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Discussion: The Sidescrollers controversy

Last week, a Connecticut mother objected to the inclusion of Matt Loux’s Sidescrollers on a summer reading list for incoming high school freshmen. Loux responded in an interview with the local Fox affiliate.

The book, which was published in 2006, revolves around the hijinks of three recent high school graduates who team up to thwart a bully who wants to have sex with a girl they like and then spread a video of it around the school. The book includes several over-the-top practical jokes (trashing a car, tipping over a tank of lobsters) and some swears, including the f-bomb.

The parent’s complaint raises some interesting questions: Is this book, in fact, appropriate for high school freshmen? Does it mirror the way real teenagers talk, and if so, is it so bad to include it? Should books that are recommended by a school district meet some rigorous standard in terms of language and sexual situations—or does that mean all approved books will be so bland no one will read them? Is it OK for fiction to include things we wouldn’t approve of in real life? And most important of all: Is this a good book?

Three of our bloggers address this question from three points of view: Robin Brenner is a young adult librarian in a public library, Esther Keller is a school librarian in a middle school, and Lori Henderson is the mother of a teenage girl. Here’s their take on the situation.

Robin: There are many, many issues raised whenever a book is challenged and I find I’m always full of questions more than answers.

In this case, Sidescrollers was recommended as one of a list of possible reads for incoming freshmen, not an assignment with no alternative. If a parent is concerned about one title, the logical move would be to request their child read another of the choices that does meet their approval. Her comment from the first news report that “parents are busy” and that it’s a failure of the school in including this title does trouble me. If she’s that concerned, and clearly she is, then one hopes she would make the time to screen titles her teen is reading. I live in hope people will address their concerns to the school directly (and not just leap to the school board, as appears to have happened here) to find out how the list was created, who decides on the books, and if there is a reconsideration process in place that could address their concerns. This parent took the story public, and that makes me wonder how her concerns stretch beyond simply her child’s reading. The fact that there’s now a board of people reading all of the choices for the school system is a positive step and does make me wonder how the titles were chosen previously.

Does a book that acknowledges the way guys talk (and trash talk when gaming, for example) make it inappropriate for teen readers? For a school environment, I do see the concerns about the language. I would like to hear the answers to questions that haven’t been asked—how it was on the list in the first place, what the intention was behind including it, and what kinds of discussions they might have within the school about the title.

As always with news stories and challenges of this type, however, significant details are lost in the emphasis on “sex and language” in the book with little or no context given. To be clear, there is no sex in Sidescrollers. There is language, of the type that guys use when insulting or trash talking each other. Some of it is in the more serious confrontations between bullies and their victims. Some of it is in the friendly ribbing among competing gamers. It’s the equivalent of a teen slacker film. I hear such talk in my Teen Room, most often among the guys on the computers playing games and gossiping, and I do put a stop to outright insults or language that could offend anyone within earshot including kids or other teens (or myself!). That being said, the book is presenting how guys interact (and not how they behave in front of adults), and in that sense it’s undoubtedly realistic.

To admit my own bias, Sidescrollers has long been a personal favorite of mine—I re-read it recently in completing the YALSA Best of the Best 2011 reading challenge. It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it, and I love the positive message of how geeks can band together to one, outwit a bully, and two, to save their friend from a dubious situation. Both triumphing over a bully and preventing date rape seems to me a positive sequence of events, and I’m glad at least the school system seems to get that the core story of the book is a good one.

That being said, Sidescrollers is about teens who have just graduated high school, and I do think of it as a choice for older teens: so, not necessarily incoming high school freshmen. Similarly, all the news reports mention that Sidescrollers is listed as a Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2008 by YALSA, and I just want to emphasize once again that that list includes titles for teens from age 12 to age 18 and that DOES NOT mean that every title highlighted is appropriate for every age teen.

The superintendent questions “promoting that kind of talk.” Where do educators draw the line between reflecting reality and every word being deemed appropriate for teenage readers? I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding the rating and subsequent re-rating of the documentary Bully due to the language dropped, though admittedly that film is a more serious endeavor. In that case, the swears and threats from a bully earned the film an R-rating and would have prevented teens from seeing the film about their own lives without an accompanying adult (it was ultimately re-rated at PG-13.) It highlighted the strange sequence of decisions about exposing teens to language via film that they were already evidently hearing in life. The Sidescroller sequence quoted in the news program (out of context) is, in fact, one of the bullies dropping the f-bomb in an emasculating threat of violence. You can bet it’s realistic and emphasizes the fact that these bullies are not the good guys. The rest of the f-bombs are used in anger and surprise (as, well, swears often are). I think the question then becomes—if it’s realistic, is that automatically promotional? I would say no.

Esther: I don’t want to comment on the specifics of the title, because I haven’t read it since the title was recommended for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list in 2008. That said, I do remember enjoying the title immensely. I also remember hearing everyone quote lines from the book. The sheer excitement from others really just hyped the comic for me. This title was a real favorite and I do agree that it reflects a certain teen reality.

But I also work in a school. I work in a middle school—which is so tricky because our youngest students come in at age 11 and most graduate by the time they turn 14. Talk about a span of maturity. So finding titles that will meet everyone’s needs is an arduous task. In addition, schools consider themselves in loco parentis. But in this day and age, trying to “monitor” [note the quotations!] what everyone reads, when the student population is so diverse (at least where I’m from) is also extremely difficult.

I’ve compiled more than one summer list. Robin wonders how the titles were chosen. I don’t know about this school, but in my school we start by distributing the summer reading list from the public library (which is a list generated in partnership with the school system), and then I add more titles for diversity. Yup. Note the I. And I often start with award winning titles. Not only are these titles really great, but I also know that chances are these titles are more readily available in the public library. But having sat on a YALSA committee for two years, I am mindful that YA lists from the American Library Association span many ages. YA, according to YALSA’s definition, is students between the ages of 12 – 18 or grades 7 – 12.

My gut instinct is that while this was only a suggested title, the school could have left this title off for incoming freshmen. In fact, if you look at Oni Press’s website, it confirmed what I remembered, that the age rating is for T+ (Older Teens). I poked around to see a definition for the age ratings and didn’t find it. I shouldn’t assume, but when I hear older teens, I think of age 16 and up. So in my mind, this title should be left off a suggested reading list for 14-year-olds. It doesn’t mean a 14-year-old can’t read it. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available to them, but does it have to be recommended to them? Had this list been for incoming Juniors, I probably would be singing a different tune.

Over the last few years, this has been a huge concern of mine. Often, adults don’t look at suggested age ratings and then suffer the backlash because they hastily recommended a [great] title. But when you look at the publisher’s own age recommendation or book review recommendations it clearly suggests the titles for an older age group.

I do think that reading all the titles before putting it on a list and having a committee read all the titles is a great idea. (That’s what’s done here in NY. At least 1 person on the committee will have read the title.) I agree with Robin, that perhaps this mother was a bit hasty by running to the board and seemingly bypassing the school. (Though we don’t know this for a fact.) But ultimately, I do wonder why this wonderful title was here. (And yes, I know this is an unpopular opinion.)

Robin: Esther, I agree with you on that note—wondering how the title got on to that specific list. I get defensive (as all librarians do, I think) when challenges like this surface, but this is also one that might have been avoided had the selectors chosen this title for juniors or seniors rather than freshmen, as I think would have made the most sense. I hate seeing teachers, librarians, or selectors get burned when they pick a title that is award-winning without having noted the age range or content being inappropriate for the particular audience they are selecting for, which is I fear what happened here.

Esther: And Robin, I don’t disagree with any of your earlier points. It’s just that the age rating and the age of the students this title was recommended for don’t jive for me. I wish teachers and librarians were better educated in how to use ALA’s award lists. It’s only a small minority that will not look further than the list before recommending a title, but only one “miss” is needed to get a parent or well-meaning adult’s ire up.

On another note: The more I think about it, the more I’m okay with the school board’s reaction. They looked at their system and found a way to fix it. And it’s not a bad way! I would want to know that some of the teachers had read the titles being recommended to my child.

Lori: I haven’t read Sidescrollers, but from what I’ve seen and heard, I doesn’t sound like the crisis the mother made it out to be. I’ll agree that the whoever chose the title should have paid attention to the age rating. As I parent, I do pay attention to age ratings when they are used, but sometimes I think its okay to read up. Some incoming freshmen are ready for older reading material, and I think it’s okay to acknowledge that. Perhaps if the list had mentioned the age rating or that it was meant for those with older reading habits, it would not have seemed so careless.

While I don’t care for reading swear words in books, I do acknowledge that is the way kids, even freshmen, tend to talk today. And with a book meant to read the teenage crowd, it seems more authentic to use it in the same situations as they do. And having a video game playing teenager, I do know the occasional swear word will come out when she is with friends. By keeping those parts of the story real, it makes it easier to take the more serious elements seriously, which should be the goal.

I asked my oldest daughter who just started 10th grade, if she thought a book with this kind of language and sexual situations would be appropriate for incoming freshmen, and at first she said the language would be okay, but maybe not the sexual situation. When I told what the sexual situation was, she changed her mind and said it should be okay. She has a good head on her shoulders, so I trust her opinion on this.

I do think the school board did react in a fair and reasonable way, but I think the parent was a little too quick to make it into the big issue that she did. She should have gone to the school/creators of the list and discussed her concerns with them first, and then if a resolution couldn’t be arrived at, taken it to the school board.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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