On Crank and Glass

Role Models

By Niki Burnham

I write books about teenagers, primarily for teenagers (though teen-savvy adults read them, too). Some of the books have stylized cartoon covers, tipping off the reader that what’s on the pages is comedy. Despite that, over the years I’ve received many letters from concerned parents, questioning whether or not my books are appropriately shelved. They cite the fact that some of the characters use foul language, that one character has a gay mother, or that one character smokes (ignoring the fact that she quits) in support of their argument that my writing is a “bad influence” on teen readers. I’m often taken to task for not living up to my “responsibility” as an author to provide teenagers with good role models.

While I understand their concerns, I believe that attempting to limit teens’ reading to “good role models” is the wrong way to go about educating teens about the world in which we all live.

When sitting down to craft a story, an author’s primary responsibility is to the reader–not to any gatekeeper, be that person a librarian, bookseller, publisher, New York Times book reviewer, or even a parent. The author’s job is to give a book’s intended readers an engrossing story about believable–and therefore imperfect–characters. When that happens, I believe that any other responsibility an author may have to protect teens from the dangers of the world falls into place. However, I do not believe the reverse is always true. A book about perfect characters–who never skip school, wouldn’t think of trying a cigarette, and don’t hang out with a so-called “bad” crowd–may please parents or others who believe teens should only be exposed to  …

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