The question of “too edgy” in YA

My latest YA manuscript contains sixteen uses of the “s” word in various forms, and one use of the “a” word. No “f”s, because that’s where I chose to draw the line with my character. It also has a scene of questionable sexual content, although it is not violent. Is my story appropriate for a YA audience?

I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately, mostly because I want to inform my own writing by studying what’s being published. I have to say, as a writer, former high school teacher, and parent (though my son is only three and still reading picture books), I have very mixed feelings about the issue of content in YA literature. My personal reading tastes tend to the “pure” rather than the “dark,” so I find some of the content of YA novels today stretch the boundary of my comfort zone. Fight-to-the-death contests for national entertainment and drugs in the water that encourage feral mating in the street, are two examples of YA content that makes me uncomfortable, even though both of these examples occur in books that have meaning–discussable, reading-circle meaning–above and beyond the element of shock.

And then there are novels that address such teen issues as drugs, cutting, anorexia, abuse, etc. I don’t deny that these are issues faced by teens today, but I also know that many teens aren’t touched by these issues at all, or if so, in a cursory way. I was touched by one of these issues. My best friend in high school was anorexic, and she directed me once to a novel titled Kessa so that I could understand some of what she was going through. It was helpful for me to read that book when I did, so I do believe “issue” novels belong in the adolescent canon.

It’s just that I fear that so much negativity, so much grotesque content, gives teens an unrealistic wide-angle picture of adolescence. (Much as TV and movie content gives an unrealistic picture of adulthood, or the “real” world, in general.)

Censorship, however, is NOT the answer. Or, let me clarify, censorship on a wide scale is not the answer. I’m all for censorship within a homeparents should be free to choose how to deal with their child’s reading choices in a way that is appropriate for their family.

As a teacher, though, I strongly disapprove of having a single parent’s parenting choices dictate the reading assigned in a classroom. When I was teaching, the issue of content came up only oncewhen I assigned Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth to my Advanced Placement seniors for summer reading. One parent, who had read the book, took issue with the violence, including rape, Follett used. She requested that I assign the book in the Fall so my class had a forum for discussion as the reading occurred (as opposed to summer reading, when they had only their journal to talk to). I thought that was a reasonable request, so I substituted another book on the summer list and read Pillars along with our medieval unit.

The key here is that the parent had read the book and so was familiar with the content of the entire story and how the controversial elements were woven through the book’s themes. She did not demand that I pull the book altogether, but that I (and the class) could talk about any issues raised. In fourteen years of teaching, I never had to deal with an uninformed parent who objected to a book based on a single passage, or with a group of parents who went over my head and asked the school board directly to take action to ban a book. I get very, very angry when I hear these kinds of stories.

The truth is, if an earnest group of parents who had read Pillars of the Earth came to me and said they really wished I would take the book off the list altogether, I would have done so. One thing I’ve learned as an English teacher is that although I may have personal favorites for books I’d like to teach, there is never a book that is irreplaceable. I would not have considered such action a victory for censorship, I would have considered it a victory for adults talking it out and working together to make decisions in the best interests of children.

Of course, Pillars isn’t the best example because it’s not a YA book, but is today’s YA too edgy for the YA audience? Drawing a line is a pretty dangerous thing because there is no way that an entire nation of readers and parents of readers will agree on where that line should be. I just wish that more parents would read what their teens are reading so they can discuss the issues raised and help them to understand how accurately (or not) books portray life.

I’m wondering what the parents of my former students would think of my new book. I’d like to think it warrants placement on a summer reading list or, even better, placement in a classroom discussion, but ultimately, it’s not up to me. And that’s okay.

***

Here are a few articles you can check out if you want to read more on this subject:
This Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon questions the rationality of having YA lit contain “explicit abuse, violence, and depravity.”
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html

This Huffington Post article by Ru Freeman agrees with Meghan Cox Gordon’s ideas.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ru-freeman/im-with-meghan-cox-gurdon_b_879880.html

Carla Javier, on the Knoxnews.com site, disagrees with Meghan Cox Gordon.
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2011/jul/12/yas-can-handle-ya-lit/

A slightly older, but still relevant, article by Shelley Stoehr in The Alan Review.
http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/winter97/w97-02-Stoehr.html

An article by Mike Penprase at News-Leader.com about the upholding of a ban on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
http://www.news-leader.com/article/20100909/NEWS04/9090375/Stockton-book-ban-upheld-7-0-packed-public-forum

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8 Responses to “The question of “too edgy” in YA”

  1. Gregory says:

    In all fairness. Books are no longer the medium they once were, especially the young adult, since every book that does reasonably well is being made into a movie (they’ve now done up the paperwork for Ender’s Game, I thought I’d be happy but the cast list alone made me cringe and I actually hate the chosen director) I digress.

    My point is, that while parents SHOULD read what their kids read (and some do), it’s the kids who aren’t reading at all that don’t understand contextual violence, or sexuality, or what have you.

    Also, open lines of communication are important. I just recently had a little boy who was 11 ask me a bunch of sex related questions. Apparently, in his adolescent curiosity, he looked through a book on sex at the library and these got him curious. When I told him I couldn’t answer his questions and that he should ask his father instead he told me his father would be “pissed” if he asked him those sorts of things. i assured him that he wouldn’t be pissed that his curiosity was natural. I felt bad because I knew the answers and could have told him but had to decline telling him. My belief is, if you’re old enough to ask you’re old enough to know, but it’s still something a parent needs to decide how to handle.

    So, my belief is that treating sexual elements as though they are either non-existent or something only dirty people do is probably more hurtful. It gives the impressionable party a reason to believe that their natural desires and questions are something that shouldn’t be discussed ever.

    As for language, words are like swords. They can cut you to pieces, they can bounce light around the room, or you can hang them on the wall and make them look pretty. It’s the decision of the person using the word as to which use they implement. Also, if you’re writing for the people, you should write in the language of the people. I think as a High School teacher for all those years you know better than most just how colorful the modern young adult’s language can be. They don’t see swear words in books and thing “that’s edgy” they think “that’s realistic”.

    That’s my two cents.

    • Jen says:

      Thanks, Greg, for your thoughts! I think my concern is that YA literature is generally considered appropriate for people ages 12-18. I honestly don’t think a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old are capable of handling mature content in the same way, curiosity or no. I’m all for younger readers learning more about issues they already have questions about (and especially for them posing those questions to parents or other adults), but I don’t relish the thought of my writing raising those questions in them before they’re ready.

      I really do struggle with this because of the various hats I wear with relation to the issue. I can’t really use my own YA experience because the offerings were so different then. I remember reading teen romances in junior high, but adult science fiction and fantasy after that.

  2. Thanks for posting this (and how weird is it that you used a KnoxNews article… Knoxville, TN is practically my backyard)! As a reader of YA fiction, I often have trouble recommending books to parents, because I do NOT have kids, so really, what do I know about what’s appropriate or not? I’m fine with all kinds of things, but I’m really not looking at the YA lens as a YA nor a parent of one, so it makes it difficult to make recommendations.

    An aside, I have not read Pillars of Earth, but I’m curious about. But it’s a beast of a book, isn’t it?

  3. Jen says:

    When I recommend books to parents, whether they’re family, friends, or parents of students, I simply state what I feel is the value of reading the book, then give the disclaimer that the book contains “_____.” Then it’s up to them to decide if it’s appropriate for their kid.

    Pillars of the Earth is close to 1,000 pages long. Actually, it has an ensemble cast, now that I think about it. It’s straight up historical fiction, though, not sf/f, but I would recommend it as a good read. Fast, despite the length.

  4. Adriana says:

    I’m slightly surprised that the way we categorize books wasn’t sub-divided more, especially given the way that most of the world thinks about other mediums like movies. Thinking in the way movies are rated, especially in places that I believe have superior ratings systems like the UK, they have the G and PG ratings like we do, but then they have 12+, 15+, and 18+ ratings. That I think accounts for the vastly different ways in which a 12 year old thinks from a 15 year old, and so on. Video games use a similar ratings system.

    That said. I think Gurdon doesn’t give YA authors or readers enough credit…or any at all, really. I think she’s making the market out to be more saturated with a certain type of novel than it actually is, and she’s also underestimating the ability of young readers to understand the themes that they present. I think two things need to happen in the YA reading stage: the young adults reading the books need to be given the room to explore on their own, and parents need to be aware of what their kids like to read and talk to them about it. Some themes are going to appeal to readers younger because they’ve developed an earlier curiosity about things like sexuality and they’re ready to learn. In my experience, kids who aren’t ready just skip right over those kinds of novels. But I think the YA novels that cover themes that we might consider dark or taboo for young audiences are incredibly important because they offer young adults, whose world often seems so immediate, a glance into someone else’s life and experiences, where they might take comfort in the similarities or learn from the differences. I think reading books that Gurdon would have likely considered inappropriate for YA audiences helped me shape both my literary preferences and my identity as a young adult, and I think these books act similarly for others. I think here the difference lies in gratuity for gratuity’s sake, and language and story that has a very particular purpose and meaning.

    I think that all the comments on Gurdon’s article, for better or worse in their anger, speak volumes about what young adults feel about their own genre of books.

    • Jen says:

      The key you’ve brought up is readiness. Even if we switched to a more developed rating system that differentiated between 12+, 15+, and 18+, the system would not take into account individual differences in maturity or the amount of conversation with adults a teen engages in.

      “Gratuity” is the other key you mention. I really don’t know how much gratuitous material YA authors intentionally put in their stories (or how much publishers prefer) in order to sell books. I only know that lately I have read some books that bordered the gratuitous line, but other books with strong content that felt essential to the story. Quite frankly, though, most YA I’ve read doesn’t strike me as too “edgy” for a YA audience at all–so I agree that the Gurdon article might make the market seem more saturated with edge than it really is. However, I read YA thinking of high school juniors and seniors reading it, not 12-year-olds, for whom much of the YA I read probably is inappropriate.

      I guess I’ll have a clearer opinion as to what material is appropriate for what age when my little guy is old enough to start seeking out these books. It bears repeating, though, that when I finally decide what is right for my kid, I will not have the right to dictate what’s right for someone else’s kid.

  5. I write fairly dark and edgy YA, and that’s mostly informed by my own dark and edgy childhood. As a high school teacher, I’ve run into so many students with so many issues. It’s almost impossible to talk to a kid today, really talk to them, without hearing they have at least thought about suicide. They’ve been abused. They have single parents that fight over them. They drink, smoke weed, and some do harder drugs. There’s very very few that are involved with something YA authors would call edgy. Our job, as my writing mentors have often told me, is NOT to think about what lesson you’re teaching or what responsibility you have to making the world a better place. Our job is to tell stories–good stories. If a character has a dark and edgy life, and that’s his or her story, we have to tell the story honestly. If someone else says it’s too edgy, then sell it to adults or edit it. But when we’re writing, we have to be real. If the character is a good character that learns and changes, then the kids will learn from it too, not just say “cool drugs.” Give the some credit. They see it every day. They hear stories. They watch TV. They know what’s out there. None of them are shocked by this stuff, even the stuff written just for shock value. They’ll be the first to tell you that they don’t need to or want to be protected form the world. If you listen.

  6. Jen says:

    Thanks for posting this, William. I have to say I agree with the notion that as writers we must write the story honestly. I also agree that it’s not the writer’s role to protect adolescents from the world. I do, though, think it makes sense to consider what lessons an adolescent may get from what I write.

    I guess some of my reaction to edgy YA is related your closing above. Adolescents are not shocked by the stuff. Take Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, for example. I think she means for the excessive violence of her trilogy to be shocking. Shocking in a good way, so to speak. The books challenge young readers to think about violence, about the human capacity to view violence as entertainment, about the ways in which a government can hold power over a people and the ways in which a people lets the government hold power. I’ve seen ten-year-olds reading these books, and I wonder how well they can contemplate these ideas. Like I said above, my little boy is only three, and I have very little memory of how savvy I was as a ten-year-old, so it can really only be up to parents to know their children’s level of maturity. That’s not trying to protect them so much as help them get the most out of what they read.

    But like you said, it’s not the writer’s responsibility to determine the maturity level of every person who might read their work. It’s the writer’s responsibility to write. It’s the marketer’s responsibility to categorize the book as YA (or MG or adult, etc.), and I do think that, in order for a potential reader to know what they might be getting into, the category should have some meaning as far as how close a story goes to the edge.


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