Morality is a complicated concept to explain because of people’s diverse and contradictory perspectives on diverse aspects such as socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances. However, in the simplest way morality is an individual and subjective consciousness of right or wrong. Today, the prevalence of controversial issues worldwide is a general trend in youth literature.
The genre of youth stories is not clearly definable, but it was a term used in the late 1960s to refer to literary texts written exclusively for young readers between the ages of about 12 and 18 years or used by adults as considered suitable for youth. In the Netherlands youth stories (jeugdverhalen) refers to literature for 12- to 16-year-olds (Van Gorp, Ghesquière and Delabastita 1998:227), but in this study the terms youth and youth stories are used for 12- to 18-year-olds.
Controversial issues are debatable topics (which, according to Vos 2018, are also fraught with emotions and conflict), such as disrespect for authority; drug and alcohol use (or abuse); smoking; gender (LGBTI: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex); as well as sexual promiscuity, which can often lead to teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
The language teacher remains one of the most important role players in the possible establishment of a moral consciousness in youth. The possible mediation of controversial youth stories can leave the Dutch and Afrikaans language teacher in the classroom uncertain, as these controversial texts are sometimes negatively criticised by various role players, including parents, teachers and religious leaders who consider themselves the youth’s morality watchers (Du Plessis 2017; Martinez 2017). The criticism of controversial youth stories is rooted in the anxiety theory (Teverson 2013:61), which implies that certain role models say controversial issues can negatively affect the youthful reader (Vos 2018).
By contrast, adherents of the catharsis theory argue that there should be no shying away from exploring with young readers the prevalence of contentious issues in youth stories (Bohart 1980:192). According to Literary Terms (2020), the theory of catharsis is a literary theory by Aristotle, in terms of which he believed that a good tragedy cleanses and develops the emotions.
An extensive literature review was launched in an attempt to determine views on the nature of morality in the Netherlands and South Africa, especially with regard to the religious, philosophical, psychological, educational and family perspectives. It is clear from the literature review that youths are involved in the group they belong to; that they question the conventions in their own circle; and that they see matters in a larger context. These facts about young people’s lives come across as themes in youth stories in various ways and therefore the language teacher should show patience and ingenuity during the mediation process to critically examine controversial issues in youth stories with young people.
Furthermore, the concepts youth and literature in Dutch and Afrikaans literature were described by focusing on the nature of youth stories, the moral development of the youth, the reading needs and preferences and reader types, as well as the reading culture and motivation in the Dutch and South African landscapes. Historically, the Netherlands and South Africa differ in terms of moral development, but in both countries there are clearly distinguishable periods in cultural history that have unleashed major changes regarding moral issues.
A historiographical description was compiled of the period from about 1960 until the present of Dutch and Afrikaans youth stories in connection with the cooperation agreement between the Dutch Language Union (Nederlandse Taalunie) and the Afrikaans Language Council (Afrikaanse Taalraad) to exchange knowledge and experience and to collaborate on Dutch and Afrikaans matters, among others in academic curricula (Bennis and Steenkamp 2020). The historiographical description is briefly done by means of a transhistorical approach that identifies generalities within specific periods without presenting a synoptic transhistorical account in broad outline (Vaessens 2013). The purpose of the historiographical narrative is firstly to provide the prospective language teacher with useful and enriching background knowledge on controversial issues in Dutch and Afrikaans youth stories over certain socio-political periods; secondly, to equip them with reading and mediation strategies to teach controversial youth stories; thirdly, to empower learners to read these youth stories in a self-directed manner in their own leisure time; and finally, to propose general guidelines to the prospective and practising language teacher to mediate controversial issues in youth stories in different learning environments.
According to the HAT (2015:811) mediation involves, among other things, mediating reconciliation, while self-directed reading, according to Vos and Van Oort (2018:934), occurs when learners themselves take responsibility for their reading experience.
Prospective language teachers may find it valuable to know that no literature was specifically written for youth before the 1950s; that youth stories that appeared later were strongly moral in nature and intended to educate; that youth stories were subject to censorship laws that restricted authors’ freedom and that certain themes should be avoided due to the application of anxiety theory in youth stories. Furthermore, it is important for the prospective language teacher to know that youth stories did not really come to fruition until the last decades of the last century, when they were written for the youth, involved socio-political realities, dared to address issues raised by some groupings that were considered controversial, and applied the catharsis theory.
It is strongly recommended to language teachers to improve their literacy teaching skills to mediate youth stories with controversial issues in class. The language teacher, as a mediator, can guide learners in a safe classroom environment, using the suggested guidelines (compare paragraph 5) to develop critical and problem-solving readers, on which self-directed leisure reading may follow. Language teachers worldwide find themselves in different educational contexts that increasingly include multiculturalism and should therefore show a respectful, ethical attitude and democratic responsibility towards learners. The school management team, teachers and parents/guardians should be informed of possible controversial topics that could be discussed in youth stories in the language classroom. In this regard, encourage parents/guardians to have discussions with their children on the controversial topics involved in youth stories. Youth readers should be given the opportunity to gain insight into characters and the consequences of their actions, according to text-based conversations in the classroom. The language teacher should first discuss the text and characters (their conflict, their views, their reactions to moral issues and their consequences). Learners’ own judgment of right and wrong then comes to the fore, as well as their empathy, or lack of it, with a character’s views and actions. Thirdly, learners can provide their own opinions based on this reader-oriented approach. Some learners will be able to read these types of texts without any support, and the teacher should strongly encourage this self-directed reading. However, when struggling readers are equipped with the correct reading skills such as cues, contextual markers and reading strategies, they may be able to read these stories on their own later. The language teacher should remain objective and engage in bold conversations to discover possible solutions to contentious issues. A language class in which learners are allowed to think and reason critically about contentious issues in a secure atmosphere provides a space in which morality can be developed.
Keywords: Afrikaans youth stories; anxiety theory; catharsis theory; controversy; Dutch youth stories; guidelines; mediation; morality