Google+ Reading Teen: On Author Responsibility in YA Books

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On Author Responsibility in YA Books

A few days ago, I (along with many other of my fellow bloggers) received an interesting email "For Immediate Release." Usually when I get press releases like this, there is some kind of link, or information about who this is coming from, but there was nothing, except that it was from R. Zed.

R. Zed says:

Hindus critical of Westerfeld’s novel “Afterworlds”

Hindus are critical of bestselling author Scott Westerfeld’s new novel “Afterworlds”, arguing that it trivializes the Hindu god of death Yamraj (Yama).

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that although “Afterworlds” was a work of fiction; but reimagining Hindu scriptures, deities and concepts for mercantile greed or other selfish agenda was highly inappropriate, created more confusion and hurt the devotees.

There were temples dedicated to Yama where he was worshipped; while “Afterworlds” depicted him pressing lips with the lips of a 17-year-old San Diego girl. This was highly disrespectful to the devotees and unnecessary dragging of a Hindu deity who found mention in oldest existing scripture Rig-Veda, besides Upanishads, Puranas and Mahabharata; Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, noted.

Rajan Zed pointed out that Hindus were for free speech as much as anybody else if not more. But faith was something sacred and attempts at belittling it were painful for the devotees. Novelists should be more sensitive while handling faith related subjects, Zed added.

Zed further said that Hindus welcomed authors to immerse in Hinduism but taking it seriously and respectfully and not for refashioning Hinduism concepts and symbols for personal agendas. Distorting of Yama to captivate young adult readership and showing him romancing with 17-year-old was highly slighting of ancient Hindu traditions.

Hinduism was the oldest and third largest religion of the world with about one billion adherents and a rich philosophical thought and it should not be taken lightly. No faith, larger or smaller, should be plundered, Rajan Zed stated.

Yama is the son of the sun-god Vivasvat and passes judgment on the dead. Moksh (liberation) is the ultimate goal of Hinduism.

“Afterworlds” by Westerfeld (Uglies); published by Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, New York; describes Yama as “smoldering Vedic psychopomp” and sometime as just a normal guy. It also mentions Yami, Yama’s twin-sister.
This raises a lot of interesting thoughts. This isn't the first time that an author has been criticized for being disrespectful of a religion. The one that I remember hearing the most about was Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, where, in the last book, he depicts (the Christian) God as a tired old fraud who is (SPOILER ALERT) eventually "put out of his misery" when the heroes mercifully kill him.

I don't want to get too much into whether R. Zed's claims are accurate or not (you'll have to read the book and come to your own conclusions) but it does make me think about this:

How much responsibility does an author have to be respectful of religion, or race, or sexism or a myriad of other issues?

Recently I read a discussion on Ellen Oh's Tumblr about how she didn't like the way the book Eleanor & Park depicted Korean people.
But all I could keep thinking was, Damn it! Why did he have to be Korean? Why did this boy, who is so filled with self-loathing and contempt for his heritage, have to be Korean? Why did his mother with her sing songy broken English have to be Korean?
This statement is actually very interesting. If it were a Russian boy who was "filled with self-loathing" and a Russian mother with her broken English, would Ellen have been as bothered? Or would she have even paid any attention at all? I ask this because when I read Eleanor & Park, I didn't think about how a Korean-American teenager would feel about herself after reading it. Why?

Because the things that bother me are the things that are personal to me.

So while I can read Ellen's post and think, "Oh, come on Ellen, aren't you being a little sensitive?" Others, who actually have to deal with the prejudices of being Korean are nodding their heads and saying, "Yes! This!" Meanwhile, I (being a homeschooling mother of three) have read quite a few YA books where homeschooled kids were basically portrayed as socially awkward, naive, and unable to deal with the real world, and I was so annoyed!

I have read a multitude of books that inaccurately portray Christianity. In fact, this has pretty much become commonplace, expected, accepted.

We're not debating free speech here. I think we all know that you have the right to write whatever you want.

But just because we CAN write anything we want, does that mean we SHOULD?

I honestly don't know the answer to this. I find myself on both sides of the argument on different occasions.

On one hand, I could say Rainbow Rowell's depiction of Park was probably accurate, and she's writing to be realistic. But on the other hand, how can I look Ellen (or her daughter) in the face and say, "Get over it. It's real life!" I certainly don't just get over it when it's something that I think will be harmful for my child.

Maybe in the end you just have to decide for yourself what you want out of your book. What is your goal? Do you care about how it might make people feel, or if they will be offended? Or are you more interested in reflecting the world, or creating art.

In the end, we as readers get to choose for ourselves what we'll accept (read: buy) and what we won't.

If you don't like the way an author portrays your religion, your race, your sex . . . homeschooling (haha), then you have the right to speak out! There are others out there that will probabaly thank you for helping them to make an informed decision on whether or not to buy that book.

  • What are your thoughts on author responsibility? 
  • Is it different for YA than it is for Adult? What about Middle Grade?
  • If there is responsibility, how far does it extend?

Let me know in the comments!

*Disclaimer 1: I have not read AFTERWORLDS, but Becca (who reviewed it for this blog) said she felt that the point Scott Westerfeld was trying to make was that everyone starts writing because they get the spark of an idea from something and then build it from there themselves and ultimately change it to make it their own. She got the idea of Yama from her religion, but she made him her own character, and different from the Hindu version.

*Disclaimer 2: I loved Eleanor & Park

*Disclaimer 3: I love Ellen Oh ;)


  1. YES! I read the whole book and I regretted it. Nothing get's resolved, she makes everything WORSE.

  2. I sort of had that experience reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I loved it, but I found it very strange for the first half of the first book, maybe because of the different names and atmosphere, or the descriptive language, but I struggled to get into it at first, and never really connected with the characters entirely, but by the end of the book I found myself hooked, I can't say why, but to this day I love the series, something about it just drew me in.

  3. I love I AM LEGEND. Is Matheson a good narrator for the audio?


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