I’d planned to post a completely different piece today, but I received a series of texts yesterday that so disturbed me, I decided I needed to write something completely new.
My sister has the genuine joy of working for her local library. She preps books before they appear on the shelf for the first time, she mends them when they inevitably come back with some sort of damage, and she helps with re-shelving. Needless to say, she sees a lot of books every day.
Lately she’s been noticing more books geared for younger readers arriving with disturbing messages hidden within the pages. One book, heralded as a book for teen girls’ empowerment, reads more like a story grooming young high schoolers for relations with older men.
Yesterday she received a graphic novel targeted to boys from the ages of six to eleven. Right in the centerfold was a drawing of several young girls in risqué poses wearing nothing but skimpy panties. Worse, the image itself had nothing to do with the overall story. It was just there with bold letters proclaiming that topless girls are “very sexy.”
Appalled that something like that would ever be printed, she sent me a picture of the book cover and the centerfold. I thought I was going to be sick all over my desk the moment I saw them.
Even though these are cartoonish drawings, it’s clear that the girls depicted are young—one is even wearing a big pink bow in her hair.
We live in an era when we as women are fighting to end the objectification of our bodies by leering men. We post videos about what it’s like walking down the street every day. We’re refusing to accept phrases like “boys will be boys” and we’re fed up with women being criminalized and stigmatized while men get a slap on the wrist—if that.
But that’s not the only reason I’m sickened by this graphic exploitation.
I’m sickened because our little boys are just as vulnerable as our little girls. Drawings and pictures that objectify women and girls rewire their still-forming minds in ways that could ultimately send them down very dark and dangerous paths in life.
The lecherous old men of today are the innocent young victims of yesterday.
Issues of censorship or freedom of expression aside, as Children’s and YA writers or illustrators, we have the privilege and awesome responsibility of aiding in the mental and emotional growth of our readers. We get to open their eyes to wonder and possibility, encourage them to ask tough questions and seek out better ways to handle difficult problems. We also play a vital role in the adults they will grow up to be.
I’m not advocating that we shelter young minds from human anatomy and sexuality. We should be having early, healthy discussions with our children. Regularly and often.
What we shouldn’t be doing is telling the young men in our lives that girls posing naked for the pleasure of random strangers is not only okay but it’s something that should be celebrated with wide eyes and drooling grins.
If we want to protect our daughters, we must also protect our sons.
P.S. After my sister had a conversation with the children’s librarian expressing her concern, the library opted to remove the offending title from their catalog. To the staff there, I’d like to say, “Thank you!”