Parental Guidance Suggested

(Or: Sex, Violence, and Writing a Good Story)

So there I was at church a while back, thumbing through some magazines while I waited for the hand-shaking and chit-chat to conclude so we could get home for lunch. Lo and behold, book reviews! “Thriving Family” magazine had a few listed; I think there was a “popular” category with one review (“Matched”), some other category, and a “Christian book” category. I didn’t take the magazine, so I had to look it up online later. Isn’t technology wonderful?

To their credit, they don’t issue pass/fail verdicts on these things at their site. What they do is go through and, in the case of books at least, offer a full plot synopsis so parents can decide whether they think it’s appropriate for their kids; they break it down into categories like “Belief systems,” “Nudity and Sex,” “Profanity,” etc., and outline what’s present in the book; and they offer discussion questions at the end for parents to think about talking about with their kids.*

This got me thinking (you knew it would). I took a look at a few online reviews to see what they put into these things and do you know what I realized?

If they did give pass/fail grades on these things, Bound would fail. Hard. In almost every category.

These reviews are rife with spoilers. I don’t want to do that here, but without giving everything away, here’s some of what I came up with in their regular categories:

Authority Roles

– going against societal expectations, parents’ wishes and the will of government, fight with mother ends in storming out and not returning, disobeying parents’ wishes re: banned books (ha!)… all in chapter one

Other Belief Systems

-Tyreans are polytheistic (further explained in book 2). Does magic count as a belief system? Because that’s kind of huge. Magic is everywhere, and different beliefs about it are causing tension between nations. Ancient fertility statues mentioned (gasp!)

Profanity/Graphic Violence

-H— (the place and as a curse) used several times, d—, s—. Thank g–, oh my g–, etc. also used in dialogue (Yes, they use dashes like that in their reviews. Yes, I find it confusing). Death threats. Name-calling is frequent in thought and speech. But hey, at least no one says fuck!

-Violence… well, it could be worse. There’s a lot of blood. Self-mutilation (for a cause!), somewhat-graphic descriptions of wounds/injuries, violent attacks, slapping, people burn to death.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality (I know, I know…)

-Yes/ yes/subtly implied. Oh, hey, they forgot nudity… we have that, too! In terms of “graphic description” we’re not talking “insert tab A into slot B,” but a few of these things are kind of major plot points, and there’s a bit of tension surrounding these situations. Or a lot.

And in the “notes” section…

Alcohol: Wine is consumed several times. Oooooh….

Lying/deception: at every turn

Smoking: Hey, we don’t have that… wait, no, someone smokes a pipe, and we don’t even know what’s in it. Never mind.

Criminal activity: theft, infanticide (discussed), several murders, abduction, breaking and entering…

Suicide: Mentioned in passing, sort of attempted (see: self-mutilation)

Anger: HAHAHAHAHA… yeah. A bit. Jealousy, too.

I’m done for now. You see what I’m getting at, though? And I haven’t read enough of their reviews to even know where magic actually fits into all of this (though their sister site, PluggedIn, doesn’t think very highly of Harry Potter, and over there they do caution parents against these books)

Do I care? Not so much, actually. I have nothing against books with positive messages. I love leaving a story feeling happy. But I really dislike books that set the moral above the story, and I think perfect characters or slightly-imperfect characters who always make the right decision in the end make for boring stories. Are my characters flawed? H— yes! Damaged, even. Do they do things wrong? Of course they do, that’s what makes the story interesting.

And that’s what I set out to do: to tell a good story. An entertaining story. An honest story, in that people’s actions make sense in the context of their world and their surroundings. Should people let their 12-year-olds read it? I wouldn’t**. But I don’t think that makes it a “bad” story. There are a lot of great things there, too; there’s love, there’s loyalty, there’s self-sacrifice and generosity and yes, magic, which I do consider that a wonderful thing.

I didn’t set out to be provocative, and for the most part, I don’t think Bound reads as a story that’s pushing some dark agenda or promoting immoral behaviour. I think most books would do at least as poorly, even MG titles. It’s just funny how it looks when you categorize everyone’s sins like that. 😉

So tell me: How do your favourite books stack up? If you’re a writer, how would your work do in a review like this? Does either result surprise you? Do you think books can be all rainbows and unicorns and making good choices and still be worth reading?

*Just for the record, I think this is a useful resource. It’s not those crazy people who were burning Harry Potter books (because, y’know, witchcraft). It’s just putting information out there so parents can guide their kids’ choices and help them process the media messages that they’re being exposed to. No doubt there are parents who use this to tell their kids that they can’t read anything because it’s all evil, but for those of us who are sane about these things, it’s good information to have available.

**But then, there are people letting their kids that age read 50 Shades of Grey, so…

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

17 responses to “Parental Guidance Suggested

  • Robyn

    I love the way your brain works. 🙂

  • jessicaminyard

    Mine would fail hard as well, but it’s not meant for 12-year-olds. They are not my target audience. I think knowing what is and isn’t appropriate is all about knowing who you’re writing for. I have a contemporary YA manuscript in-process and my characters talk about sex and drop the f-bomb because that’s what teenagers do. I’m trying to create something authentic and entertaining. Again, not meant for the younger readers.

    And do I think a story can be all about rainbows and unicorns and good choices and still be a good story? Nope. Story is about struggle and conflict. No conflict, no story. Nobody wants to read about perfect people who always make the right choice and have all their shit together. That’s boring. Give me characters acting stupid and making mistakes and having flaws and struggling. Because those are the characters we love and identify with. 🙂

  • L. Marie

    Kate, I think it depends on which market you’re going for. You’re shooting for mainstream, right? I’ve had books published in the Christian market, but I’m going mainstream for my fantasy books. I’m not sure how my books would rate. People die in horrible ways in them. Characters make questionable moral choices. I know many churchgoing kids who read mainstream YA books like Hunger Games.

    • katemsparkes

      Definitely not “Christian fiction” over here. I haven’t read too much in that genre that I’ve enjoyed; it almost always seems like the message/moral comes before the story, and it makes me feel like I’ve been cheated out of something– almost like the whole story is advertising. I’m sure there are books in the Christian market that aren’t like that at all, but I gave up looking for them.

      Note: It’s not just Christian fiction that does it; I dislike books where a political message overrides the story just as much.

      We had some good discussions about this in English class at the Christian university I was attending. Really wish I could have finished that year.

  • Jae

    Bwahaha, I about died laughed when you said “H— yes!” I think those sites are helpful, but some of them do go a bit overboard and take things out of context. It’s not like Harry Potter and the gang are doing blood sacrifice before they cast a spell. So to call it “witchcraft” is a bit misleading, because it’s not the “witchcraft” those who would worry about it think it is. I’ve said expelliarmus a number of times and it hasn’t disarmed anyone, nor summoned any demons (that only works when you read the back of Rossy boxes). 😉

    But I’d like to know about some books before reading them and I think you can get a pretty good sense of what will be in a book if you just pay attention (I knew 50 Shades wasn’t anything I’d want to read). Parents should take an interest in what their children are interested in so they can have discussions with them on what they’re watching, reading, listening to, etc. My mom was a bit hesitant over Harry Potter because of what she’d heard when it first came out, but then she read it and realized people were making a lot of hype over nothing.

    As for my book, I’d probably say 10ish would be the youngest, depending on maturity. But I tend to be more sensitive to language and more explicit sexual description, so it doesn’t really end up in my stuff. I guess my “vice” would be violence.

    I think at the end of the day, we have to think about who our audience is and go with that. If you want a broader audience, tone down the language, if you’re going for a specific niche, do what that niche is comfortable with. I guess I would say make sure that any words or descriptions used are appropriate for that moment and not just because a witty way to write couldn’t be thought of, so vulgarity was opted for. And at the end of the day, it’s our stories, ya know?

    • katemsparkes

      You’re absolutely right. I didn’t go into this story thinking about my audience, about whether it would be classified as YA or NA (I’d never even heard of “New Adult”), whether the things I included would offend younger readers’ parents or be inappropriate for them. I wrote the story the way it made sense to me. I don’t think I could approach it by starting with, “Well, more books are selling in the younger YA market than the mature YA market, so I need to plan a story accordingly…” I know some people can do that, and that’s great, but I need more flexibility. Some of the things that turned up in the story surprised me, and would never have showed up if I’d planned for a younger audience, but they all fit. Maybe that means a smaller potential audience, but I’m OK with that.

      10 would definitely be too young for mine, though. 😉

      Also, good for your mom for actually reading the books rather than making a decision based on what frightened people were saying. That’s so important. Of course, I enjoy reading kids’ books with my son, so it’s easy for me to say that…

      • Jae

        I think you have to start your story as your story and then once you’ve got it going, decide who you want your audience to be and adjust accordingly or not. Sounds like you’re going about it the right way. 🙂

        I think New Adult is still pretty new. I think it only recently became accepted as a market term. So a lot of people probably haven’t heard of it. I really only heard the term because of a writers conference and contests I’d participated in.

        • katemsparkes

          It’s an odd classification, and I haven’t found a consistent definition. At first glance, it seems pointless: is there really a stage of life where you’re not a young adult but really don’t feel like you’re not an adult yet?

          Wait… that describes me… except that I think I’m just over the NA age range. But that’s not the point.

          At one time there was “child, adult.” Then it was “child, teen, adult.” Now it’s “child, tween, teen, young adult, new adult, adult.” Are we going to keep breaking it down? Is this an indication or our society’s tendency to want to delay adulthood? Are “new adults” that different from other adults, young or otherwise?

          Tell me, Jae, TELL MEEEEEE!

          • Jae

            Oooh, philosophical arguments. Let’s see… I don’t know, maybe you’re onto something with “our society’s tendency to want to delay adulthood.” I think NA means not teenage characters, but a lot the same kind of story. Think Twilight, but in college vs. high school. I think it’s really just marketing ploy. I guess because adult used to cover 18-100+ and they realized 70-year-old Sue might not be interested in the same books as 23-year-old Kelly, they wanted to divide things up.

            It’s probably both marketing ploys and societal shifts. *digs in bag* Ooh, look! Candies! *tosses them on floor as distraction* 😉

  • mysticcooking

    Interesting review system. I totally agree – books that are trying to get a moral across are usually boring, preachy, and way too self-righteous. If they are telling a great story that just happens to have a moral woven into it, well, I’m fine with that, but it has to be an integral part of the story and characters should still behave like human beings. I can’t stand perfect characters who always do the right things for the right reasons.

    One of my friends tries to read the same books her daughter does – she never really stops her daughter from reading whatever she wants because she doesn’t believe in censoring (up to a point), but she wants to read the book, too, so she can be prepared to discuss any issues. I always thought that was a good way to do it, so I’ve filed it in the back of my head for when I potentially someday have kids. 🙂

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