Discussion: What counts as “mature” content?

Today’s discussion was sparked by a recent piece in Publisher’s Weekly, “Middle Grade Books Take on Mature Topics.” It’s a pretty good piece, describing this trend, its history, and its struggles. But the idea of “mature topics” gave me a pause, especially in this description:

Though the YA category continues to explore darker and more difficult topics, books for upper-middle-grade readers are increasingly tackling subjects once considered almost exclusively the province of books for teenagers: sexual awakening, sexual identity, mental illness, suicide, eating disorders, terrorism, and war and its collateral damage.

It’s true that these topics have been pretty regularly explored in (and, in some cases, defining) YA. But, does that mean they are necessarily “mature topics”?

For one thing, what makes a topic “mature”? It’s probably something that adults are concerned with, but many parents want to shield from their children. Explicit sex and violence in movies makes sense in this way. But topics like eating disorders and other mental disorders? The existence of gay and trans kids? These topics don’t just appear out of nowhere when one enters high school. They aren’t specific to age.

Most LGBTQ adults and older teens will say they knew or had inklings that they were gay and/or trans when they were younger, but may not have had the vocabulary to understand what they were experiencing. There are also many cases of mental illnesses beginning in childhood. These kids do exist, and they’re likely looking for more perspective, reassurance, and more information. And that’s exactly what these kinds of books provide, and they’re shelved in an accessible place for those kids.

And while it may be more high schoolers doing drugs or smoking or drinking or having sex, middle schoolers, middle schoolers and even younger kids aren’t completely in the dark about these things. They might observe these kind of things from their parents or older siblings. They’ll hear rumors about what peers are doing and may feel pressure to do the same. They hear about violence on TV. And they’re all taught about AIDS and warned away from drugs, alcohol, and sex at school (though that last one may not occur in middle school like it did for me). Even if they aren’t participating, the majority of kids don’t live in the candy-coated world we wish they did. As the article points out, however, it has to be written in a way that’s accessible and understandble to that age range.

What do you think of when you hear “mature content”? What is and what isn’t acceptable to be marketed to younger readers? Is anything really off limits?

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