'Clean Teen' - Yes Please
Updated: May 28, 2021
I was meeting with my writing group last week; we finished critiquing our stories and fell into chatting at the end. That's when I received my new author label: Clean Teen.
We're all women; I'm the second oldest of the four-person group at 59. The youngest is a college student in her early 20s.
We all grew up reading different middle grade and young adult books. We all bought different books for our kids when they were teens and tweens. About the only universal series for us is Harry Potter. (Of course...aren't they foundational for everyone?)
Somehow the talk turned to sex scenes. A writers conference I'm going to this summer has a session on how to write sex scenes. I joked I might take the class but I'd never use it because I couldn't see myself ever writing a sex scene. (Way too revealing.) Especially not for a Middle Grade or Young Adult book.
"Oh, there are a lot of sex scenes in YA now," said the college student.
"Yeah," the mom of the 13-year-old nodded.
"Really?" I was incredulous. "Not in middle grade!"
No, the consensus was, not in middle grade. But Young Adult books are apparently getting pretty spicy.
"Yeah there's actually a lot of sex in YA. Some of it is very descriptive," the college student said.
"Nope. I don't think I'm ever going there," I said.
"Oh!" the college student said. "You're Clean Teen! You're a Clean Teen writer!"
"Sounds good to me!" I said.
So of course after we ended the meeting I had to Google it, because I'd never heard the term before. Turns out "Clean Teen" is actually a thing. And a somewhat controversial thing, if you ask some librarians and editors.
"Clean Teen" books are books that don't include sex scenes, a lot of brutal violence or gore, or swearing. Think of it like a movie: Clean Teen books are PG or PG-13. (Still sounds good to me.)
Parents these days are frequently asking book store owners and librarians for recommendation on "clean" books for tweens and teens.
Which apparently ruffles some feathers, according to a Publisher's Weekly article on the trend from 2019.
Editor Kendra Levin at Simon & Schuster said many authors and publishers don't like the term, because it smacks of some sort of moral police out there, censoring
books and authors. (Think Dana Carvey's Church Lady.) “The term ‘clean teen’ ...feels a bit puritanical to me, the implication being that a certain kind of story is clean and anything else is dirty," Levin told PW.
Editors and librarians say that one family's "clean" may be another family's "risqué." And some family's "risqué" might be another family's "tame." Despite that, there is a consumer demand for Clean Teen/PG-13 books. A company called Clean Teen Publishing launched in 2013 and has been a success. Some of the top publishers in the U.S. have launched their own "Clean Teen" book lines. Scholastic Books told PW Clean Teen books are in demand and selling well among their titles and at book fairs.
I've never been a fan of censorship, or banning books from school libraries or reading lists. Usually, I've really liked the books some people are trying to ban. (Really. You don't want your kids reading "The Lottery," or "To Kill a Mockingbird?" *Heavy sigh* *Look of Anguish*)
But I completely support the concept of "Clean Teen" books. For one thing, editors, teachers and parents note that tweens and teens like to "read up." They want to read about characters who are older than they are. Fourth and fifth-graders like to read books about middle schoolers, and middle schoolers like to read books about high-schoolers. So it can be hard to find books for younger readers, especially advanced readers, that don't contain sex and violence.
Which is where the Clean Teen label comes in. Goodreads has a super long list of titles. Mom bloggers also write on the topic quite a bit.
I'm happy if someone wants to label me a Clean Teen writer. PG-13 is my preferred rating in reading and movie-viewing anyway.
When I think back to the books I read as a tween and teen, fantasy was always my favorite. It offered an escape into worlds full of talking animals, magic, noble men (and if I was lucky, women) and mythical humanoids taking on quests and battling evil, dragons, and monsters. The ordinary characters in those stories faced all those scary things, and their fears, and learned to conquer them -- usually by making good friends. "Ordinary character is thrown in to situation facing magic and scary stuff, then joins with friends or makes friends, faces trials, solves a mystery or problem, vanqishes evil, then returns with/finds a home with friends."
That, to me, is the perfect plot line. It was the favorite plot line for my (now grown) kids as tweens and teens too -- which introduced me to a whole new generation of great books.
I think, most importantly, Clean Teen books give their readers a chance to escape the hothouse pressure cooker that is American adolescence.
Today's U.S. teens and tweens can flip on the news or scroll through a feed on their smartphone and see a depressing amount of real violence, hatred, abuse, war, and yes, sex. Recent studies have shown 90 percent of teens have watched porn online and 10 percent view it daily. Having just looked up that stat right now for this blog, I'm shocked and saddened. Blame smartphones. Teen girls are increasingly under pressure from teen boys (usually older, but not always) to text them provocative/nude photos, which inevitably get shared around. Blame smartphones.
Think of the pressure of being a tween/teen today! Especially a girl! Between all of the above, learning algebra, battling zits, calendaring periods and navigating the usual Game-of-Thrones style shifting relationship alliances that are Middle and High School, why do they need any more sex and violence in the books they're reading for fun? What's great about Clean Teen books, fantasy in particular, is that they offer a temporary vacation from all that, and a safe space to just hang out for a while. I like what C.S. Lewis said about the value of fairy tales and fantasy books for children (I include tweens and teens there too):
“Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”
Indeed. MacUmba would agree.