Clean Books, Please

Believe it or not, I had this post drafted well before a certain someone said books about rape victims recovering from depression are “filthy.” I offer him profound thanks, for doing such a brilliant job of illustrating the problem with using “clean” and filthy” for describing the content of books.

Now, on with the post!

“I need a list of clean books!” Is the question. You know! The books without anything offensive. Ones that are about family values.

Honestly? I dislike all those terms for defining books.

If it’s not a “clean” book, what is it, dirty? How do I know what offends you? And whose family values?

Let’s start with one of the content issues that people usually mean by “clean.” Sex. And, again, thanks to he who must not be named for using Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler to illustrate his point. As I said in my review, “this isn’t some book version of a teen sex comedy. Anna’s internal struggle about her loyalty to Matt and her growing attraction to Sam, the summer boy, is respectfully portrayed. Anna and Sam are in many ways the perfect summer romance: teasing, hot, honest, lustful, fun, and any decisions Anna makes are based on what Anna wants, not what someone else pushes.” Readers may disagree with Anna’s choices; readers may decide that for themselves, sex should be saved for marriage; but to label Anna and her choices “filthy” because they are not your choices? No, no, no.

Sex is not dirty, yet by using “clean” to mean “no sex” the message is clear: sex is dirty! Doesn’t matter if it’s vaguely referred to or done in hot and heavy word by word descriptions, all sex is lumped together as dirty. Many people who champion saving sex for marriage agree that sex is not dirty, they just believe it’s so special and sacred (which, obviously, means “not dirty”) that it’s best saved for marriage.

As for “offensive,” some are offended not at sex in books but irresponsible sex. If the couple doesn’t use birth control? They’re offended. (I know! I wrote this before you-know-who picked on Twenty Boy Summer for the very reason many people embraced it! Instead of portraying “oops, sex just happens, hope I’m not pregnant,” Ockler shows teens who take responsibility for their choices, from beginning to end. Disagree with their choices if you want; but to say it would be better for Anna to risk pregnancy? That unprotected sex is somehow less filthy? I don’t get it.)

As for family values, GLBT families never seem to fall under that umbrella description. How many times does a “clean” book list included GLBT people?

Next on: language! The Guardian just did an entire write up on language in books for children and teens, The Curse of Swearing in Children’s Books. We can all agree that cursing is always “dirty”, right? No. Sometimes cursing in books is defended with, that’s how teens really talk and it needs to be authentic. I’ll see that and raise it: sometimes that is how the parents and those at home do talk. Yes, some parent’s say “for God’s sake” or “oh my God” and don’t see it as cursing. Ditto for using the “that sucks.” Note that the controversy about Lane Smith’s It’s A Book isn’t about a curse, it’s about a word with multiple usages and one, not in the book, is a curse. And before you start thinking, “oh frack, I’ll just use fug,” Todd Strasser points out that substitutions can be viewed as just as offensive as the real thing.

As for family values, this is usually code for 1950s families (two parents, two kids, standalone house), not families who are divorced or have same sex parents or single parents. It can also be code for 1950s gender roles; the original Calpurnia Tate review at Common Sense Media gave the book 2 out of 5 for “role model,” in part for her tomboyish ways. (Note: there is now a new review up, giving it 4 out of 5 and “tomboy” is not mentioned as a negative. Actually, Calpurnia is now praised for her spunk.)

Using and accepting “clean” or “family values” twists and turns perfectly good words. It assumes “we” all agree on x and it’s just the mysterious “others” who insist bad things belong in otherwise perfectly good books. No, we don’t all agree what those words mean when it comes to books.

The danger of using such code words is illustrated with the attack on Speak Speak is filthy for being about a depressed rape victim. Is it the loss of virginity that makes her filthy? Is it that she kissed a boy that makes her filthy? Is it that she was the victim of a crime? NOTHING about Speak, nothing about Melinda, is filthy. [Edited to correct Melinda’s name.]

I’m not the only one who has concerns about “Clean.” Jo Knowles asked, in “What Is The Opposite of “Clean”” Part II, “I know the people who make “CLEAN BOOKS” lists are well intentioned. This is not an attack or accusation. It’s a plea for all of us to think about the potential power of our words. Couldn’t we think of a better, more accurate term to describe books that don’t contain sex or swears? Because I am very worried that the message, whether intended or not, is that any book that does not fall in this category contains something dirty. So it must be bad. It must be wrong.” Note the “Part II”, because back in May 2007 Knowles challenged us to find a better word than “clean” to describe books. It’s still being used; on listservs, Twitter, blogs, I repeatedly see people ask for and casually use “clean” as short hand for books.

What do you think? How can we move beyond “clean books”?

22 thoughts on “Clean Books, Please

  1. The easiest way might be to refuse to understand what people are trying to convey when they say “clean”. Force them to specify what they mean without euphemisms.


  2. Great post. I tend to favor the term “gentle reads” for books without swearing, violence, or sex. It’s a term popular in adult readers advisory, and I think it works for children’s and YA books, too. I don’t see it as assigning value to a book as clean/dirty, good/bad. If anything, it’s a reflection of the reader; a gentle reader (one sensitive to certain frank issues) wants a gentle read. I’m not going to argue it’s perfect, but maybe it’s an improvement.


  3. This is a tricky one. I attempt to deal with it by trying to give people a clue as to what’s in the book — maybe a quotation, maybe a description of what are the issues (like a unicorn hunter needing to be a virgin).

    In Northern Virginia, you have an honestly high proportion of intellectually gifted kids, even discounting the ones whose parents only think they are gifted. These kids like to read YA books very young — but they’re more interested in, say, a Shannon Hale or Megan Whalen Turner book than a book with questions about whether to have sex or deal drugs.

    But it’s tricky. I’ve always felt that when they’re really not ready for a book, they won’t be interested in it.

    I forget which blog it was, but someone mentioned that the way to talk 9-year-olds out of reading Twilight is to say, “It’s about a girl who really wants to have sex with a boy, but she can’t.”

    A gave The Hunger Games to a fairly young boy. I did explain to the mother that it’s awfully violent, but the violence is not gratuitous and it’s a powerful book. The boy LOVED it and I next saw him putting the next book on hold.

    I do remember that at one point I gave Artemis Fowl to my 13-year-old son but told him to not show it to his 7-year-old brother, because I was afraid he would admire the kid genius criminal mastermind way too much! But I learned that was an issue because I read the book and I knew my individual child.

    So I try to deal with it by telling what the book is about, giving them a feel for it.


  4. I think it’s only a problem in that the word “clean” is vague – if you know the person and what they find to be offensive (or in some cases, morally wrong), then it ceases to be a problem.


  5. The problem isn’t that the word “clean” is vague. The problem is that the word “clean” throws disapproval all over everything else: the language, the subject matter, the treatment, these aren’t just identified as “not for me” but as “dirty”, “nasty”, “filthy”. Permitting someone to use “clean” in this way reinforces their prejudices and condones their judgment.


  6. I had a bit of something long written a little while ago and my 3yr old somehow erased it while I was typing. THAT is why I can’t be on the computer when the kids are awake. I will try to touch on all the beautiful things I said the first time around now that I have cooled down enough to not hate having to do it over again so much….

    First, I also am bugged by “clean” vs. “dirty” in relation to anything not involving, you know, CLEANING. It’s confusing from all sides. I suppose to some people the thought of being “bad” excites them, and so phrases like “talk dirty to me” actually ARE appealing to them, but I’m like, I don’t want dirty, I want a healthy relationship, I don’t know what you’re talking about! It really messes up people’s perceptions of what’s decent and natural and what actually IS bad, like rape and pedophilia. I HATE the use of “dirty” to mean sexual, and oddly I don’t think I’ve ever seen that expressed by anyone else before!

    Second, Lisa, ooh, I like your term “gentle reads.” But I think it may be more useful for picking something grownups want then necessarily what children want– may be too broad. I, for example, was a very morbid kid, and I loved tales of violent death– murder mysteries, ghost stories, other horrible things– I sought them out. But sex and even swearing (even relatively MILD swearing) embarrassed me something horrid. I remember trying to read Stephen King in middle school and not being able to stick with it– not because of the horror, which I thought was great, but because there was just too much sex talk for me to stomach! I kept thinking WHY did he even need to put that in there? Let’s get back to the good people-dying stuff!

    It is great when people are specific, exactly what they don’t want. Although I’ve seen even THAT get confusing. Awhile back I spotted a Discussion Thread on Amazon, a 13-year-old girl asking specifically for “great fantasy recommendations with NO SEX.” Simple request to my mind– exactly my favorite kind of book, too. But some of the responses she got drove me nuts. There were people berating her parents as overprotective (note, she gave NO indication in her request that this was a rule she had to follow, that it was not entirely her choice to want books with no sex), or telling her she had to face the world SOMEday. Then there were people recommending books that DID have sex, and even saying “This one has sex, but just a little, and it’s NICE sex.” Or sometimes someone else would reply to a suggestion, “no, that one DOES have sex, lots of it!” so you wonder if in fact everyone DOES have a different definition or if people just aren’t thinking clearly. I certainly know it’s not that hard to think of great fantasy that’s appropriate for a 13 year old that doesn’t have sex in it! But my point is, I LIKE that she was direct and specific about what she wanted and didn’t want. It’s the value judgements — here in the way people interpreted her request, and in the way other people ask for “clean” books and so on– that get so confusing.


  7. What happened to the Top Ten Squeaky Clean Young Adult Novels list that my 1999 book The Beetle and Me made? I was so embarrassed. It wasn’t intentional. There was no squeaking, not on purpose, anyway. And who seeks out such a list? I ask you.


  8. Er, all I’ve ever meant by “clean” (and, yes, I usually state this) is no explicit, erotic sex scenes, no to minimal explicit bad language, and minimal amounts of gore or graphic violence. Just because people talk that way, do that, or other people enjoy reading that, it doesn’t change that I don’t enjoy reading it.

    I’m certainly interested in books that deal with real life issues or with realistic consequences to bad choices. Until now, I’ve never even heard “clean” being used to mean “nothing offensive and promoting family values.” What offends people varies so much that that doesn’t say anything, anyway.

    However, I’m confused that people might think I’m saying that a book that doesn’t meet my qualifications is “dirty.” I’m saying I’m looking for books that are “clean of” certain things, and I doubt anyone’s definition of “clean” is exactly the same, anyway. And I can’t call it “gentle reads” because some of the books I read are anything but gentle…they just don’t contain a certain frequency of certain things.


  9. When I worked in a children’s library, a mother wanted “Hop On Pop” pulled from circulation because it was disrespectful to parents.

    My response to worries about dirty/inappropriate/disrespectful is to say, “Read a synopsis of the book. If you’re still hesitant, don’t read the book. But never tell other people else *they* can’t read it.”


  10. Kaethe, asking someone exactly what they mean by “clean” helps to know what someone wants as opposed to second-guessing what they mean. It’s a definite must.

    Tandy, correct. My phrasing was because I was speculating about how person objecting was thinking about it, and the type of person who calls Speak filthy/soft porn would also think, not a virgin.

    Lisa, I prefer “gentle reads” because it often does include things that may not spring to mind with “clean” but (when pressed) the person does (or does not) want. As rockinlibrarian points out, I’ve seen that term used more for adult books than teen books.

    Sondy, I think this is also where what we were talking about yesterday comes to play. “Inform, not warn.” It’s funny you mention MWT because on the one hand, no cursing or explicit sex, but personally, I find the relationship between Gen and Irene one of the most mature, hot, and slightly twisted ones in teen lit. I mean…HIS HAND. But, because it’s not explicit, it does work for those reading up. And ITA that readers are good judges about books. For Twilight and my ten year old niece, I said, “it’s about kissing” and she was like “ew ew NO” and went back to the Warriors. Telling people what the book is about, perfect. Having conversations to know what people want, perfect.

    Beth, but that can be really hard when so many people mean so many different things by using “clean” instead of what they really mean. Plus, when do librarians become complicit in agreeing that certain books are “clean” and others are not?

    As Kaethe points out, it is hard to get around the “opposite of clean” message. By creating our own “clean book lists” as opposed to, say, “gentle reads” or “no romance” or “four letter free” booklists, we buy into that those other books are dirty rather than, simply, books with romance or cursing. It brings us into the judgment. (Disclosure: I see way too many requests by librarians on listservs for “clean” books, so yes, I think there is a problem with librarians internalizing & condoning the idea that some books are “dirty.)


  11. rockinlibrarian, yes about the terms and what they mean. And book advisory that becomes more “what I love” than “what you want to read.” I once saw a request for the type of kids Sondy was talking about: reading up, young, no sex. So someone recommended NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly. A terrific book but hardly the “no sex” book the person was looking for. And I’m so tired of people asking for Twilight no-sex readalikes and being given Sookie Stackhouse etc books. More out of “but I loved this book” with a side of “oh, I didn’t remember that part…”

    Karen, I am now on a mission to find that booklist! YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks did a list a few years back and avoided the “c” word by calling it “Books That Don’t Make You Blush”. But off to find the squeaky clean…

    Debbie, I totally understand and respect what a person does (or does not) want to read. Actually, my library has a computer that will send out books automatically based on subject categories, and patrons can elect for no explicit descriptions of sex, no violence, and/or no strong language. Because of what is happening in Missouri and books like speak being called filthy — well, I just prefer a different word be used for those who want “x” (whether x is no sex or whatever). And in conversations with patrons at different times — yes, they can take that extra step of not just saying what they want to read but slamming the contents of the books they don’t want. My personal fave happened to a coworker, who was told by an upset mother about how BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE should not have been recommended to her 5th grader because the family in the book was in a trailer park. She didn’t want her children to know about those types of things, please …and, sigh, the use of the “c” word.

    Moira, I must now go reread Hop On Pop.


  12. And Debbie, I know that not everyone means “if its not clean, it’s dirty”. I’m interested in this conversation (and thanks to all who are part of it) in part because I know that people don’t mean that when they use the word, or don’t realize how it can be taken/used. I also think, because of isssues of vagueness, that sometimes its better just to say, books with x (or without x).


  13. Liz B – let me also say “thanks” for writing so well on a topic I’d never really pondered before. I’d always saved my ire for those who challenge books in libraries, and hadn’t considered how that ‘clean” concept is kind of insidious.


  14. Liz, I love that nice simple description of TWILIGHT. “It’s about kissing.” Brilliant! And will weed out those like your niece who will appreciate it MUCH more in a few years.

    I talked a middle schooler out of reading THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks. I didn’t intend to, but I started saying how it was a really romantic story about a man whose wife has Alzheimer’s…. She lost interest pretty quickly after that.


  15. Liz. B. wrote, “Moira, I must now go reread Hop On Pop.”

    Oh, great. You’ll read it, then immediately go out and jump up and down on some Pop, and it’ll all be my fault for pointing you to that book.

    (The mother who objected to it didn’t even crack it open. The cover picture, of a child happily using her/his Pop’s tummy as a trampoline, was all she needed to want it removed. Nine years later, I introduced her son to “The Chocolate War.” mwah ha HA!)


  16. Sondy, exactly! But reading books at the right age (instead of being pushed too early) is a whole other rant. Perhaps we can do that one in October!

    Moira, my first thought was “well, that’s taking candy from strangers to a whole new level” And then I thought, oh, STRANGERS WITH CANDY:

    I hope I have some chocolate at home.


  17. Sondy, the gifted reader who may or may not be ready for certain themes is exactly the issue I’ve been considering. My son is a 5th grader who is interested in reading The Hunger Games and the sequels. I told him I thought it would be better if he waited a year, and he said that’s fine. Personally, I think they are terrific books, but a little more appropriate for middle school, at least for my son (no judgment intended towards those whose kids have read them at this age — every child is different, and so is every family).
    I think the level of (absolutely non-gratuitous) violence in the first book, at the end particularly, could be too intense for him; I am certain that Mockingjay is more intense than I think he should read yet. He’s sensitive to, and upset by, violence in the real world, but doesn’t mind it in fantasy movies where battles are exciting (e.g. The Two Towers). He was quite saddened by the end of The Watsons Go To Birmingham, for example, as he’d never heard of the bombing — that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have read the book, I think it was appropriate for his age (and a marvelous book), but I don’t think he needs to be reading anything more descriptive of violence than that book – that’s kind of the upper limit for right now. I definitely think (one of) the message(s) of Mockingjay, that war is desperately sad and kills innocents, is a good message and something he would do well to read, but just not yet.

    So I make judgments for my own family, and let every other family make their own judgments. And am glad to see descriptions that let me know what we might expect in various children’s books, but despise labels such as “clean” for them.

    Two “gentle books” (I like that, though more for myself than for kids who may want exciting books and think that’s not ‘gentle’) with GLBT themes/characters: My Most Excellent Year (love this book so much, great for middle schoolers and some upper elementary who like baseball, theater, or just great characters) and The Popularity Papers.


  18. I publish the YA fantasy series Unbidden Magic by Marilee Brothers. Three books so far; MOONSTONE, MOON RISE and this summer’s MOON SPUN. I didn’t originally consider this psychic/magick/faery series to be G-rated, but recently several reviews have commented favorably on the lack of sex, serious violence and/or creatures that suck your blood, lol. So I’m wondering if the general YA fantasy market is even darker than I realized, and if there is a niche market for “clean” reads that qualify for that vague term simply because they’re more “Disney-fied” instead of “Twilight-ish.”


  19. As a middle school librarian, it can be very difficult to select so-called “age appropriate” books. “Age appropriate” according to whom? It is especially hard when I think about what I read in middle school, which would seriously not pass muster with many parents today. So, I tend to err on the side of if the kids are asking for it and it has any rating, anywhere that rates it for any grade 6-8, I get the book. I do not like book challenges, but I don’t fear them either. Parents should be happy that their child actually WANTS to read something and not be afraid of having a discussion with their child.

    I have to say that I am incredibly thankful that neither of my parents limited my reading, ever. Somehow, I made it through childhood relatively unscathed. Honestly though, if my parents had limited me, it would not have mattered. I would have been even more enthusiastic about getting those “dirty” books anyway.


  20. I was quite surprised to read this post. I am a mother of 4 children. And I’m not from 1950. You seem to be offended when people use the word “clean” to describe the type of book they want to read (or rather the type of book they want to avoid) because you feel it makes a judgment on you and your values. Yet, you are making judgments about the people who use the word you take so much offense to: “clean.” You want the freedom to make your own decisions about what your morals and standards are and yet seem unwilling to let others make the same choice. I don’t swear. I try hard to refrain from media in which there are sexual innuendos, sexual scenes (whether married or not, young or old), and any entertainment that contains violence. I view those things as unclean. That is a choice I have made and the standards I have. Why should I be required to change the way I want to categorize books in order to appease your sensitivity? Following that logic, why shouldn’t you change your categorization of books to please me? I have no problem with the way you categorize books and the words you choose to do so. You have chosen the standards and values you want in your life. And I have chosen mine. If you want to use the word “gentle” I don’t have a problem with that. I might need to ask for clarification about what that means to you because that word can mean different things to different people. And I can use the word clean, and you can ask me what I mean by it because that word can mean different things to different people. I have no problem with the fact that we have differences in our beliefs and I take no offense if you want to use a different word to describe the kinds of books you are looking for. I struggle to understand why you feel so differently.


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