Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The last taboo?

I think it was at the Library of the Early Mind screening last November that someone asked me if there were any taboos left in children's literature. Abortion, I said, and I've been thinking about this again since Ross Douthat's NYT column on Monday. On his way to a conclusion that is more morally complicated than Douthat acknowledges, namely, that more abortions means fewer babies available for adoption, he does begin with a true point about abortion's odd absence in movies and on TV:
The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion. Film or television characters might consider the procedure, but even on the most libertine programs (a “Mad Men,” a “Sex and the City”), they’re more likely to have a change of heart than actually go through with it. Reality TV thrives on shocking scenes and subjects — extreme pregnancies and surgeries, suburban polygamists and the gay housewives of New York — but abortion remains a little too controversial, and a little bit too real.

This is even more true in fiction for teens, where, given that genre's penchant for melodrama and themes of personal crisis, you would think abortion would show up with some frequency. I free-text-searched the word "abortion" through the Horn Book Guide, and while I found solid representation of the topic in nonfiction, there were only a dozen occurrences of the word in reviews of all hard cover fiction for youth published in the last twenty years. Don't you think that is strange? It's true that the heyday of the problem novel came before the Guide started keeping track of such things, but even from back then I can only remember a book called Unbirthday, a paperback original from Jean Feiwel's great Flare imprint at Avon, published in 1982. It's also true that the Guide doesn't review paperbacks, and I'm guessing Gossip Girl and her ilk must have encountered the subject a time or two.

YA authors and publishers don't shy away from much, which is why they tend to get into trouble, but why is Ellen Hopkins the only one trying to get in trouble with this one?

14 comments:

Angela Craft said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angela Craft said...

I've been curious about the lack of books dealing with abortion, too. I don't even need a book *about* abortion, but most of the YA I see with a pregnant character shy away from any discussion of the topic. That's why I loved Nina de Gramont's Every Little Thing in the World, which felt like a very realistic struggle with the decision, and I honestly had no idea what the protagonist would decide.

Marcus said...

So the takeaway from this is:

--if Horn Book didn't review it, it doesn't exist.
--if a book didn't start life as a hardcover, it must be a Gossip Girl or equivalent book.
--the only place you'll find abortion is in a "problem novel"

I knew Horn Book was notoriously selective in what they review but this makes me think there's some serious elitism going on. Yuck.

Liz B said...

Reality TV: in Real World - LA, Tami (now on Basketball Wives) had an abortion. MTV just did a special, "No Easy Answer," and of the 3 young women was one of the 16 & Pregnant partipants (second pregnancy, first child not yet one, struggling family, decided on abortion). Cameras tracked her & her partner's conversations & decision making.

Degrassi has shown abortions, both in original Degrassi and TNG. In TNG, the episodes were initially not shown in the US (which caused for some odd plot inconsistency).

Friday Night Lights had a multiple episode storyline with a teen having an abortion.

Mad Men & SATC are a bit poor examples, as both had characters who had abortions in the past (pre-show) and neither had regrets about it in the present.

The most common storyline is actually the Party of 5 approach: consider abortion, even make an appointment, and then have a miscarriage.

There are some teen titles, but I have to do some more research.

Roger Sutton said...

Marcus, the Horn Book Guide reviews all hardcovers (good, bad and the ugly) published by U.S. publishers listed in LMP. The database contains more than 80,000 reviews. As I acknowledge in the post, that isn't everything, but it is a lot.

sdn said...

There are a very few books here and there with abortions -- Anna Fienberg's BORROWED LIGHT and Rita Williams-Garcia's LIKE SISTERS ON THE HOMEFRONT are the first two that come to mind.

Anonymous said...

One of the earliest YA books to tackle the subject was Jeanette Eyerly's Bonnie Jo, Go Home. Hila Colman wrote one called Happily Ever After, but I'm not sure if the character actually goes through with it in that novel.

I seem to recall that Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams Garia begins with an abortion.

Anna Fienberg's Borrowed Light concerns abortion. (And ends with Amazon reviews like this: "Being a Christian and a human being with morals,I greatly disagree with the author's obvious choice to take abortion so lightly.")

Perhaps the most shocking anti-abortion message ever presented in a YA book is in the teen horror novel Whisper of Death by Christopher Pike. If I recall correctly, the entire spooky story turns out to the dreamed by teenage girl who lies dying (dying!) on a doctor's table after abortion complications.

Peter

Anonymous said...

That last line should be:

If I recall correctly, the entire spooky story turns out to BE dreamed by a teenage girl who lies dying (dying!) on a doctor's table FROM abortion complications.

Peter, needing to type slower and proofread better

Anonymous said...

It was a subplot in at least one Rosa Guy book, wasn't it? It may have been the main thread of another as her books were interconnected and retold stories from different viewpoints. The older sister of one of the girls in The Friends had an abortion during the course of the book.

Leila said...

The two that immediately come to mind for me are Rachel Cohn's Gingerbread and Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. But in the Cohn, the abortion takes place before the book starts (I *think* -- it's been a while), and in the Crutcher, it's a secondary character.

Also: Dirty Dancing!

Anonymous said...

Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It's dealt with very straightforwardly, and the 15 year old protagonist has no regrets.

Reader said...

Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont, published this past March by Atheneum, faces the abortion issue head-on. The Horn Book Review gave it a positive review which used the word "pregnancy" but not "abortion":

Every element of sixteen-year-old Sydney's summer experience canoeing in a remote region of Canada is colored by her unplanned pregnancy. De Gramont's willingness to explore her protagonist's decision over a period of weeks, as mediated by various friends and as measured by different ethical considerations, gives the book a depth uncommon among novels exploring the decisions a teen pregnancy forces.

Anonymous said...

It's been fourteen years, but abortion was very much a taboo subject in my high school. Maybe the limited number of books on the subject somewhat reflects what teenagers are willing to be open about? Also, as I've pointed out in other places when the subject's come up, statistically far fewer high school students get abortions than most adults think.

Angela Craft said...

@11:33 PM Anonymous: Examples like "far fewer high school students get abortions than most adults think" don't exist in a vacuum. For so many teenagers, abortion is a difficult option to access - parental consent laws and overall availability of abortion clinics are the first two impediments that come to mind.

It seems to me there are more books about child and drug abuse than abortion - is that supposed to mean that teens are more open about those subjects than abortion? One of the excellent things about books is they allow individual readers to address topics that may be considered taboo by their society but they still have a burning interest/need to know more about.

Also, as I mentioned in my first comment, I'm not even looking for novels that are about actually having an abortion - I just want to see it addressed in the hugely popular "pregnant teen" genre. Yes there are real life impediments that can make actually attaining an abortion difficult, but that doesn't mean the average teenage girl faced with an unexpected pregnancy wouldn't consider it as a legitimate option.