BookTok and teens: What parents need to know

Olivia Carter, a 7th-grade school counselor in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, lets out a laugh when asked about the novel Icebreaker.

The book frequently pops up on TikTok as a #BookTok recommendation. With its pastel cover featuring a competitive figure skater and hockey team captain, the book has the look of a classic rom-com for teens. It’s anything but that.

Icebreaker, part of the Maple Hill series by author Hannah Grace, is what BookTokkers call a “spicy” read. Translation? It contains graphic descriptions of sex. In this case, the main characters are college students.

The novel is so explicit that students at Carter’s school are not permitted to read it on campus, and their parents are often discreetly contacted as a courtesy if their child is found reading it. Carter has spoken to parents who had no clue that Icebreaker is erotica.

“Parents are generally happy to receive that phone call,” says Carter.

They’re not alone in their surprise, as other parents demonstrated in a Reddit thread about Icebreaker a few months ago.

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While Icebreaker was published last year, it continues to stir controversy on BookTok. In a recent video, a bookseller commented on how the cover’s cute design fools both young readers and their parents; he suggested the book and others like it get a sticker indicating they’re for those 18 and above. (No such rating system currently exists.) The TikTok video has been viewed more than 886,000 times and received 1,600-plus comments.

Icebreaker is a prime example of how BookTok has the power to steer tweens and young teens toward explicit or violent content, even as it encourages them to develop positive reading habits and helps them build community around books and ideas.

Experts like Carter say that parents should be curious about what their children are finding on BookTok. By paying close attention to their child’s reading list, being ready to discuss difficult subjects like sex and violence, and helping their child identify signs that a book is too mature for them, parents can be a supportive presence.

By contrast, a hard-line approach that restricts books without discussion is likely to backfire. Carter says that tweens and teens, particularly on TikTok, are using their book selections as a form of self-expression. They want to be seen as mature enough to handle certain types of content, and they’re doing so on a digital platform where the act of purchasing and displaying books gives them a sense of belonging to a broader community.

“I think that kids definitely want people to notice, like, ‘Oh these are all the books I’m reading, and these books say something about me,’” says Carter.

What to know about BookTok for tweens and teens

Prior to the advent of social media, a curious tween or teen could certainly find titles with mature or explicit themes, says Mandie Caroll, books editor for Common Sense Media.

Caroll recalls being a young reader and encountering The Clan of the Cave Bear, a work of prehistoric fiction published in 1980 that depicts sexual assault. Later books in the series include consensual, graphic sex.

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“In every generation there’s going to be some way that kids discover sex in books,” Caroll says. Her own review of Icebreaker describes it as containing “lots of graphic, erotic sex” and says it’s for readers 17 and older.

The difference today is that these discoveries happen at the speed of social media, facilitated by influencers and algorithms. Gone are the days when romance novels geared toward adults could be spotted by their sultry covers.

Caroll says that instead book publishers often market romance titles for adults and young adults with more modern aesthetics, like the rom-com look of Icebreaker. So youth looking at the covers of “spicy” adult novels might mistakenly assume they contain little to no sexual content.

She adds that publishers are eager to find an audience for their novels on BookTok. According to one youth librarian recently interviewed by Slate, BookTok can generate “huge greatestsellers” in teen publishing, at a time when reading appears to be declining among kids between the ages of 8 and 12.

In addition to Icebreaker, Caroll says other sexually explicit books popular among younger readers but intended for older audiences include Fourth Wing, a romance-fantasy set in a war college for dragon riders, and The Love Hypothesis, a contemporary romance between a Ph.D. candidate and a young professor.

Both Caroll and Carter worry about BookTok recommendations for novels that depict sexual assault, domination, or “dubious consent” in the guise of a so-called dark romance.

Carter says that the 2021 novel Haunting Adeline continues to circulate amongst middle-school readers, even though it depicts stalking and a nonconsensual sex act with a firearm.

There are lots of what they label as ‘spicy’ novels that have some level of sexual assault,” says Carter.  

How to help your child navigate BookTok

Caroll says the reality of young adult BookTok means that parents truly cannot judge a book by its cover, or simply be so pleased that their child is reading that they don’t explore the titles themselves.

In order to determine whether a book is appropriate for their child, she urges adults to flip through a novel before purchasing it, to read alongside them, or use resources like Common Sense, Goodreads, and Wikipedia to research its themes.

Caroll says that a parent worried about BookTok can start by telling their child that they may be exposed to books with scenes that are violent, sexual, or make them uncomfortable, and that the child can talk to them about it.

Though Common Sense does not believe in censoring what kids are reading, Caroll says parents may decide that certain books are just “absolutely not appropriate” for their child.

Either way, Caroll says that books offer parents an opportunity to discuss their child’s interests and their family’s values, in an open and nonjudgmental conversation.

To help young readers better understand their own limits, Carter says parents can talk to them about physiological signs that a book is too extreme or mature for them. These might include feeling sick to their stomach, or experiencing a racing heart, tense shoulders, or nightmares.

Tweens and teens might also consider how the book is playing a role in the rest of their day, and whether it’s contributing to a general sense of anxiousness or unhealthy preoccupation. The solution may be to stop reading the book or to choose another genre altogether.

Carter says parents can also encourage their child to pause before purchasing a BookTok recommendation, particularly on a reading platform like Kindle. For a young reader who hasn’t yet researched the title they purchased, an instant buy and download can rapidly lead to complex and confusing feelings. (Carter says many “spicy” novels are available on Kindle Unlimited.)

Though parents might feel similarly overwhelmed, Carter encourages them to start a conversation with their child with a simple question: “What are you reading today?”

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