Happy Birthday, Sarah J. Maas!
If you’re a YA librarian or high school teacher, you’ve likely read, heard of, or have books by Sarah J. Maas. Her two young adult high fantasy series, A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) and Throne of Glass (TOG), are immensely popular and have inspired fanfiction and fanart galore.
ACOTAR, a 5 book series (as of right now), follows main character Feyre, a human girl, who lives on the border of the human world and the Fae lands. She lives with her 2 sisters and father, and when the book opens, Feyre is out hunting for their food one day, when she kills a shapeshifting Fae male in his form as a wolf. The High Lord of the Spring Court, which neighbors the human realm, comes to take Feyre as a debt for his sentinel’s death. When she arrives at the Spring Court, she is overwhelmed by its beauty and bounty, especially after half-starving the last few years. But Feyre quickly notices that not all is what it seems, and the Spring Court, and all of the Fae world, is under threat of attack. As she and the High Lord, Tamlin, get to know one another, they fall in love. When Tamlin’s kingdom is attacked, Feyre risks everything to save her love and her home.
TOG, a (completed seven book series), begins with 18 year old famed assassin Calaena Sardothian being released from prison by the Prince Dorian and the captain of the guard, Chaol. She is brought back to fight for the position of the King’s champion. Calaena is torn between hating the King, who imprisoned her in the first place, and fighting for the ultimate prize, should she win the position: her freedom. When other contestants begin to die, Calaena must find out who is responsible, while fighting to stay alive herself.
I know. As you read this, you’re thinking, Okay, that sounds like literally every other plot for a fantasy novel that I’ve read. And when I first started them, I would have agreed. In fact, I almost didn’t finish Throne of Glass (the first in the TOG series) because it felt so meh. Which is not to say it’s a bad book. It just wasn’t anything stand out. However, as each series goes on, I became more and more sucked in. Maas is a master at building her characters’ relationships. What starts out as rather predictable characters morph into flawed human beings who hunger and fight for good. The female characters embrace myriad characteristics: they are soldiers, prostitutes, healers; they are strong, arrogant, gentle, humble. And every single one of them kicks some serious butt. I’m 34 years old, and I still felt empowered reading about the multitude of strong women in these books. I can only imagine how cool it would have been to read about Calaena or Feyre as a teenager.
Okay, but you’re reading an intellectual freedom blog, so you’re probably waiting for the, these books are great, BUT…
They’re incredibly sexually explicit. The sex scenes are numerous and graphic. I probably would have blushed profusely if I’d read them as a teenager. In 2019, the first 3 books in the ACOTAR series all appeared on the ALA Banned Books and Challenged Books list. The list doesn’t expound as to why it was challenged, but I’d bet my degree that it was for sexual content. In an interview with Maas and fellow fantasy author, Laurell K. Hamilton, both authors discuss their liberal use of sex and cursing in their books. Maas explained that reading about empowered female characters who have and enjoy sex left a huge impact on her as a women and a writer. A teenager in Perth, Australia, where some concerns were raised over the sexually explicit nature of the books in TOG, said the series was one of her favorites and “if you think your 15-year-old can’t read this because it’s too inappropriate chances are she/he have done worse, so stop and let people read what they want”. That being said, Maas herself said that she was surprised when her books were labeled as Young Adult, that she would have put them in a New Adult category: not quite adult, but not really appropriate for younger teenagers.
I’m inclined to agree with both opinions. While I’d be wary of allowing my children to read ACOTAR or TOG as a teen, it would entirely depend on their ages and how they are able to handle reading such scenes. However, I’m their mother, not their teacher or librarian. It’s my responsibility to help my children encounter topics such as sex, racial discrimination, and abuse (all topics present in Maas’ books) and help them process that information in context with the real world. As a librarian, I would not presume to tell a teenager that they should not read what they want to read. You never know which book is going to be that book, the one that hooks a person into loving books and reading.
According to this article in The Guardian, children today are reading less and what’s worse, enjoying it less, than previous generations. This likely isn’t that surprising, considering the number of social media apps and games designed to attract and distract users. We’re also a society of productivity, and reading for pleasure does not net you tangible results. Yet reading for pleasure offers myriad benefits for children. Besides the pure enjoyment one receives from reading, my favorite benefit is increased empathy and decision-making. Children often apply the lessons and decisions their favorite characters go through to help them deal with situations in their own lives. If my daughter decides to read Maas’ books one day, I hope she finds encouragement from Calaena’s courage and strength or Feyre’s loyalty and kindness. We may not always agree with the books a child selects, but as Neil Gaiman says,
“Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer.”
Happy Birthday, Sarah J. Maas!
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her three children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.