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On ‘Safe’ books

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A letter from a reader:

“I’ve just finished Every Word. I’m 52 and really enjoy YA fiction. My youngest (13) put me on to your books. They are well written, have a great plot, move quickly and are appealing to readers both 13-18 and beyond. I know it is not my place to ask you for anything. But if I could I’d ask you to leave out the swearing and the pre-sex touching and feeling. Your books are great without it. I feel uncomfortable knowing that my daughter has already read the Every series. It’s not something I encourage or condone here. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’d just feel more comfortable knowing that my daughter was reading ‘safe’ books. It’s great to have more Aussie authors, with Aussie dialogue, themes and places. Well done. Don’t think too harshly of me. Kind Regards”


My response:

Hi XX,

Thank you for writing, and thank you for your lovely compliments on the series – positive feedback from readers is what makes it all worthwhile.

Although I don’t usually respond to comments from readers on language or content in my books, I thought I’d say something on the issues you raised in your email.  I certainly don’t think harshly of you for raising them.  Every YA writer I know considers these issues deeply, and is aware of the range of ages within the YA category – 13 to 18 years of age is a broad spread.  I do think carefully about the language and content in my books, and it’s something I consult with my editors about as each manuscript goes towards publication.  It’s wonderful that you’re attentive to your daughter’s reading, and I certainly understand your concerns, as I’m not just a writer, but a mother with teenagers of my own.

For this reason, I feel that it’s important to write representations of language and intimacy that are honest, and that reflect young peoples’ experiences, and offer a place for teenagers to figure things out.  This means that while I understand you would prefer your daughter read ‘safe’ books, it is not my obligation to write them – in fact, I believe that teenagers talking and learning about language and sex and relationships through reading books and having conversations with people they trust is pretty much the safest thing there is.  When I notice my own teenagers reading a book that I know contains language or sexual content, I know that questions will follow, and we can have a conversation about it.  I would much rather they had these conversations with me than go online, or search elsewhere for the answers.

I know this response may not satisfy you, but it’s the best response I can give.  It might comfort you to know that research has indicated that teenagers are excellent at self-selecting literature.  If they find something they’re not ready for, they’ll generally put it down.  I also suggest, for further information, that you read this article below, on a statement by Malorie Blackman, the former UK Children’s Literature Laureate:

I hope your shared reading with your daughter provides an opportunity to discuss these important topics and equip your daughter to make the right choices for herself.  Good luck with your reading and all the best.


Ellie Marney


*I would like to thank the numerous other writers I contacted when asking for advice on responding to this letter.  Their suggestions were invaluable, and some of their words and phrases directly informed the content of this letter. 



3 thoughts on “On ‘Safe’ books”

  1. A thoughtful and reasoned response. As a parent, I want to protect my child from the ‘worst’ that’s out there, but a book is a much safer place to explore a topic than out in the real world.

  2. Very well stated! I too have a 13 year old daughter and wrote a YA book and struggles with the same things while writing. In the end, I felt in necessary to stay true to the story, but was very cautious. There are very few curse words and although the one sex scene is obvious to readers, it isn’t graphic. It is a struggle for both writers and parents.

  3. Even thinking back to when I was a teen, as much as parents like to shield their children from being exposed to adult themes or growing up too fast, books can provide the tools for open discussions with teens about issues they face too. About relationships and their bodies, even sex. Chances are, most teens have a friend who is sexually active if not perhaps active themselves. Perhaps not so much at thirteen, but seeing that young adult is a pretty broad age group, I’ve always wondered if young adult should be divided into two separate categories or just a little note that the book contains mature themes. Speaking as an adult who isn’t a parent yet, it sounds as though her daughter really enjoyed the series but yet again, at thirteen there are also varying levels of maturity and upper middle grade reads might be the ‘safer’ choice in some cases.

    The Every series is wonderful. It explores not only teen relationships, but the family unit and actions and the consequences of those. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to teens and actually thought it would have been considered as ‘clean’ young adult. While I can understand her concerns in general, I think it’s a case of the onus resting on parents here, not authors. Your reply was very eloquent Ellie and considered. I hope you continue to write in the same vein, you’re magnificent and a much loved author both at home and abroad.

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