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.