Controversial Content in YA Literature: A College Professor and Homeschooling Parent Answers an Aspiring Teen Writer’s Questions

I received this comment on my blog:

[F]or my Senior Project I am writing a young adult short novel. I found the article on your blog, “Short Story Tips: 10 Ways to Improve Your Creative Writing,” very helpful. However, I was wondering if you had any opinions on the boundaries of what is appropriate content for the young adult genre. This is in regards to things like drugs, sex, and any typical struggles that could be considered inappropriate for certain age groups. I would greatly appreciate the input. Thank you for your time!

As a home-schooling parent to two voracious readers (now 16 and 21), I found YA literature a valuable resource when my kids were tweens and ready to tackle more advanced books on their own. Because we, the parents, were assigning the reading, we knew exactly what our kids were ready for, and if we came across any content they found troubling, we knew they could come right to us for guidance. We also prescreened, using sites like www.commonsensemedia.org that have a breakdown of how much violence, sex and rough language is in each title, and of course we talked with other parents about what books they recommended, so that we could decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether any boundary-pushing content was handled in a way we felt was right for our kids.

What does or doesn’t go into YA literature is to a large extent controlled by the publishers, who might tell the writers that a particular manuscript will sell more copies if more parents and teachers feel it’s safe for younger readers.

In addition to being a home-schooling dad, I’m also an English professor, so part of my job is to introduce college students to controversial works. My wife has a master’s degree in literature and an undergraduate degree in drama, so between us, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature. I’ve taken my teen daughter to plays that include controversial content. And she has played Maria in West Side Story and Ti Moune in Once On This Island (both of which feature teen girls who act impulsively, without weighing the consequences). I can imagine my wife and I would be very frustrated if someone else (a school board or a teacher) made such decisions for us. (And that’s one of the major reasons why we decided to home-school our kids.)

If your story is about a character who holds a beer party at his house while his parents are away, and it’s a high school coach or guidance counselor who cheerfully supplies the beer, and the story ends with the protagonist becoming popular and winning the girl, then I’d say it sends a socially destructive message and would not recommend it for any YA reader. But if the story requires a character to do something risky in order to explore the impact of that risky behavior, that’s another thing entirely. If a character is a teen parent, or a member of a violent gang, or can’t think about anything but their next Juul hit, and your story involves how the character deals with the consequences of “edgy” actions — the “typical struggles” you mention — then the edginess is necessary to the story. I don’t think the character has to repent of all their reckless actions and give a speech about how wrong they were to doubt the wise advice they got from their loving and 100% correct parents, but if you glorify the reckless behavior without showing the consequences, and you’re putting in edgy scenes simply to see how far you push the boundaries as an act of teen rebellion, well, that’s probably not the sort of story publishers will be able to market, since it’s parents and school librarians who do a lot of the buying. (I’d say, keep that stuff in your diary!)

Old movies might show characters kissing, then pan up to show the moon, and then cut to the characters eating breakfast. Perhaps they spent the night together, or perhaps this is a few days later and they just happen to be eating breakfast together. Whatever happened in between is left up to the viewer’s imagination. And being creative about this kind of edgy subtext takes more talent than showing edgy content explicitly.

If you’re writing a series about the long-lost daughter of Sherlock Holmes, then you’ve got to come up with some sort of backstory for how Sherlock Holmes (who in the original stories was only interested in brains and facts, not sex of any sort) ended up with a daughter. But you don’t have to take the reader into the bedroom to describe any details.

It’s a problem if you glorify reckless acts without demonstrating the consequences of such acts — people might get pregnant, get diseases, die from overdoses. Of course not every reckless act has such permanent consequences, so a realistic story shouldn’t automatically reward the virtuous and punish the wicked.

While rough language seems harmless by comparison, some environments expect more proper speech. A young person who can only speak using the slang and cuss words of their peer groups is simply not ready to move into the adult world, where you need to be able to speak in different ways in different contexts. For instance when my daughter was young, she picked up words that she thought were just nicknames her older friends called each other, but had no idea what the words really meant. People who can’t adjust their language to their surroundings can lose jobs, lose friends, or make potential mentors less likely to write letter of recommendation, etc. So if you want to have your teen character swear when they are around each other, there may be consequences when the characters talk that way outside of their own group. One of The Princess Diaries movies plays with this kind of thing when the lead character is talking to an authority figure, but says “shut UP!” the way she would to her friends.

Many things that adults tell young people not to do have consequences that young people aren’t always aware of. And we, the adults, tell teens not to do those things because we remember how badly we wanted to do those same things when we were teens, and we remember how we blew off the warnings from our authority figures, and we remember how we felt when we faced the consequences of our misdeeds and suddenly realized how right our parents were.