A woodcut illustration of a boy and girl reading.

Editing Children’s Books on Mature Topics: What to Consider

While books can be a wonderful way for readers to escape reality for a few hundred pages, they can also help foster learning and provide readers with safe ways to cope with challenges they might be facing.

Authors and publishing houses have been tackling books on topics such as gender identity, depression, anxiety, divorce, and death for centuries. However, we have seen a more recent trend in books meant for children and middle grade readers that address these more “mature” topics for the younger audience.

An article from Publishers Weekly discussed a wave of middle grade books addressing topics ranging from gender transitioning to war and how these books have faced both ridicule and praise.

David Levithan, vice president, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic, told Publishers Weekly he does not believe there are any true “taboo” topics anymore. He explained that the test he likes to follow is to determine if a topic is able to be contextualized for a child to understand.

“Some issues are very hard to contextualize for an elementary school level, but it can be done,” Levithan told Publishers Weekly. “Rita Williams-Garcia managed to explain female genital mutilation in No Laughter Here [Amistad, 2003] so nine- and ten-year-olds could understand.” Editors working with books for children should keep Levithan’s advice in mind when addressing the language of children’s books.

Rebecca Westcott, with The Guardian, explains how, despite an editor or author’s best wishes, not every book was written to be read by every person. Some books just simply do not stick with some readers. Westcott gave the example of We Need To Talk About Kevin, a book she described as powerful, well-written, and featuring a great storyline—and she also said she strongly wishes she had never read it.

One of the last things we want to do as publishers is leave a reader wishing they could erase a book from their memory. However, we never wish to go in the opposite direction, either, and aid in censorship. So how do we find a balance in what is appropriate for our readers? And how do those guidelines apply to children who are, according to Publishers Weekly, in the “storm-and-stress” period of their life, where so much is in flux.

There does not appear to be one right answer to determine what is appropriate for children to read when it comes to taboo topics. However, there is one important piece of advice to consider when thinking about what children can or can’t handle.

“I don’t believe the subject matter or the themes are too tough for a younger audience: kids deal with these issues,” former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee Pat Scales told Publishers Weekly. And thus it is important to show children they are not alone by having their experiences reflected in the literature they read.

In addition to showing children they are not alone in their struggles by seeing characters tackling the same experiences, these books can teach children empathy and educate them in a safe, calming way about a challenge they may be having, such as how dyslexia sets them apart from their peers.

While we wait for more books taking on these tough topics for children, here is a list of published works that could provide parents and teachers with a way to help children cope with common struggles including depression, death, immigration, politics, learning disabilities, dementia, and more.

Maturity for the Ages: Why YA Literature Needs More Mature Themes

As a twenty-five-year-old, I sometimes get asked if I am embarrassed for reading young adult literature. Depending on the person and how smart I want to sound, I either say yes or no.
But these occurrences have me thinking about why I like reading young adult literature. The main reason would have to be the themes associated with these books. I find at my age that I am still figuring things out. I literally have no idea what I am doing most of the time. I am still thinking about what I want to be and I what I want to do. These thoughts and feelings still align with young adult literature. Simply put, I like things I can relate to. But this begs the question, is young adult literature moving towards more mature themes?
In a recent article the Guardian cites figures from Nielsen that show 80 percent of YA literature is read by people over twenty-five.
Well this makes me feel better. Personally, I think it is a good thing that young adult literature is taking on more adult themes like race, rape, assault, economic hardships, etc., because becoming and being an adult is hard. All these hard issues are what adults, people, encounter at some point in their lives. Just because a person is sixteen or seventeen does not mean that they are not ready to read about tough issues.
All they have to do is turn on the news or visit websites and they’ll see those tough issues. If society can start a healthy dialogue on these issues when people are young, wouldn’t that help them become more understanding, more open to sharing their issues, and more receptive to different ideas, thus becoming a better person? Some critics disagree. In the same Guardian article, the author argues that real teenage books are not getting published. But is this actually true? Teenagers encounter issues such as drug use, rape, and violence—these are not confined to adults, because experience is not confined to a certain age. I think that if teens are seeing more mature content in their books, then maybe it is something they also can relate to. Not just teens either. Literature is for everyone.
Some might say adding more mature themes into young adult books is a business tool to get more adults to buy the books, considering they are the ones with the money. And that may be so, but teens can still benefit from seeing these tough situations. Teens can still relate and connect with literature just like adults. So the next time someone asks if I feel embarrassed for reading YA, I will smile and say nope, because experience and issues do not have an age limit.