If you are writing young adult fiction, you’ve probably gotten at least one of those reviews–you know, the ones that tally up how many “bad words” you used, scolded you for the sensuality level, and pointed out any references to drinking, drugs, or anything else they consider too “edgy” for teens. So….what is too edgy for YA fiction? Where are the lines, and when is it okay to cross them? And how do you stay “authentic” to the teen experience while trying to write something totally “clean”?
It’s complicated. Sorry, I know that doesn’t help much, does it? As with so many things in this business, it comes down to doing what you, the author, feel is “right” for the story you want to tell. There’s an enormous range in young adult fiction, from squeaky clean to extremely edgy, with just about everything in between. Publishers usually designate YA titles as either 12-up (lower YA, suitable for younger teens and even ‘tweens) or 14-up (upper YA, suitable for older teens). You can get a good idea about content just by checking a book’s designation.
In HAVEN, some of my characters use the occasional swear word–even an f-bomb or two when it’s warranted. In the sequel, MIRAGE, there happens to be a major secondary character who swears a lot. He likes the f-word. In both books, there’s some heaving kissing scenes, and characters occasionally talk about sex and sexual situations, though there’s no actual sex in the book. Both are labeled 14-up, and I think that’s appropriate.
From a Business Perspective:
From a purely business standpoint, I know that this means my books might be excluded from some school libraries and possibly even some public library collections in more conservative areas of the country. This is a risk I’m willing to take in order to maintain what I feel is “authenticity” with my characters’ voices. Because let’s face it–some teens curse. And I’d be willing to wager that many (if not most) teens think about sex a lot, and talk about it, even if they’re not actually doing it. For me, writing an entire cast of teen characters who say “Shoot!” or “Oh, fudge!” when their emotions run high rings false. It’s too far removed from my own teen experience to seem “real” to me. But that’s just me, and my experience. Yours may be different, and you should follow your own instincts regarding authenticity.
From an Ethical Perspective:
But when you are writing young adult fiction, the question always arises, “Are we condoning swearing or underage drinking or drug use or teen sex if we include it in our books?” For me, the answer is “Absolutely not.” I can think of some amazing books that included many of these elements, and yet were clearly not condoning them.
Thinking back to my own reading experience as a teen, my mother let me read, and read widely. She was an educated, open-minded parent who trusted in my ability to process what I read, to know the truth between fact and fiction, to examine issues and find meaning in struggles that weren’t necessarily my own. Questions about the material I read often led to thoughtful discussions with my mom–yes, sometimes about sex or drugs or other dark or edgy issues.
The truth is, the books I read allowed me to explore issues like sex and drugs without the danger. I didn’t feel the need to experiment with drugs, because I’d experienced the horrors of a downward spiral into addiction through fiction. I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to experience first-hand. I’d been inside the head of a teen who’d had sex before she was ready, seen countless fictional families deal with issues like loss and personal tragedy, abuse and depression. I think I became a more empathetic person as a result.
And despite some recent claims in the media that reading about edgy issues can actually “normalize” dangerous behaviors in teens, I can assure you that reading about things like self-inflicted harm or abuse did not in any way normalize (or glamorize) them in my mind or encourage me to try some of those behaviors myself. Give me a break–teenagers are not feeble-minded little moral weaklings, unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.
Which leads me right back to the whole when writing young adult fiction, “there is no right or wrong answer” bit. It’s up to you, as the story’s creator, to decide where you draw the line. What’s “too edgy” to some young adult readers (or, more likely, to their parents) might be considered totally tame by others. Just be aware of the consequences of your choices–if you’ve written an entire novel that’s completely chaste and tame, and then–boom!–throw in an explicit sex scene at the end, you’re going to lose a segment of readers who you might have kept without the sex scene (and you’re probably going to piss off some people, too). You probably should re-think just how necessary that scene is if the rest of the book is perfectly acceptable for the ‘tween crowd.
But if when writing young adult fiction, you want to explore more mature themes and topics and you’re comfortable with the fact that your book might not make some teen reading lists, go for it. After all, some of the most lauded teen fiction (and some of my favorite!) has explored some edgy topics, and done so brilliantly (Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK, for instance, or John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA or even Jandy Nelson’s THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE).
For me, my only rule is “nothing that is gratuitous, or included simply for shock value.”
What about you? Are there any topics or portrayals that you, as a reader, feel should be off-limits in young adult fiction? Any hard-and-fast rules that you, as a writer, use as a guide when writing young adult fiction?
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.
Melina from Reading Vacation
Great post. I recently had a post about my tween view of Sexy Times in YA on Reading Vacation. And then, HD (he’s 13) and I had a debate on Young Bloggers Unite. Here are links.
Young Bloggers Unite
Thanks so much for commenting, Melina! I read your post on Reading Vacation and was blown away! Excellent, excellent post. Everyone, go read it–now!!
It doesn’t necessarily have to be foul language, explicit sex, or violence. The protagonist in GROWING UP INTERSEX has a condition resulting in short stature, a pixie face, and a sexually ambiguous body. The novel deals with some of the issues that teens with these conditions face. Talking about vaginal dilation or unusual ‘pink parts’ can get you a rejection before your book gets read.
Hi Kristi – Thanks for an incredibly helpful article. I have a novel and a short story collection out and both are very adult in nature due to either some sex or graphic violence (and many similar tales to come). I write horror, thrillers and tales with a twist (as Jack X. McCallum), but my latest work may be more suited to the YA crowd. After reading many fairly useless articles on what make YA fiction I’ve found yours to be the best. I’m sure I’ll be referencing it often! Thanks again.
Hi Kristi, awesome post. I’m writing a YA novel where the main character is not only bisexual, but also has a very sexual active life ( he even has a threesome midway onto the book) . He’s 18.The first paragraph begins with him finding out about his magical abilities while masturbating. On the one hand, I’m worried whether the book is too edgy but on the other, I want to keep it real. Some of the character experiences are influenced by my own, and believe me, at 18 I was bisexual and had a very active sex life. In my defence, I say that it takes place in the mid 80s. But reality is that teenagers do masturbate, have sex, etc. Any piece of advise?