Toeing the YA Line

YA is popular right now, there’s no denying that. Most of the best-selling fiction, especially in genre, is identified as YA at the moment (well, whatever isn’t ghostwritten by someone for James Patterson or Clive Cussler, that is). You can’t ignore the popularity of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Matched, and any number of other YA titles and series.

Even books that weren’t originally aimed at a YA audience are being marketed that way. Heck, some bloggers decided that Broken was a YA novel, owing mainly to the age of the primary protagonist. Okay, cool, we’re down with that, given the popularity of the genre and the cross-marketing possibilities. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a dystopia, too, which is also Hot Hot Hot these days.

But this popularity brings with it a lot of submissions/manuscripts. And each of those has its own take on the genre, and its own tone, and its own unique problems and highlights.

So where’s the line? How do you determine what’s appropriate for YA? Because let’s admit it, people – these ARE books for young adults, even if tons of grownups are reading them, and therefore, you need to draw a few lines and have a few limits and think carefully about what work you’re presenting for what audience.

How much swearing is too much? Is it okay to say “fuck” at all? Can that word only be used once or twice, or is it okay to have it plunked all over the text in a convincing and contextually appropriate way (that is, not simply for the sake of swearing). We all know full well that kids swear, and teens cuss like sailors when they feel like it. So is having lots and lots of cursing in a YA novel acceptable – after all, that’s how late-teens people tend to think and talk – or is it something we should avoid so as to make the novel more acceptable for a younger audience, something that parents could give their 14-year-old to get them reading?

Sex. How much is too much? How explicit can it be? How explicit can the terminology be? It’s one thing, perhaps, to hint at teens having sex; another to graphically depict them having sex; another still to graphically depict them having anything other than tentative or vanilla sex; and yet another to have them talking/thinking about sex in graphic or explicit terms, using graphic or explicit terminology. What’s okay? Where’s the line? Teens think about sex all the time, and they have as much sex as they can. It’s reality, in most cases. But should that be in a book?

One of the larger complications here is that, while a book for a YA audience might contain characters in the 16-18 range, the book’s actual readership is more likely to be 14-16 years old (with all those dedicated adults reading, too). So while the behaviour and language depicted by the characters may be perfectly in keeping with late-teens shenanigans and reality, do you want to target the book to younger readers, knowing they’ll read it and identify with it (presuming the book was written well and is identifiable-with)?

Where’s the line?

What do you think?



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6 Responses to “Toeing the YA Line”

  1. Chrysoula Tzavelas September 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    It doesn’t help that a number of adults read (and maybe even write?) YA because they’re not comfortable with the genre requirements for adult material that show up in books aimed at older adults. So they can blame their rejection of a book on ‘for the CHILDREN’ but it’s actually because of their own discomfort with the sex/swearing/grimness.

    I’m a little cynical.

    I have thought about this issue a lot, though. Nightlights has swearing in it– not a ton, and mostly from a character whose background seems to demand it– but every four-letter-word feels tender to write down (because I’ve been scolded by other YA authors so much).  In my previous novel, which was epic fantasy with teenagers, there was a scene that utterly warranted the naughty word the protagonist used (and the words her attackers used) but because they didn’t show up anywhere else in the book, I ended up removing or toning them down heavily because the feel of the book didn’t seem to support them.

  2. Candlemark & Gleam September 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    Some pretty potent cuss words get broken out in HICKEY, but only when the situation really calls for them. I think that makes them more potent, and more meaningful.

    I’m reading a manuscript right now where teens are swearing CONSTANTLY, and in a way that would get a movie immediately rated R. It even quotes one of my favourite movie swear-streaks. But it’s sort of appropriate in context, if over the top. I’m more concerned about the explicit sexual terminology (even though all the sex is off-camera).

    On the one hand, you don’t want to dumb things down or censor them overly, because teens read YA, and teens know how other teens speak and act and think. But parents are going to be concerned, and so if there’s a way to convey the same emotions and thoughts without resorting to constant cursing etc, perhaps that’s the way to go…

  3. April-Lyn Caouette September 27, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    Sex and swearing have little place in YA fiction. Sensuality, okay. And references to sex – that is, non-graphic, subtle references to characters engaging in sexual activity – are sometimes appropriate, depending on context. But culturally, we are already making children grow up much too soon. We flood their minds with images of sex and violent behavior and violent language and hatred, things that they shouldn’t have to process at increasingly younger ages. I think that If you’re specifically writing a book for young adults, then you should think about whether you’d want your children to be reading it. Then think about other people’s children reading it. “They’ve already been exposed to it anyways” doesn’t fly as an excuse for me – why bother with a rating system at all if we’re going to start thinking like that? And yes, teenagers are probably already going to be reading some pretty adult material. I know I was by middle school. But I like that when I open a YA novel, I can usually expect a story written by someone who doesn’t need to resort to swearing and sex to get their point across, and that I can safely recommend it to someone else’s teenaged child.

    If you can’t write a story that doesn’t involve graphic sex scenes or four letter words, maybe you should be writing for adults.

    That being said, I did enjoy the Twilight series. But did I think the level of sexuality in the later books was appropriate for a YA audience? Not at all.

  4. Candlemark & Gleam September 28, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    Now, see, I’ll have to disagree at least slightly. YA these days is for a more mature audience than when we were growing up – it IS Twilight and Hunger Games and all that. There’s more sex and violence and swearing. The stuff that was “YA” when we were kids is now “middle grade,” and I agree that THAT should not have sex or swearing, at least not more than a few words.

    I do think that sex and swearing and violence should usually be toned down in YA, but at the same time, we’re dealing with darker situations and such in today’s YA, and it’s also aimed at older teens for the most part. I’m not saying that you have to pander, nor that you have to either include or completely eliminate such things. But I guess…I guess what I’m saying is that I think there’s a place for SOME swearing and sex in YA, if it’s called for by the context of the story, but that it shouldn’t be over the top? Balance.

  5. David Jón Fuller July 18, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

     I think context is important. I remember reading most of the Judy Blume books when I was a kid, perhaps younger than their intended audience (I started with Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and then wanted to read them all).  But, you know what? The way she handled things like puberty from a girl’s point of view in Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret were blunt without being gratuitous, and I actually learned something. Same thing for Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great — as I recall Sheila was kind of a bully in Tales, and reading a story from her point of view made me rethink my opinion of her. Similarly with the first sequel to Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, I think it was Superfudge, in which the boys’ attitudes to violence in hockey is shown.  I just read a YA novel by Kevin Marc Fournier that deals bluntly with suicide without glorifying it.  Very tough line to walk on these subjects — but still realities teens are grappling with. YA authors can do more than divert their readers as they struggle with life and change — they can also throw them a rope

  6. Candlemark & Gleam July 18, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more on all counts! It takes a lot of skill to present the challenges facing young people – tweens and teens – but when realistic situations or emotions and problems are presented in a thoughtful, appropriate way? It can make SUCH a difference to a kid who picks up the book.

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