Beware the Unclean Books

“She advocates dirty books!”

I get it. I understand that it’s a dangerous world out there and some parents want to protect their kids from it as long as possible. I get that they want to share lists of books that don’t have sex, bad words, violence, or dangerous ideas. This brave new world we live in is scary.

But it also gives us such amazing weapons and tools.

The internet is both. So. Parents are using the internet to share lists of  “clean books.”

And I have no problem with that.


The opposite of clean is dirty.

And in defining their preferences as clean, they are labeling the rest of us dirty.

dirty booksPersonally, I would find it amusing and subversive to have a badge on my websites that says, “I write dirty books.” Seriously, aren’t we all getting a fabulous image of biddies picking a little and a lot while insisting, “She advocates dirty books!”

Clearly, if you think books are either “clean” or “dirty,” we are not on the same page, anyway. So why should I care?
Partly, I care because I care about words.

Clean: free from dirt, marks, or stains; morally uncontaminated; pure; innocent

And yet, is that truly the concept you want to teach your kids—that books that aren’t appropriate for their age are dirty?

Or, isn’t it truer that what you want them to understand is that these books are “dangerous?”

At this age or state in their emotional development, you consider these books inappropriate (and why age-appropriate isn’t the term you use, I’m not sure), because these books have dangerous ideas or will put dangerous images in their minds?

If that’s so, then I applaud you. I may not agree with your assessment, but thank goodness you are making sure your kids read. Thank goodness you are involved. Thank goodness, because so many kids do not have this kind of parental guidance and support.

And someday they will be eighteen or twenty-one or out of your house, and making their own choices, and you will have done all you can and it’s then up to them.

I do not scorn or mock your choice.

I do scorn and mock your choice of words.

So this is my suggestion.

Change your terms.

Make lists of “safe” books and share them.

Safe: protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost; uninjured; with no harm done

Keeping your kids safe is your job.

Labeling the rest of us as dirty, stained, morally contaminated?

That’s just plain rude.






Beware the Unclean Books — 18 Comments

    • It wasn’t until I was researching swear words for This Crumbling Pageant that I finally found out why Rabelais was on that list. I somehow always assumed the books listed were not at all problematical, and the mayor’s wife was just being a prig. Well, she was, but at least now I know why!

  1. What my parents told me, when I was a kid, was that I could read anything I wanted to read, but if something troubled me or I had questions I was required to come talk to them. Worked pretty well. I used the same tactic with my kids.

    One excellent result of this was that I got a good sense of what I was or wasn’t comfortable with at the age of 9, or 11, or 15.

    I am totally on board with not being labeled dirty. I don’t like “safe” much more than I like “clean.”* I racked my brain trying to find another word–“appropriate” was the only one that comes to mind, and that’s not perfect either.

    * “Safe” seems to me to be part of the overall hover-parenting that appears to be the norm. Pad the playgrounds! But then I am old and cranky.

  2. Yeah, safe is just as much a hot button as dirty. What is so safe about a book full of violence and suffering, but free of sex?

    I don’t think there are any easy answers, and that’s after decades of teaching and working with kids. Generally speaking, I’ve found that forbidding anything will make curious kids sneak out to try it anyway–which means communication lines have been broken. The curious kids have to hide their experience from parents, instead of talking to them about it. So who do they go to? Usually other kids on the playground. Great wisdom accrued there!

    I think the only thing parents can do is make it clear that communication lines are open. Most kids will actually self-censor: they can tell when something makes them uncomfortable, or they’re not ready for it yet. (And many times, the questionable content zooms right over their heads.) But they need to know that HOME is safe, and books are books. Some of which we want to read, some we don’t. Some we might save until we’re older.

    • I’m not even debating whether or not people should control what their kids read. Some do. Some don’t. I just figured most of the ones who do might need to take a couple of steps back and see if their labeling system falls under the header of “judging,” because wall know what that leads to.

  3. This is a great post! I’ve thought about this same line of logic…clean/dirty. When people ask about what I write, I tell them my stories are very real. I write both YA and NA, but both are mature. I write the words kids say in high school hallways. I write about the drug problems in our high schools. I write the violence, the pressures to have sex, the sometimes consequences. I wouldn’t classify what I write as dirty, though often scenes, especially in my new adult books, are intimate and romantic (and a little saucey-exciting, which I like in my romance books) but dirty… I’m okay if that’s what someone thinks. But when I describe my stories, I say they’re more fit for HBO or FX or MTV instead of network TV (and I don’t think one would say network is clean and cable is dirty). Real, blunt, honest–and if that’s dirty to some, I guess I’m okay with that. To each his own.

    • I think it’s a great shift that YA can now reflect the realities of YA life. When I was a teenager the choice was either very vanilla [usually written in the 50s] ‘teen romances’ or adult fiction. I actually enjoyed the old ones, but read Valley of the Dolls and its ilk more often.

      Teens want to read about the experiences that are real in their lives, and the lives around them–with someone like them in the middle of the story, rather than an adult. And as you know, I totally agree with you that defining such books as clean or dirty is really unfortunate.

  4. I have written a few so-called “dirty” books, i.e. having erotic elements. I’ve also written dozens of nice ‘n spicy sexy books. My earliest eight titles would now merit that despicable “clean” description. That’s because I’m so ancient the only romances acceptable when I first published merely hinted at sex. You know, dot, dot, dot, like in Mama Mia. Those would be suitable for most teens, though they are not about teens. I’ve never tried to write for YA or NA. I doubt I’m qualified, but my sexless books are what I call “sweet.” I prefer to write somewhere in the middle range between sizzlin’ hot and saccharine. The first are too difficult to maintain all the different positions and sensations without repeating myself, and the last, because I find them boring, though my sales indicate others don’t.

    • I definitely remember when they were called “sweet.” I think that’s why I felt so shocked when I saw them labeled as “clean.” The subtext if very judgmental.

    • Do you have any idea whether the “clean” books are labeled solely by sexual content, or lack thereof? That woulddefinitely work well, except for the people who are very cognizant and deliberate in the use of clean vs dirty, because they condemn books that fall outside of their narrow perameter of what is ‘decent.

  5. Patricia, I write sweet and inspirational romance. I never use the term “clean” when I promote my books. I tell people they are PG 13. Some of my readers use that term to describe my books but personally, I try to avoid labeling what I write in that way. I agree with you. I have grandmothers, mothers and daughters who pass my books to each other. Teenagers send me letters all the time so I know they read my books. When I mention some of my friends who write more steamy, I call them my steamy sisters and smile and compliment their books, too, because I know how hard this job can be. I’ve found the best I can do as a writer is keep my nose to the grindstone and write what I feel comfortable writing and try not to judge anyone else’s choices. When I conduct workshops, I stress that we all have follow our instincts and write in our own way. I appreciate you pointing this out. Thanks!

  6. Patricia, Having raised dyslexic children and taught 7th and 8th graders who read at a 3rd grade level, I’ve always been thrilled when they read Anything. Reading opens doorways to the world most of us will never personally experience. I agree that parents who are paying attention to what their children are reading is important. I also agree that if the subject matter is too “mature” the children won’t even understand it and may even skip to the ‘best parts’ which don’t take place in the bedroom or wherever.

    My books vary in heat level or whatever we are calling it these days. Since I have books in the same series with no love scenes and books with many, it’s a discussion I have when face-to-face with potential readers. What’s important to me as a writer is to write the story I’m compelled to tell and to follow my instincts regarding how much/many and how explicit the love scenes are. I’ve found my characters pretty much know the answers there.

  7. Mothers who believe their teenage daughters aren’t reading steaming romances are deluded. I’ve received many fan letters from teens who love my historical romances. I’ve also written G rated novellas anyone could read without blushing. Why not use G rated or PG 13 so there is a consistency between films and books.

  8. I read absolutely everything I wanted as a child, and I don’t have problems with my children doing the same. I did, however, teach each of them (as they hit puberty) how to delete browser history and/or browse incognito.