Writing Truths in YA: How Much is Too Much?
For the recent boom in YA book sales, Newsweek’s Generation R credits teens’ increasing sophistication, their emotional maturity, and the accompanying new freedom for YA writers to explore almost any subject.
For authors, what does all this reader sophistication and new freedom mean?
Over in debut2009, we’ve discussed it in several forms—detailed vs. implied sex scenes, when does violence become gratuitous, do the bad guys always get punished, what is author responsibility, and more. I don’t think we’ve come up with an official group answer (perhaps in time for debut2029!), but here’s how I summed up my thoughts in the forum:
As authors, should we be responsible? Absolutely. And the best way to be responsible is to be honest and truthful in our writing. That means not censoring ourselves by shying away from controversial topics if the story calls for them. And it also means not adding in a bunch of over-the-top “controversy” for shock value or sales. Just tell the truth.
My primary goal as a writer is to…
…tell a story.
An honest one, with characters and situations to which readers can relate. I’m not writing to teach a lesson or signal a warning beacon—I am absolutely not the poster child for good choices! And you know what? There aren’t always consequences in life. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant. Not everyone who drinks and drives causes a wreck. Does that mean that if I include these elements in my books without their associated and predictable consequences that I’m condoning certain behaviors? Nope. It just means that I’m telling a story. Here’s what happened. You, young reader, decide how you feel about it.
Emotional maturity is born of exposure to and experience with new and sometimes controversial situations. I see more controversy on the six o’clock news than I do in the teen section at Barnes & Noble, so I write with this in mind: Teen readers do have the maturity and the sophistication to evaluate situations for themselves—whether in their own lives, on television, or in books—and make their own choices. This isn’t to say that books don’t have any influence on teens (just ask this guy!). But at that age, they already have a foundation for decision-making that a novel won’t crumble. If someone decides to have premarital sex or smoke a cigarette, it’s probably not because of something she read in my book. I have to trust that.
So when Jack Martin, assistant coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library, tells Newsweek this about old school YA books vs. the current lot…
“Too many books for teens just stated obvious messages, like ‘doing drugs is bad.’ But now the messages are imbedded into the story. This new crop of writers would rather present drugs as a miserable existence and show what it’s like to live through this experience than to preach.”
…and a father of a teen reader says this about books that cross into controversial issues like drugs and alcohol or sex:
These are profound issues that I’ve seen handled tastefully. They’re issues that some might think are too big for a teen. But teens, like adults, live in the real world. And I get the sense that they appreciate fiction that’s honest and might give them a glimpse of what awaits them as adults.”
…I respectfully disagree.
Martin’s making a broad generalization here, implying that today’s writers are simply finding subtler ways to send the same heavy-handed messages.
And Dad? YA lit isn’t trying to give teens a peek at what the future holds. It’s probably just giving you a glimpse at what your teen is already dealing with.
Like the article says, teens enjoy books as an escape from reality, a break from the pressures of their lives, and even as a kind of therapy to bridge the lack of communication and support they might face at home. That said, the most successful YA writers are not those who can find a more creative way to sneak in the lesson. The most successful writers are those who tell an honest story and trust (and encourage) their readers to determine not what the story means, but what it means to them.
For me, the most meaningful thing a reader can say is not “this book is mad cool” or “I was all LOL,” but “wow, that’s totally me,” and “hmm, I never thought of it that way before.” Hearing those words means I’ve connected with someone or helped her see something in a new way, whether it’s a hopeful story or something full of pain and heartache, with or without consequences.
That connection is all I can ask for, and that connection—if I earn it—is how I will know my books have succeeded.
Your turn. What do you as teens, parents, teachers, authors, and readers think? How much is too much? And what defines a successful book?