Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Danger, Will Robinson!

I grew up during the golden age of problem novels.

During the late sixties/early seventies, it seemed like every other children's or young adult novel was about a controversial contemporary issue or crisis.



Teenage pregnancy!

Mental illness!

Anorexia! Bulimia! Overeating!

Running away from home!

Even though many of those sensationalistic, "ripped from the headlines" books were clearly meant to teach young readers a lesson, I do not recall many of the early problem novels -- such as Maia Wojciechowska's TUNED OUT (drugs!), John Neufeld's LISA, BRIGHT AND DARK (mental illness!) and Jeanette Eyerly's BONNIE JO, GO HOME (teenage pregnancy!) -- including warnings, disclaimers, or telephone hotlines for readers in crisis. But today it seems that more and more books contain the type of notes that, for me at least, make a novel seem less like a literary experience and more like a form of bibliotherapy. I also wonder if they're included out of genuine concern for the young reader or simply as a way to protect the author and publisher from possible lawsuits.

I've been thinking about this ever since I saw a copy of the new novel BIG MOUTH by Deborah Halverson:

which concerns a fourteen-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a competitive eating champ by beating the current hot dog eating record of over fifty-three franks in twelve minutes. Sensitive readers may find it hard to get past the vomiting scene that opens the book...especially since it lasts fifteen paragraphs. And there are many more to come. What I found most intriguing about the novel, though, was this disclaimer that appears before the first chapter even begins:

The disclaimer is then followed by 352 pages of text in which the protagonist engages in eating for speed and quantity in an uncontrolled environment with no medical technician present. Okay.

Sometimes disclaimers turn up when you least expect them. Who would think that Tomie de Paola's nostalgic and winsome collection of holiday memories, CHRISTMAS REMEMBERED, would include one?

Yet there it is, right on the copyright page (you may have to click on the image to enlarge the text):

I'm not sure what to make of that. I guess I would assume that anyone vehemently opposed to alcohol would just automatically omit those references when reading the book aloud and wouldn't need express permission from the author and publisher. On the other hand, hearing about such things as "holiday spirits" in these stories might be a good way for youngsters to learn about the Christmas traditions of various cultures.

You might think that these types of disclaimers are limited to children's books, but I've found such notes in adult volumes as well. In 1997, two of Shirley Jackson's children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart, published a collection of their mother's short stories called JUST AN ORDINARY DAY, and felt compelled to explain: "Our mother lived and wrote in a time -- the thirties through the sixties -- when smoking and drinking were widespread and fashionable. Her characters grimly and gleefully chain-smoke and throw down drink after drink, in between boiling their coffee and spanking their children. But underneath these literary folkways of her time the universal themes glitter."

I guess I'd assume that anyone old enough to read Jackson's work would be able to put the stories into historical perspective without apology or explanation.

Even as I write this blog entry, I'm not really sure where I stand on the issue of publisher disclaimers. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous that a book like BIG MOUTH would even be published if it concerns an issue so dangerous that it requires a warning; on the other hand, shouldn't an author have the freedom to write about any topic that he or she chooses? Does including a comment about the drinking -- not over-imbibing, but moderate drinking -- in CHRISTMAS REMEMBERED pander to the reader, or is it justified because SOME readers may frown on the practice? And I'm not sure what to make of the note at the end of Celia Rees' THE WISH HOUSE that reminds readers that the novel takes place in the 1970s before safe sex was an issue. I do know I got a little queasy when a character in James Lesesne's new young adult novel ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS pays a friend forty dollars to choke him, and later says, "That was fabulous. You guys...you guys should totally try it." Especially since the very week I read the book, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report that warned, "Since 1995, at least 82 children and adolescents have died as a result of playing 'the choking game.'" I flipped to the front and back of the book. No disclaimer. Was the scene important to the book as a work of literature? I don't know. Will anyone reading the book want to try this "fabulous" experience personally? I hope not.

Lots of questions. No answers.

I will say that most of us made it to adulthood without warnings like, "It is unsafe to go rafting on the Mississippi River without a guardian" or "If you are considering running away from home, please call the Runaway Hotline and don't even think of hiding out at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, which is filled with rare, fragile, and sometimes dangerous items that could easily be broken by children."


Anonymous said...

"Warning: worms, whether raw or fried, may be contaminated with salmonella, campylobacter, or listeria. Also, the author and editors do not condone gambling or betting of any kind. Minibikes are dangerous and should not be ridden by children under 18, particularly not when wearing red crash helmets and white jumpsuits, as such attire could obstruct the wearer's vision and hinder mobility in the event of a crash."

I hadn't noticed the trend toward disclaimers, but find the idea completely ridiculous. MOST middle-grade and YA fiction is about getting into trouble and getting back out again, and IMO the best of it is about getting into trouble BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU DID... and then finding a way to redeem yourself. The disclaimer implies that if you had only been doing what you were supposed to be doing in the first place, you wouldn't be in this mess, and you wouldn't need redemption. Aarrghh!

Daughter Number Three said...

A friend just recently had her first YA novel published by HarperCollins. A central part of the plot revolves around the main character intervening on behalf of her best friend, who is being sexually abused by her stepfather.

While there is no disclaimer in the book, my friend has been told by the publisher that she needs to be prepared to give advice to abuse victims.

Maybe this is why Go Ask Alice was anonymous. Hmmm.

Alison said...

We live in an age where cups of HOT coffee have warnings on them...not to protect the consumer, but to protect the seller, from being held responsible when the consumer spills said coffee on himself while leaving the drive-thru.

These warnings, disclaimers, etc., are in place to protect the author & publisher from litigation..."My son read Ms______'s novel in which the main character plays 'the choking game' without being injured & THAT is why he allowed his friend to choke him. Ms._________ and her publisher are responsible for my son's actions..." Etc., Etc,.

It's a sad, pathetic truth of our society.