Yesterday was library day, one of my favorite days. I know my kids enjoy it too. They’ll complain whenever I pile them into the car; moaning and whining that all they do is go on errands, that their life is passing them by while they ride around in a minivan. But I simply mention the word ‘library’ and those irritable children perk right up and ask if they can carry anything for me out to the car.
Books are a wonder drug, apparently.
The only downside to library day is that I must plan ahead to have an easy to prepare meal on the schedule. That way when (not if) I lose myself in a new book for a few hours, then look up and to discover it’s four thirty, eating a decent meal before swimming practice is still an option.
Oh well, first world literary problems and all that.
Yesterday, however, I was not magically transported via the written word into my own world. Instead, I got grouchy- which is never fun, but usually makes for interesting blog posts.
I was reading a Y.A. novel I had reserved (this is where a rude or uninformed person might say, “You read Young Adult books?” to which I would reply “You don’t?”) when I noticed something that startled and saddened me: the book I was reading seemed to be doing it’s level best to make violence against young women seem sexy and romantic.
This is not a new development in the publishing world. Hello, the Twilight franchise anyone? I love you more than anything but I also want to drain you dry of blood and kill you. Will I do the humane thing and turn you into a vampire so you’re on equal footing and not being sent mixed messages of love, lust, and violence? No. I, brooding and self loathing vampire that I am, apparently want you to remain a potential victim for as long as possible.
(Huge disclaimer and shameful secret: when Twilight first came out I went completely ga-ga over it and all the sequels. It was only when I was reading them the second time through the eyes of a parent determining when her young daughter would be ready for these books that the blinders came off and I could see clearly. Ahem, don’t think less of me please.)
But yesterday as I was reading my recent library find with more and more disgust I suddenly realized that this is more than an occasional message our youth are receiving, this is a trend. The Twilight books, Deadly Little Secret, Hush Hush, and countless other Young Adult books all seem to be selling the idea that being pursued by violent means is not only exciting but that it is desirable and sexy.
This disturbs me. This disturbs me greatly.
We live in an era that has seen the highest rates of dating violence, ever. No one can quite agree on specific numbers, but all the studies I have researched show that 30 to 50 percent of female high school students have reported experiencing teen dating violence. Basically 1/3 to 1/2 of the female student body in any given high school in the United States has experienced violence of some kind from the hands of the very individuals who claim to love them. And that is only the recorded number, there could be countless more victims out there who haven’t come forward. My own state of Indiana appears to be at the highest end of this spectrum, which saddens me beyond belief.
I think we could talk for hours and hours about the causes of this rise in violence against young women. And maybe one day we will, but for now I want to talk about what I know best: books. While books can be contributors to this problem, I also believe they can be the solution.
There are several amazing books that deal with violence (both domestic and dating) in a strong, compassionate way that clearly states to our youth that this is not acceptable, not tolerable, and not sexy. Thirteen Reasons Why, Eleanor and Park, and Are You in the House Alone? (an oldie but a goodie by Richard Peck.) There are also dozens more that I have on my to-read list: Stay (by Deb Caletti), Speak (by Laurie Halse Anderson), and Dreamland (by Sarah Dessen.)
As adults we should not only read these books but then encourage our daughters, sisters, nieces, and friends to read them, before they start dating.
We don’t give our teens the driver’s ed. manual after they get their license and are on the road. We don’t make them watch those graphic drunk driving movies after they’ve been driving. We prepare them, warn them, and guide them beforehand.
Which is exactly what we should be doing with our youth before they date. Please don’t tell me that these books are too dark, disturbing, or mature for our teens. In many cases high school is too dark, disturbing or mature for our children and yet we send them there anyway.
If our children are old enough to date, then they’re old enough to read about these deep and intense topics of violence and rape in dating. Dating violence can happen to everyone, regardless of age, race, social class, religion, or upbringing. Because someone has chosen to not educate their daughters (or sons) about these topics, that will not ensure that this violence will pass them by.
Timing, of course, is everything.
My oldest daughter is eleven. Right now she reads books about dragons and castles and fairytales. Occasionally, she’ll read some realistic fiction at her grade level that talks of foster homes, autism, poverty, and bullying. And all of these things are exactly what she should be reading right now.
But as she grows older, the books she reads will too. The time is coming when she’ll need to know about violence against women, when she’ll need to know about abusive dating partners and domestic situations. The time is coming when she’ll need to know about eating disorders, suicide, internet bullying, and homosexuality. And when that time comes, I’ll be there with book suggestions, a listening hear, and hopefully some wise words. I’ll be there as a sounding board as she reads through difficult books and then sees these same scenarios in the world around her.
I plan on always being there for my children when they have questions or things they want to discuss. But I also want them to know that there are other good resources out there that they can rely on, many of them in the shape of a good book.
Someone asked me if I will ever let my girls read Twilight. The answer is yes, I will. But beforehand we’ll sit down together and I’ll tell them about the parts that bother me, about the parts that make violence and controlling boyfriends seem attractive. I’ll ask them to keep an eye out for these section and I’ll ask them to pay attention to how these things make them feel inside.
That way when my daughters do read a book, like the one I did yesterday that seemingly promotes violence as sexy, they’ll know it for the lie it is, because they’ll already have the tools to see behind the falsehood and find the truth behind it.
Because the plain truth is that violence is never sexy, no matter how pretty an author dresses it up. No matter how popular it seems, no matter what car it drives.
Violence is ugly.