Too Edgy for Teens? Not Likely.

If there’s one thing that almost always amuses me, it’s when a writer tells me they don’t think their book could be published as YA because it’s too edgy or mature. 9 times out of 10, when I ask exactly what the content is, it turns out to be pretty tame compared to what’s already out there—heavy make out scenes! A couple of alcoholic drinks and a whole lot of cuss words!

In other words, have they even READ any YA novels in the last five years?

Here’s a quick rundown of a few topics covered as of late:

Kidnapping and long-term sexual abuse: Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

Incest: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

Abuse: Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, Dreamland by Sarah Dessen, Stay by Deb Caletti

Homosexuality: Rage by Julie Ann Peters, Ash by Malinda Lo, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Rape: Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Drugs: Crank by Ellen Hopkins, Beautiful by Amy Reed

Sex: Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegesar, Ripple by yours truly, Swoon by Nina Malkin (among SOOO many others!) (and even Oral Sex: Looking for Alaska by John Green)

War/holocaust: The Book Thief By Marcus Zusak, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Septys

Death: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Eating Disorders: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Perfect by Natasha Friend

Suicide: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Crash into Me by Albert Borris

Which is to say…there’s nothing in YA strictly off limits. Don’t concern yourself with whether the type of content you’re writring about is “okay” for YA. Instead, ask yourself: Am I writing this realistically? Is my character reacting to these situations authentically for a teenager?

As I was writing this a few weeks back, Jay Asher, NYT bestselling author of Thirteen Reasons Why, tweeted: Love reviews that call a book bad because the characters make bad choices. So books that made bad choices look like bad choices are…bad?

What he means is—your characters can make horrible, destructive choices. But by the end of the book, your character—and your reader—should understand that. The idea here is that you’re exploring these topics in a ‘safe’ way for teens. As long as the things you approach are handled in a way that’s realistic, you’re fine. Hell, your character might end up in a downward spiral that never ends. Your book may cut off at rock bottom, with no recovery or rainbows in sight. But the fact of that matter is that you’re handling it in a realistic way and showing the results of bad or tough choices.

Example? Say you want to write about drugs. Your character can get into cocaine or meth or any number of hard drugs, and for a while, he can be on top of the freakin’ world. But at some point everything’s going to come crashing down—just like it would in the real world—and therein lies why it is okay to write these things for teens. Because you’re showing the real life repercussions of some truly hard topics.

Does that mean you should preach and focus on “teaching lessons”? Heck no. Teens will see through that a mile away and toss it in the garbage. But for YA, your character’s internal growth and journey are perhaps more important than the external plot changes. Your character must grow and change throughout the book, and by throwing in some heavy stuff, you’re dealing with tough topics head on, and your readers will naturally grow and learn right along side your characters. That is why it’s okay to go as deep and dark as you need to to write your story.

Now, there are YA novels that make light of what some may call ‘dangerous behavior” for teens, IE, drinking, drugs, sex, etc. Gossip Girl is one that is notorious for making a “fast” lifestyle seem glamorous, with no repercussions. The characters DO struggle at times, but they’re over it quickly and onto the next party.

And for some THAT is where they draw the line—that books like those glamorize behaviors “not suitable” for teens. However, think about that for a moment. Rarely is the argument that the content is the specific problem. Instead it’s the way it is portrayed. That should be your mantra. If you’re truly worried about your content, stop focusing on the content itself and think about how you’re portraying it.

If your characters are real, authentic, and multi-faceted, approaching these decisions as a real-life teen would, then you’re telling your story the way it needs to be told.  That may scare some people, but BE BRAVE and tell the story you need to tell—because somewhere, a teen is facing the same issues in REAL LIFE, and he or she needs your book.

And hey, I hear book banning isn’t so bad. Lauren Myracle, John Green, and Jay Asher seem to be doing just fine.


16 Responses to Too Edgy for Teens? Not Likely.

  1. RachelSeigel Jul 26 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Great post Mandy! I work with a highly conservative customer base, and many of my customers get very nervous about how these topics are portrayed. While there are certain books (such as Forbidden) which are even a bit too taboo for my high school market, I applaud the authors who are brave enough to tell the story in an honest, and realistic way.

    • MandyHubbard Jul 27 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Thanks Rachel!! 🙂 I love reading AND writing the tough books.

  2. David Jón Fuller Jul 26 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Hi Mandy: I really appreciated this post. I’ve struggled with this as I write, partly because I was concerned about sex, violence and swearing in my WIP — not whether they were justified, because I included them when I felt they were realistic and appropriate to the story I was telling (and through hashing things out with an editor and beta readers — but because I was wondering whether I’d be shooting myself in the foot when looking for publishers.

    The books I read as a teen that have stayed with me had some or all of these things. In Search of April Raintree, by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, for example, has since been “cleaned up” so it can be taught in schools but the version our grade eight teacher shared with us was not. But I recently read The Green-Eyed Queen of Suicide City by Kevin Marc Fournier, which deals unflinchingly with suicide, and (shocking) includes swearing. A great book, which I would have enjoyed as a teen, but also enjoyed now.

    Anyway, thanks very much for this recommended reading list — I will look for these titles and keep plumbing deeper as I write.

  3. Rowenna Jul 26 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    Great point–that it’s less the content and more the context. You’re so right that teens (and, heck, adults) want to explore topics in safe ways–as we get older, that safe context might get broader in media, but I think we’re curious and fascinated by a lot of the same things.

    On the flip side, I’ve seen writers worry that their work isn’t edgy *enough* for the teen market–not that they were diluting a topic, but that they just didn’t need to have swearing, sex, or other “edgy” content for their characters to react realistically and to tell a good story. I guess your advice works for them, too–it’s all about how the situation is portrayed, and keeping it realistic!

    • MandyHubbard Jul 27 2012 at 12:04 pm #

      Hey Rowenna!

      There’s totally room for more “sweet” or “clean” YA. PRADA & PREJUDICE has zilch swear words, no sex, etc. YOU WISH i think has just a spare few cuss words (hell, i think, no F bombs that I recall). There’s room for both!

  4. Alex Mendez Jul 26 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Dear Mandy,

    You say that “The idea here is that you’re exploring these topics in a ‘safe’ way for teens.” Would you say, then, that if a character’s “bad” decisions have ambivalent consequences by the end of the book, and if these decisions are not portrayed as entirely “bad,” then the book would exit the realm of YA literature and enter the realm of “adult” literature? Would that book exist outside of the safe zone for teens? Where do you draw the line between treating a topic safely and treating it, shall we say, roughly or coarsely? Mainly, I’d like to hear your point of view on what you consider is a “safe” way to deal with these issues. Do you mean pure realism, or something more?

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post; it has certainly led me to reflect more on the ways I’m dealing with more “mature” content in my own YA writing.

    • MandyHubbard Jul 27 2012 at 12:08 pm #

      Hey Alex,

      That’s a great question, and is part of the reason I mentioned GOSSIP GIRL. I dont think that ambivalent repercussions mean, on their own, it’s not YA. It can stil be YA, it just means that some parents may not want their kids steerred toward that book. It’s the voice, really, over the content, that determins whether it is YA or Adult.

      And how you deal with it– roughly/coursely etc, is so much about your character. If that is how that character would behave, and s/he is acting authentically teen, then you’re handling it correctly. IE, if a teen is having sex for the first time, there needs to be real emotion there. Don’t overthink it.

  5. JQ Trotter Jul 26 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    This is so true. I can’t help but laugh in my head when someone tells me about their story and says it’s too ‘adult’ for YA (or edgy).
    Great post.

    • MandyHubbard Jul 27 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      Thank you!

  6. Cara M Jul 27 2012 at 9:09 am #

    You see, when I say I’m worrying about ‘too edgy for YA’ (which I would never say, because the word ‘edgy’ is totally a poser word that means I’m too cool to write about boring things like people and plot and instead want to recreate the high school experience that I wish I had had), I’m worried because my WIP contains cannibalism, evil mind-control surgery and the main romantic relationship you’re supposed to be rooting for is between half-sisters.

    It’s not my fault! The plot just turned out that way!

    • MandyHubbard Jul 27 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      hahah, Cara, i still think you can 100% pull it off and have it be YA. Canibalism, incest, evil mind control and all. (also you best be sending me a query on that thing when its done, and remind me that I told you to..)

      • Cara M Jul 28 2012 at 10:53 pm #

        Awesome! 😀
        I totally will!

  7. Hap Jul 27 2012 at 10:58 am #


    I mean, my current WIP goes through things like ethics, economics, and existentialism. I’m not worried that it’s too “edgy” for young adults — I’m worried that it’s too boring!

  8. MandyHubbard Jul 27 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    Hap, that’s a legit concern! It needs to have relatable characters with conflicts that teens can identify.

    Keep in mind THE HUNGER GAMES said a hell of a lot about war, politics, etc, but no one’s going to describe it that way. It’s about teens fighting ot the death, they’ll say! So focus on telling a good story, and if you have some great things to say, that comes out through the story. Not vice versa.

  9. Jennifer Jul 27 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    In researching comps for my MS, my crit partners kept steering me towards your books. YOU WISH kept me up way past my bedtime and I LOVED IT! I wondered if you could comment on what the current market is for YA that is NOT edgy. I hear people talk about chick-lit being a dirty world in the adult market right now and wondered if that is also true in the YA world as well? I know you say above that there is room for both edgy and not, and wondered if, while wearing your agent hat versus author hat, you find editors reacting with the same interest to commercial YA rom-com’s.


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