I love reading and because I also love recommending books to teens, I read a lot of teen fiction. It’s one of the reasons why I started my Top 100 of teen fiction project this year where I am reading and reviewing my way through the NPR Top 100 of Teen Fiction.
But reading this much teen fiction and trying to review these books from a youth ministry viewpoint, I had to ask myself this question time and again: where do you draw the line in teen fiction? When is a book acceptable? When is it not? Which issues are okay to overlook and which issues aren’t? Here are some of my thoughts.
I can overlook strong language, but not cursing.
My first ‘rule’ is that I can accept some strong language if it’s not too much, but I really draw the line as using God’s name in vain. In my opinion, there’s a difference between using the f-word for example, or outright cursing. The latter is a clear violation of God’s commandment to not use His name in vain and I take that one very seriously. It was one of my main objections against The Fault in Our Stars, which was a really good book in other aspects.
I can accept fantasy, but not a distortion of the gospel
While I completely understand that some people will feel differently, I have no issue per se with fantasy like vampires, werewolves, or whatever. I do however have a big problem with any distortion of the gospel.
Lately I have read a few teen fiction books from that top 100 which featured angels and demons and which showed a completely different gospel. One such example is the Mortal Instruments series, where Lucifer is mentioned several times and where angels are portrayed as bad. This distortion of the gospel in my opinion is very dangerous ground.
I can accept sex, if it’s functional
Sex is a very common theme in teen fiction, which is logical as it matters to teens. I don’t have a problem with sex in a book per se, but it does have to be functional. That means it has to flow logically from the book’s story and theme and has to be written with style and subtlety. Let me explain what I mean by that.
In non-Christian fiction, you cannot expect all characters to stay pure. But the way sex is mentioned and described makes a big difference. Take The Perks of Being a Wallflower for instance. Sex is mentioned here, but it’s functional because it’s what has traumatized the main character. Also, it’s described in terms that are true to the main character. The book isn’t about sex, but it plays a role.
A wrong example is Anna and the French Kiss which has a lot of sexual references and implicitly condones cheating. Sex seems to be an actual theme here, which makes the book very superficial and unacceptable to me.
I can accept violence, if it has meaning
There’s a fair amount of violence in teen fiction. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, the Divergent Series, they all portray violence and ‘wars’ of some kind. Does that make these books wrong?
Again, I make the distinction whether the violence is functional or not, but I admit that’s a pretty subjective issue. For me, the fight against Voldemort in the Harry Potter series was functional, it was a variation on the dark vs light theme that is a key theme in many books and movies (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, you name it).
As far as the Hunger Games go, I’m not sure actually. I didn’t have a problem with the first book and the second was okay as well, but things got a bit out of hand in my opinion in the third book. It wasn’t necessary to make a point that was already made clearly in the first two books.
I admit, the guidelines above are pretty subjective but they help me in reviewing these teen fiction books. I’d love to hear how you determine whether or not to recommend a book!