The Dark Alleys in Young Adult Fiction

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“I’m just glad she’s reading.” You’ve heard it before. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. You think it’s great that your teen or preteen is enjoying literature. And it is great.


Many parents think any book is better than hours in front of a screen. But they may be blissfully unaware of some current trends in young adult (YA) fiction.

This article isn’t primarily about censoring your child — or even yourself — from the world of secular fiction, but about knowing what’s out there and guarding the hearts of your family through prayer and critical thinking (Proverbs 4:23; Philippians 4:6–8).

“Tweenager Porn”

As a preteen, I read a dark urban fantasy novel fraught with sexual tension, even though it contained no explicit sex scenes. Afterward, I felt dirty. I sat on my bed staring at the book, wondering what the consequences of burning a library book would be.

That was my first encounter with what I later labeled “emotional porn.” Then one day I stumbled upon a quote by Stephen King where he explains why Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga became so popular. King flipped the way I viewed YA fiction on its head.

[Meyer is] opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. . . . It’s exciting and it’s thrilling. . . . A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.

Elsewhere, King referred to Meyer’s series as “tweenager porn.” King rightly thinks young girls aren’t prepared to deal with these feelings yet. But the believer should go even further. Does the sexually charged content in these books edify anyone, at any age? Do unmarried teens and twentysomethings honor Christ in their singleness when they immerse themselves in a world that flirts with sexual immorality?

Hazy and Confused

So exactly how pervasive is this content in pop fiction? YA author Cyndy Etler relates advice she received from hundreds of teens on how to write for them.

You’ve got to give them the dirt most adults won’t touch. Real language — meaning cuss words, if you can deal. Real sex stuff, instead of cutting the scene when the going gets going. Real substance use. . . . It feels like it violates some sacred oath: “Protect the children!” But here’s the thing: the children aren’t protected. They’re doing this stuff.

Etler goes on to say writers should cut parents out because teens want autonomy. Although she ends her article with the lesson “include hope,” many YA books simply end up teasing the emotions. They take their readers on a roller coaster of tension, leaving their hearts hazy and confused, not more virtuous or mature.

In the past decade, at least ten women have confided in me that they struggle with habitual masturbation. For some, the habit began before the age of ten. Years later, they still struggle, hiding it from their spouses in shame. One friend, a married woman, confessed pop fiction as her main source of temptation. She is far from unusual. For a woman, what could be more enticing than a story that pulls at your heart and ensnares your emotions?

Whatever Is Excellent

So how can we as parents practically guard our kids’ hearts?

First, we can do our best to make sure our kids are reading books that will set before them “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8).

Occasionally, a book’s front cover will be a dead giveaway. If the characters are already immodestly dressed and kissing, the story inside the book will almost certainly go further. Most of the time, however, we’ll need to dig a little deeper to figure out what’s really inside a book. Take time to familiarize yourself with the jargon of book descriptions and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. For example, if the love interest is described as “mysterious and alluring,” the story will likely include sexual overtones and center around an infatuated teen.

Blurbs and reviews are not often so straightforward. To get a better sense of the book, try reading the first chapter. I recently picked up a book where the female protagonist says a boy’s lips look “achingly kissable” on the first page. That description signals something more to be expected later in the storyline.

Second, we can pray that God himself will guard our kids’ hearts, as Paul says in Philippians 4:6–7: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Pray through the Psalms and other passages that focus on our affections. For example, we can pray along with Song of Solomon 2:7 that our children will “not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Or we can take up Psalm 1:2 and pray that our kids will “delight . . . in the law of the Lord” instead of in the all-too-common teen infatuation of YA stories.

The Right Weapon

Don’t be discouraged about literature. Many books out there present wonderful, character-building stories — some of which are written by nonbelievers. And all Jane Austen fans worth their salt know a romance story can edify as well as entertain.

Stories are incredibly powerful. They’re a weapon in the hands of the author. Let’s make sure that weapon looks more like the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), and less like a wrecking ball to our kids’ love for the Lord.

is a stay-at-home mom. She occasionally finds time for photography and for writing her first novel. Her writing and photography can be found at her personal website. She lives with her husband, Tim, and three children near Houston, Texas.