of the most frequently banned authors in the US. Blubber caused problems for parents mainly because of one thing: it’s written from the point of view of the bully, not the victim (something I hadn’t remembered). God, how that must irk! In this story, the bullies aren’t caught. They aren’t punished, or stopped, or made to apologise, and they certainly aren’t going to turn a new leaf any time soon.
The truth is, Judy Blume knows how to get into a kid’s head. She knows that the problems they face aren’t the same ones that their parents are facing, and even if they were, she knows that kids would deal with them entirely differently.
Re-reading Blubber, I did find it a bit shocking, partly because I don’t remember as much of it as I thought I did, and partly because as I read, it became increasingly apparent how controversial it has the potential to be. The things the bullies do to ‘Blubber’ are terrible – they even lock her in a cupboard in the classroom. She also gets the blame for many of the incedents, the bullies getting away scot-free because the teachers don’t see what’s really going on.
Thing is, though – Blubber is meant for kids. It isn’t meant for their parents. The things adults don’t like about teen and YA fiction are the things they think might put kids in danger. But those same things are what form the fabric of a teenager’s reality.
Re-reading Blubber was so interesting, because as an adult I read it entirely differently. Entirely. The messages are different, the characters feel different, and most importantly, the messages and characters didn't mean as much to me. What I saw this time around was how controversial it is.
The point here, is that this book really is nothing like I remember it, and that's because it wasn't written for me, it was written for me 15 years ago.
As adults, we love to rewrite history. We look upon childhood with rose-tinted whatevers, and forget what an excruciating, alienating experience it all was. And yeah - books like Blubber helped me a lot, and if you go online you'll find a hell of a lot of people saying the same thing.
So why do adults go to such great lengths to ban books from their children's lives?
Well, adults need justice far more than children do. Adults want fairness and goodness and equality, things that don’t exist in the world of a 13 year-old. All a 13 year-old wants to know is how to deal with that, and that is where this kind of story comes in.
So let’s allow children’s writers to write for children, shall we? Let’s reserve adult judgements for books directed at adults, and let kids decide what’s a good story and what isn’t.
After all, they are the readers, not us.