On promoting “mature” YA

T rating.As I prepare for my first round of book talks at local schools, I’m finding one of the hardest parts is choosing which books to promote. I want to choose diverse books, books where a character’s race/background isn’t central to the plot and books where it is, books from a variety of genres. I want to throw in a few graphic novels, both to highlight awesome stories and to affirm that, yes, reading comics counts as reading. I also, of course, want to choose age-appropriate titles.

But as I try to choose books that the conservative parents in my community will approve, I also want to pick books teens will want to read and think about and discuss. Because here’s the thing: parents may not want their kids to read about sex or drugs or abuse, but these things exists. For some teens, drugs and/or abuse are their reality — either they personally struggle with these issues, or they have a relative or friend who does. Some are having sex, others are wishing they were having sex, and still others are choosing not to have sex. But nearly every teen will come into contact with “mature” issues in some way. And they will have questions.

Books that tackle mature topics are a safe place for teens to find answers to their questions. Readers can vicariously explore what it’s like to take certain risks, to drink or do drugs or have sex. They can walk in the shoes of someone who’s being bullied or victimized, and learn how to make sure sex — when they decide to have it — is safe and consensual. They can develop empathy for the addict they’ve always looked down upon. They can experiment with characters on the page and learn from the characters’ mistakes, instead of making their own.

Teens will have questions. Books provide answers. I respect that some parents may not find “mature” books appropriate for their teens, but I want the teens who need these books to know about them. I want those teens to know that it’s okay to have questions, and that having those questions does not make them any lesser than their peers who aren’t asking the same questions. (I could dedicate several posts to why I find the label “clean” read problematic.)

I haven’t made any final decisions, but I’m leaning toward presenting a book with a short, positive sex scene in the high schools and another one that explores rape culture to juniors and seniors. Because these things exist, and teens are going to talk about them. I’d rather provide a safe space for them to do so than pretend these issues don’t exist, or don’t affect teens.

Have you book talked any “mature” books to older teens? What was the reaction?

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