Lately, I've been seeing a lot of posts about appropriate content in YA novels. Over at Fangs, Fur, and Fey, for example,* Jackie Kessler had a post about how her new main character swears a lot, which she's wondering about.
And then there's this insightful post from the delightful blog Hey, Teenager of the Year, wherein blog author Steph (an ACTUAL TEENAGER gasp) talks about what she thinks is appropriate content for teenagers.**
It's a tough question, right? Because there are essentially two audiences for YA literature--the YAs themselves and the parents and guardians of the YAs. And these two audiences don't always have the same ideas about what the YAs should and should not be exposed to in literature.***
Parents and guardians of YAs (hereinafter P&Gs) are often shocked by what shows up in YA literature. "There's so much swearing," they say. "And dirty parts!" They're right, at least about some books. There is a lot of swearing in YA literature, at least some corners of it. And there is a lot about sex (both positive and negative). Why? Because many teenagers do a lot of swearing**** and think a lot about sex. Not all teenagers, and certainly not the teenagers of any of the parents reading this blog right now, but some. Many.
And actual YA readers want books that engage with them, that capture their imaginations. Which means characters that don't ever swear or think about sex aren't going to be all that relatable.
Of course, for the writer, it's a matter of degree and of character and of audience. In my first drafts, I do not censor myself. Characters swear when they swear and do whatever inappropriate activities they might do and that's how it is. Until I get a first draft down, I can't possibly care what my agent or a potential editor or especially a potential parent might think of the story. It's not productive.
But when I'm revising, I do have to start thinking about it. In The Book, for example, my main character S swears. But in the earlier drafts, she swore a lot more. A LOT. When I was revising, I had to think about whether it was really important that she used the F-word each time she did it, or whether it was just extra icing that could be scraped off or changed without doing damage to the dialogue.***** Sometimes, it was easy to change, and sometimes it just had to stay in. S is who she is, and who she is requires the occaisional curse word.
I feel similarly about a character's sexual history. Sure, some characters are going to be pure as the driven snow, but when you're writing about teenagers, especially older teenagers, it is simply not realistic to make every single character someone who hasn't gotten past first base. Sorry, but that's the truth. It depends, of course, on what kind of story you're writing whether a character's sexual activity needs to be included, but writing about certain characters means including the fact that they may have, at some point, had sexual relations with another character.
It's a difficult challenge, though, because what feels genuine to me, or to a YA reader, is going to be too explicit for some parents, and that means too explicit for some classrooms or even some libraries. By writing about characters who do things that parents don't want their own children to do, a YA author limits her (or his) audience in some respects.
There's no real compromise position, though. Even writing for younger children, like Susan Patron did, doesn't get you out ouf the dog house.****** The only answer, at least from my perspective, is to continue to tell the stories I want to tell, with the appropriate level of language and content the story actually needs, and accept the consequences of that.
*try saying that three times fast.
** Basically, that teenagers have a lot of experiences that their parents don't want to admit they have, and books that address some of those experiences are good.
*** See, for example, this article about how some parents in my home state of Wisconsin tried to get books dealing with homosexuality and teenage sexuality separated from the "good" YA books and have warning stickers put on them.
****Parents would do themselves a favor if they sat in the corner of a mall food court one Saturday and eavesdropped on actual teenagers. Kids might not swear at home--I never swore at home until I was over the age of 21--but many do when they are with their friends.
*****One thing I never do, though, is change out a swear word for some lame equivalent. A character who is going to say "f##k" is not going to say "fudge." He might say "crap" or "damn" or some other lesser swear word instead of "f##k," but he's never going to say "fudge." That's bulls##t. :)
****** I know--it's a horrible pun. I couldn't help myself.