Tales from the Teen Zone: 50 Shades of Grey

UPDATE 7/1/2012:

I’m surprised by how many people have come across this blog by googling some permutation of should teenagers read 50 Shades of Grey?

I haven’t actually read 50 Shades, just excerpts on the Internet and the 50 Shades of Suck tumblr. I wrote about my feelings on the book here.

For the record, I am much more disturbed by the terrible editing, flat characters, Cinderella fantasy, and general lack of self-worth of the protagonist than I am by the BDSM sex scenes in the book and think they have the potential to do much more harm than a scene in which a virgin has a mind-blowing orgasm during her first sexual experience.

The humor in this incident for me was the irony of me assuming she was asking for the critically acclaimed YA historical novel Between Shades of Grey when she meant 50 Shades.

I don’t think most teens need to be sheltered from sex in books. Teens have access to pornography on the Internet, people. My advice if you are concerned about your teenager reading a book like 50 Shades of Grey is to read it too, and talk about it with your teen.

I’m a sex-postitive feminist. I think teens should be educated about sex and should feel comfortable talking about it. I believe teenagers should be given the tools and guidance to make healthy decisions about sex. I think there is more danger in keeping information from teens than in sharing it.

Had the teen in question shown an interest in the book after I told her there were 100+ holds on it already, I would have added her to the reserve list without hesitation, because that’s my job.

When I first interviewed for my job as the YA assistant at my local library, one of my first questions was about recommending titles to teens. Was it okay to encourage them to read books from outside the Teen Zone? Should I refrain from suggesting a title that may be controversial? Did I need to worry about answering questions from parents about what their kids were reading?

My partner, Mister BS, taught his first year of high school in an isolated rural town. There were 50 students in the school; 300 people in the town. Though we expected things to be more conservative than our college town, we had no idea what we were getting into. When Mister BS taught 9th grade English, he obviously included a unit on Romeo & Juliet, but some parents reacted unfavorably to their children understanding all the sexual undertones, and let’s face it—dick and fart jokes—in the text. Shakespeare was written with common folk in mind as much as for the queen, and for all its beauty, contains its fair share of low humor. These parents did not appreciate the jokes.

He assigned his seniors a writing exercise—out of the textbook, which had been selected by a previous teacher and approved by the school board—that prompted students to reflect on the differences between feminism and women’s rights. The reading that was intended to be analyzed was that radical text “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft. The essays were so disparaging of women and feminists that Mister BS cried and my blood boiled. He took the essays to his principal and said that he wanted to do a lesson in response to it and thought he’d have the 17- and 18-year-old kids read the first chapter of Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks, “Come Closer to Feminism.” The principal told him not to “go there” and that treating women as second-class citizens was “a religious belief”.

That was when we decided we would not be staying another year in that small (-minded) town.

After seeing him go through that, I knew I didn’t want to have to answer to parents about giving their kids a book that had a sex scene or swearing in it.

But the youth services director assured me that the books that children check out are completely confidential, that I could recommend whatever I thought appropriate to any child, that the library would back me up, and that they’d never had an issue.

Now that I’ve laid out all that back story, here’s what happened: A middle school girl, one of our regulars, came to me at the desk asking me to put a book on hold for her.

“That ‘shades of grey’ book,” she says.

I am thrilled. This is a girl who reads manga (which I know nothing about) and the paranormal YA I think is so terrible. I can’t convince her to try Graceling or Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I think she wants to read Between Shades of Grey, the highly acclaimed historical fiction about a girl sent to Siberia while her father is sent to one of Stalin’s prison camps, that novel that will “steal your breath and capture your heart,” and I am excited to be able to talk to her about it.

But after I tell her how much I loved Lina from Lithuania and how glad I am to see her branching out and trying something new and different since I know she’s not into historical—she tells me she I’m not talking about the books she wants.

“No, the 50 Shades one,” she says.

And my heart drops to my stomach.

It took me a moment to figure out how to respond. I know this girl, and I do not think she is prepared to read 50 Shades of Grey. I’m sure there are plenty of teens reading 50 Shades—I mean, I bet plenty of teens read it as Masters of the Universe, the Twilight fanfiction that was its precursor. I don’t have a problem with that in theory, but I didn’t think that this particular girl was ready for that.

I ended up telling her that there were soooo many holds on it already that I could find her something better that she wouldn’t have to wait so long to get (and realistically, she might have turned 18 by the time she got her hands on it, there really are that many holds on our dozens of copies). I gave her some YA romances and told her they were better than 50 Shades (and really, that wasn’t meant as a lie). After all, Graceling and Daughter and Smoke of Bone have some pretty steamy scenes, and I hadn’t hesitated to suggest those to her. And I discovered there are several titles under the subject heading “erotica” shelved in the YA section. Good to know in case I have another 8th grader ask about 50 Shades of Grey.

Was that responsible reader’s advisory? I made a joke or two about it to my friends, but it really did get me thinking. For me, it was 50 shades of grey…literally.

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3 thoughts on “Tales from the Teen Zone: 50 Shades of Grey

  1. I think you handled it well, too! I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it yesterday. I have to confess I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey (mostly because I hate hyped books and I prefer YA- I may read it later, when the hype dies down) but if the adult world is shocked by it, I can imagine that it would be too much for a teen. Another recommendation you could make is the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare- It’s definitely racier than a lot of other YA (the latest is especially racy- City of Lost Souls) and although I would say it’s too graphic for 14-and-under, a 16 or 17-year-old should be fine, and there is way way more to the story than sex. Plus, the heroine loves manga! Match made in heaven.

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