Ask Alice: Should we be gatekeeping what young people read?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
I suspect it will surprise nobody that a lot of things makes me grouchy. One of those things is book banning in schools. While this seems to be an almost entirely American phenomenon, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t efforts in Australia to curtail what our young people read that manifest on a more subtle level.
That can come in the form of amending the content, as happened with the ultimately walked-back proposed alterations to several of Roal Dahl’s books. It can also manifest in the curation of content. Although I couldn’t find any specific post, I vividly recall Jay Kristoff saying that he and his cowriter, Amie Kaufman, were bleakly amused by the fact that they had to censor out profanity but their publisher had no problem with them opening the Illuminae Files with a mass death. However, it can also present in the form of stopping younger readers from picking up certain books. The word I go to use for these practices is ‘insidious,’ but that’s not necessarily fair. There are a variety of reasons why a student might be steered away from certain texts, or why the content of a school library’s collection is curated.
To answer the (admittedly, loaded) arising question, should we ever gatekeep texts from younger readers, I reached out to the people who deal with younger readers every day.
The first thing to note is that yes, there are circumstances in which we should curtail what students read. Daniel, an English teacher and Assistant Principal, told me, “there is a right and healthy tension between wanting to expose children to different experiences through fiction, including the less than comfortable ones, and also being careful that we don’t expose them to potential harm.” This was echoed by Tom, a school library assistant, who made the important point: “we need to be aware of content which may be triggers for some students.”
Interestingly, Daniel noted that this concern about what students read should in fact extend to the English curriculum: “the danger of exposing students to excessive or repeated ‘dark’ experiences is vicarious trauma and habituation[…]With a Year 10 group I taught a few years ago, the text list was entirely filled with gritty realist or existentially bleak novels, plays, films; by the end of the year, they were visibly morose. In my opinion, they were experiencing vicarious trauma.”
However, this is a delicate balance to strike. We’ve long known that reading widely is particularly powerful. The way I like to phrase is that reading longform narratives requires you to sit inside another worldview – if you want to know the end of the story, you have to keep reading, you have to keep seeing the world from that perspective. The simple act of staying in that world, in that space, in that perspective, gives you a greater ability to see the world beyond yourself. With this in mind, Daniel noted, “The danger of sheltering students through ‘gatekeeping’ texts is that they develop a naive view of the world and struggle to understand the grittier parts. This has a very real danger of creating narrow-minded adults who are unable to empathise with other people’s experiences […] If we want to live with compassionate, empathetic people, then students need to be exposed to stories unlike their own and taught to understand things from other perspectives.” Moreover when it comes to certain components of content that some may deem inappropriate, Dani, a Teacher Librarian who is about to complete a Masters of Education, Teacher Librarianship, stated, “swearing and sex is fine, if those things weren’t in books they wouldn’t be reflecting reality, and it’s a shame publishers are so afraid of sex and sexuality but are willing to put up with graphic violence in books for our kids.”
Moreover, reading widely and reading material that challenges is also a wonderful opening point for discussions with younger people.
So for people who are helping put books in the hands of readers, one of the challenges is ultimately, to use Tom’s words, “less about gatekeeping and more about finding appropriate books for where they’re at.”
Generally, there seems to be consensus that, especially from years 9 and 10 (around age 14-15), there is a sense of trust in students’ autonomy. Dani said, “kids know what they are ready to read and will skip over the parts they don’t feel comfortable with. The one exception is books that mention suicide-I have actually got a note on those texts so that when those books are checked out, we tell the students about the material.” Tom also pointed out that students “know what they like and dislike, and more than likely any content they read in the library is going to be less mature and graphic than what they watch at home.”
I really like the approach that Tom shared with me, because it includes the reader as part of the discussion: “We’ve changed our language away from good book or bad book to “what’s a good fit book?” So a Year 1 student might pick up The Lord of the Rings and we can ask is that a good fit book and they might say yes and then we go okay read the first line and if they can’t then we say maybe try again when you’re a little older and offer them something else that’s similar. The goal is to foster and maintain a love of reading in students and not be the gatekeepers of literature because we believe they’re not strong enough readers or too immature for a certain text.”
The crucial thing that kept popping up was that it’s about the individual in question. Dani said, “I think it’s really important to know who your students are and where they are coming from.”
She illustrated by the example of “a student who has previously been home-schooled and their parents are fundamentalist Christians. I would let them know if any of the books they wanted to borrow were particularly controversial.”
Similarly, Daniel emphasised, “I would need to know a bit about them to aim at the ‘golden mean between excess and deficiency‘. They need to be stretched outside their own life/reading experiences, but not so much that they become traumatised.”
However, the other thing to bear in mind is that it’s not just about the reader. Tom pointed out, “working at a school library especially there’s the conscious effort to not expose the students to something their parents/guardians might not have spoken to them about yet.”
Tom, in demonstrating exactly why teacher librarians are so important through this depth of knowledge, also explored why YA is such a useful way to help navigate the question of getting a good book into the hands of a reader:
“One of the many great things about YA literature is the breadth of its content. There’s C.S Pacat’s Dark Rise which is maybe more complex and mature than your typical YA fantasy, but then the violence and romance isn’t overt so it’s not a confronting read just a denser read. If students were more sci-fi leaning and wanted a story about humans and aliens fighting there’s Cally Black’s In the Dark Spaces which has quite high-impact violence but if you wanted a more chill story on the same theme there’s Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s The Aurora Cycle.”
I’ve always thought that librarians, and teachers who take the time to know their students and recommend books to them, are underappreciated given the delicate balance they negotiate. That’s especially concerning given funding cuts have seen a significant trend of the drastic reduction in teacher librarians in schools across Australia.
I came into writing this article with the righteous fury of an ideological extremist. I’ve left it not only acknowledging it’s an issue that, so often, comes down to the individual characteristics of a given situation, but is more complicated than I initially anticipated.