One question I often hear floating around in regards to YA fiction (and even middle-grade fiction) is “How dark/edgy is *too* dark/edgy?” The problem with this question is that it presumes that there is a “right” answer–a definitive line between what is acceptable in the YA market and what isn’t.
In an interview, someone once asked author Neil Gaiman if he thought his own book Coraline was too scary. I loved his response–I think it’s spot on:
“I hope so. I think a little bit of fear is a wonderful thing. And in ‘Coraline‘ what you’re telling them is that here’s something big and it’s something scary and it’s something that’s worth being a story.” (You can read his entire response here)
Though some people automatically think Sweet Valley High when they think “young adult” (as in, teen girls gossiping about hot football players while they get pedicures), the truth is, dark/edgy fiction for teens has been around for a long, long time. Go Ask Alice, detailing a teen’s downward spiral into drug addiction, was first published in 1971. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, about gang violence, was first published in 1967. The themes of drugs/sex/violence are not new themes–and the truth is, there *are* teens out there having sex, or struggling with drug addiction, or navigating their way through a world filled with violence and danger. Don’t these teens deserve a “voice” as much as other teens do?
This isn’t to say that YA authors should toss in gratuitous dark/edgy elements, just for the sake of having them. They have to be integral, organic elements to the story you’re telling. But sometimes it’s these elements that make “something worth being a story,” to steal Neil Gaiman’s words.
I recently read Laura Weiss’s Such a Pretty Girl, which somehow managed to tackle some very dark/edgy themes (a girl who’d been molested by her own father is faced with his release from prison and return to her life) without being overly graphic or explicit. The same was true of Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl (though as a warning, many reviewers on Amazon disagree, to the point of believing that the book is far too disturbing for teens). Other edgy YA books are explicit without being gratuitous — John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Courtney Summers’s Cracked Up to Be are both good examples.
Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series had totally clean language, and was on the chaste side of the sensuality scale. Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series was filled with violence and frightening situations, as were James Dashner’s Maze Runner and Scorch Trials. Early Harry Potter books were very light on the “dark,” while the later books were truly dark and scary. They were *all* big hits.
My point is–there is no “right” answer. There’s a wide range within YA fiction, with plenty of room for just about anything. It’s up to you as a writer to pick the level of dark/edgy/violent/explicitness that fits your story and that you’re comfortable with.
My final draft of Haven had two f-bombs, and a couple of situations where characters were thinking about/talking about sex. I was really worried about the f-words, and at one point took them out and replaced them with “cleaner” words, just imagining my book getting banned from school libraries in conservative towns. But then…those sentences just read “off” to me. The replacement words were just *not* the words my character would have used in those situations. In the end, I put the f-words back in, and waited to hear if my editor complained. She didn’t. Now, I’ve learned to trust my own judgment, and go with what’s right for my characters. And if that means my book will be absent from some libraries….well, there’s not much I can do about that.
So, to answer the question: just be true to yourself, and true to your characters. It’s as easy as that!