Should children read depictions of negative experiences that are real, or realistic?
What if the violence, sexuality, or other controversial material is inserted into the work only for artistic effect or for shock value?
Should teens read only wholesome material?
Should access to books with controversial material be permitted to teens? Should parents be warned about the contents of such books on the book jacket and reviews? Should access be blocked entirely? Should teens have free reign over their reading material?
Lately, there have been some interesting articles appearing that consider these questions. Many authors, as well as political pundits and community activists, have jumped in with their own takes and have even clashed in the pages of newspapers and online. Here are just a couple articles highlighting the conflicting viewpoints:
http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/06/false-censorship-claims-exposed-by-wsj.html blog by David Frum
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/?mod=google_news_blog article by Sherman Alexie
I cannot justify offering books with gratuitous sex, violence, drug usage, or immoral behavior to children at all. By gratuitous, I mean it's just there to titillate or provide escapist fantasy. The Sally Lockheart book series by Phillip Pullman contains both drug use (glorified as a way to heighten intelligence) and teenage pregancy, with no socially redeeming counterpoint added to them. I would never want my children to read this book series, but the covers don't caution about the content, and they are generally shelved in the children's department, not even in the teen or YA departments!
Even books with legitimate reasons for their PG-13 or R-rated content can prove troublesome. For some children, as Sherman Alexie points out, it is cathartic to hear about a main character's troubling life experience. The child has shared a similar experience in real life and can adopt methods of coping, receive encouragement, etc., through reading the book.
On the other hand, a naive child can be harmed by such books, or provided with information they are not developmentally ready to handle. Reading books with certain moral stances could undermine the religious beliefs a parent is trying to communicate to their child without even giving them a chance to explain the alternate viewpoint.
Case in point:
Many schools use Julie of the Wolves as a literature selection in classes as low as grade four. This is a wonderful book...for much older children. It contains a scene of attempted rape. As far as such things go, it is presented in a totally non-titillating way and is a realistic depiction of the (unfortunate) experience of some orphans. However, most parents don't know this about the book, and most children are unprepared for such frank topics at the age of nine. It's not that people shouldn't read this book, but not at a young age and not without adult supervision.
Some libraries try to alleviate the situation. In Beverly Hills, a child's library card can be linked to the parents', so the parents always can know what their kids are checking out. Other library districts shelve books carefully, guiding the young child away from "older" material.
Underlying this whole issue is the need to develop a trusting relationship with your kids, so that they know they can approach you with the questions they have about literature selections. But sometimes this isn't enough.Personally, I'd like there to be strict shelving standards, warnings posted on the covers and reviews of books, and the like. However, banning books altogether goes a little far. Where do you draw the line?