Responsibility in YA Fiction

I read an interesting blog post today that an author friend of mine wrote, and I think her point is a discussion worth having. So let’s all use our inside voices, put on our big kid undies and have a serious chat.

I write YA fiction. What defines YA fiction? Well, some think it’s fiction written for young adults. I tend to disagree with that. It’s fiction about young adults. Basically no matter how “clean” or “dirty” the content may be, if the protagonist is between 13 and 18 years old, it’s YA fiction by default. It will be on the YA shelf in the bookstore. Period.

As an author, I realize that the majority of my readers, that is YA readers, are actually women from the ages of 20-35 respectively. Now obviously I’m not saying teens don’t read YA. But as a professional, I know where my target market is. I know that in my YA book club, all of whom are well past YA, we often find the super clean books boring or below what we might otherwise enjoy reading. Older readers want a little romance, a little excitement, a little danger. I’m not saying it has to be graphic, but it’s certainly something you have to keep in mind when your job depends on you actually selling books.

As a mother of teenagers, I would certainly hope my kids would think twice before looking to YA novels, any form of fiction really, for a role model. I hope this in the same way I would hope they wouldn’t try to emulate stunts from movies they watch or drive cars the way they do in video games.

My friend says in her post, that as an adult, married woman, she enjoys YA fiction with good girl/bad boy romances. She admits that the last few she’s read, and enjoyed (again, she’s not slamming any books or plots in general) the female teenager sleeps with the bad boy to get him to like her. And that by the end of the book, the bad boys have redeemed themselves and cast off their bad-boy ways. But she also says, it’s not reality. In reality, if you are dating a gang member/drug dealer, your odds of a HEA are actually hella slim. (my terms not hers, but the point is the same) So are these books teaching young girls that those types of relationships are healthy? Positive? Normal? She says, she doesn’t want her kids behaving that way, so she chooses to write books where the characters behave the way she would hope her children would behave, or at least, books she thinks wouldn’t set a bad example for them.

The point my friend made was not a judgement on YA fiction, it was simply this:

As authors, what kind of example do our books set for young readers?

I’m going to take that one step further.

What responsibility, if any, do we as authors have in setting that example?

Here are my personal thoughts on the matter, I know that yours may be very different and hey, that’s cool. Honestly, I’d love to hear them so please feel free to comment below.

I have always found that the responsibility of teaching children fact from fiction is a parent’s job. In whatever form that fiction may take, comics, video games, tv, or books, I and my husband are the first and last authority on the matter. When my teenage daughter wanted to read Twilight, I allowed it. But after, we sat down and had a really good talk about 1) How you should expect to be treated in a relationship and 2) That fictional boys 100% do not think or behave as real boys might. It was very healthy for us. She has a good grasp on the meaning of fiction, and that just because fictional characters behave a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to emulate it in real life.

But I also realize that not every parent will do that with their children. I’d suspect that many have no idea what their children are reading. Honestly, that makes me a little sad.

However, I just don’t feel that I, as a writer, am responsible for what other people’s children read, or what they take from what they are reading. Now, that may sound like shirking the blame, but follow with me for a minute. If writers aren’t writing about uncomfortable, awkward, sometimes scary things, then how will kids ever learn to process them in a safe way (ie, through the pages of a book rather than first hand experience)? I would argue that it is our responsibility to do just that, to offer a million different worlds and experiences and push barriers and to allow the readers, and hopefully in the case of kids their parents, to pick the ones that they want to immerse themselves in.

I have a YA paranormal romance (and now that I think of it, an NA paranormal romance as well) that have no sex in them. But there is strong language because it’s part of the character’s lives, how they were raised and how they express themselves.

I have a time travel series with zero bad language and no sex and no graphic violence and  I still got a review that said, “I was offended by page 2”. For reals, yo?

In my historical fiction series, my young princess gets married at 15 and becomes sexually active. Because that was actually what happened. There are also many other mature elements including domestic violence, rape, and adultery. Will I let my kids read it? Yes. Because I think it’s a good way for them to understand that that was what life was like back then. I think books provide them a safe place where they can experience these things, through the filter of fiction, and open a dialogue for deeper understanding. Do I think it’s great for all kids to read that sort of thing? It doesn’t matter. I’m not forcing anyone to buy it and read it. That’s up to you. My job as an author is to provide it. My job as a parent is to determine the rightness for my children. They are two mutually exclusive things in my mind.

Most of my books are with a company I love called Clean Teen Publishing. The name is a little deceiving. It’s not that all their books are “clean”. Clean is too respective a term for that. What one person finds acceptable another will be morally offended by. What they offer is disclosure. On each book there is a little rating like in movies or TV shows that tells you what the content is with regard to sex, violence, language, and drug and alcohol use. So without having to read the whole book, a parent or teacher or whoever can look right at it and say, this is too high in violence or it has a little language but that’s no big deal, and decide for themselves. I’m a huge champion of this as a parent. I don’t want all the books my kids read to be squeaky clean. I think that is a poor way to prepare them for real life. And I can make that call for my own kids. But I certainly don’t feel qualified or obligated to make that decision for anyone else’s kids.

But as an author I want to tell stories. Maybe they are wild. Maybe they are sexy. Maybe they are terrifying. Maybe people will love them and maybe people will hate them. Maybe they will even be banned by some ultra conservative mother’s group who is convinced I’m trying to convert them to satanism because I mention magic. Who knows? All I can do is keep on writing the stories I want to read, the stories I think need to be told. I don’t write stories to try to set good examples or to preach my personal religion, or to in any way influence teenagers. I write stories to entertain readers. And I will let the readers be the judge of whether they want to be entertained by me or not.


Responsibility in YA Fiction — 3 Comments

  1. Excellent, Sherry. I love how you think! As a writer, I try to be true to my characters. It’s not about what I would do in any given situation or what my readers might do, it’s about what my character would do. For that reason, I understand that not everyone will agree. That’s okay, too. We all make our own decisions for our own reasons, and that’s what makes writing about people so fascinating. All I can hope is that even if someone doesn’t agree with a choice my character made, they might understand why that individual made it.

  2. And let’s face it, I want the so-called clean books too. We need the entire spectrum. To dismiss or forbid one extreme or the other is what truly creates an environment of stifled expression.

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