Teen books gone from "honest" to "offensive"by News WeeklyNews Weekly
, March 10, 2001
Have teenage reading crossed the threshold from "realism" to nihilism? That is the question asked by three researchers* who examined 94 adolescent literary works, which represented all of the "Notable Texts" in the "older child" category of the Children's Book Council of Australia Awards 1996-1998.
When the Children's Book Council Awards were first introduced in the mid-1940s, typical titles like "Karrawingi the emu" and "Bush cobbers" revealed a fascination with Australian flora, fauna, indigenous people and traditional images of the white Australian family in an idealised landscape.
But by the 1980s, these themes had been replaced by "realism". Among the newly honoured books were J. Pausacker's "What are ya!", which describes a lesbian relationship, and John Marsden's "So much to tell you", which portrays emotional abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, elective mutism and psychiatric institutions."
The researchers said that these books distorted the "real world". For example, the rate of family separation in the 94 texts examined was about twice that found in the community (47% versus 21%), and the proportion of teenage characters who met criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis (41%) was much greater that the rate of mental health problems found among adolescents in a recent national survey (13.4%).
Young people in these books experienced high levels of mental distress, but only 38 out of 111 characters with a psychiatric condition accessed mental health services and only 12 of the 38 patients actually benefited from the help.
"Characters who met criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis were more likely to have been abused, traumatised and to have suffered a loss. They were less attractive, worse academically, and social failures. And for characters with a psychotic illness the outlook was even more grim (over half killing themselves)."
The researchers question the effect such books will have on vulnerable teenagers and on their preparedness to seek professional help.
* K M Bokey, G Walter and J Rey, "From Karrawingi the emu to Care factor zero: Mental health issues in contemporary Australia adolescent literature" (Medical Journal of Australia, 2000, 173). Full text available from: