A Perception of Young Adult Fiction

Today was errand day, as is my usual Saturday. But I added an additional stop to my normal Saturday running around; a beauty supply place. While I do not resemble any of the princesses pictured here, my one shout out to vanity is having my nails done every two weeks. My normal color is a neon hot pink, and the last time I had the nails done, my bottle was getting too old and too empty, so it was time for some more.

I know what you’re thinking: Who cares? Right? Well, it just so happened that when I went to the counter to purchase my new bottles of nail polish, the clerk started to read my shirt. (I have a shirt with the cover of Misfit McCabe on it) So when he asked, I told him it was one of my books, that I was a writer of young adult fiction. (And this is exactly why I have the shirt – I’m terrible about promoting myself, but if I’m a walking billboard, then people ask and it reminds me to promote my work.)

His next question gave me pause. He wanted to know whether I wrote the heavy romance kind (meaning sex) or stuck with throwing in as much foul language in as possible. I answered the question, and explained about my books (the answer being no to both the explicit romance and foul language questions.) But as I walked out of the store, having helped to educate a tiny bit that the young adult genre extends beyond sex and bad language, the experience made me wonder if that is what has happened to young adult literature. Is that how the general public views the category? Have we gone so far in pushing the boundaries, that the general public comes to view YA as being R-rated?

Don’t get me wrong… I am not proposing that some of the fine writing out there in the YA category is smut or uses language to up its street cred. And I’m not proposing that we sanitize the writing. Topics being covered may be tough to stomach sometimes, but they are a reflection of life. But have we forgotten about the kids who are not living on the edge, who want something to identify with, too? I will support every writers right to write their novel, and if bad language is required by the situation, then I accept and support it. If sex is involved because it is appropriate for the storyline, I will argue with anyone who says it should be cut. But if those thing are gratiuitous, then they need to go. Just like anything else in any novel which doesn’t belong.

I’ll admit, the experience rocked me just a little. On the surface, a simple clarifying question, but its roots are deep and disturbing.

7 Comments on “A Perception of Young Adult Fiction”

  1. This is so interesting to me. When I wrote my novel, Squalor, New Mexico, I thought I was just writing a coming-of-age story in the general fiction category. I learned that it was YA when an agent told me she loved my writing but didn’t rep YA. I was stunned. Say what? Way back when, I had thought that if there were adult themes and such, it wasn’t technically YA. This was quite a long time ago and yes, I was clueless. So, the reason I’m writing this comment is because I find it ironic that once I had just the opposite viewpoint about YA.

    To me, every genre should have something for every person. It’s sad when any blanket expectations are made. Great blog, LK. This gave me a great deal of insight.

    1. I love YA for the very reason that it does have a great deal of variety, and I have loved watching the genre grow and mature. I think there need to be stories on both sides of the spectrum – both edgy and wholesome, and everything in between. And most people I come in contact with (albeit they are writers) do view YA as the diverse category that it is, so it was interesting to come across such a narrow view of what the genre has to offer.

  2. I’ve had the opposite reaction, although I’m not as far along in the writing as you, but most of the people I’ve talked to view YA in a sweet sixteen, holding hands, first kiss kind of way. Bubble gum and pigtails.
    It’s amazing how wide the spectrum of misconceptions is. For me, I’m writing, what I hope will be, something my girls and I can read when they’re in high school. I’d love to see mothers and daughters reading the same book, discussing it and how it fits within their family values, and just generally bonding over it.

    1. I’ve encountered the opposite reaction, but haven’t run into it for awhile. Although as much of a misconception, and I do correct it as well, it bothers me a little less – which is a bit of a commentary about me. It does bother me though because it denigrates a robust category of books, and puts them on par with fluff. Not that fluff is bad, and not that there is no place for sweet sixteen, holding hands, first kiss type of books in the genre – there is. As well as those which take on the rougher sides of life – including sex and foul language. I read all kinds of books at that age, from those which were strictly entertainment value to those with heavier topics, such as the holocaust, war, and death – and everything in between.

      I LOVE that you said you want to read the books with your daughters and discuss them – I discussed all sorts of books with my mom (and still do) and I don’t think it’s done enough now. Moms or dads.

  3. This is an excellent post and point of discussion, LK. And I think you have the right approach – if these elements are critical to the storyline, they must absolutely be included. I struggle with this a tad for my current W.I.P. At times, I step back and think, Man do these kids have filthy mouths. But you know what, that is typical of kids who would be in this type of setting. Say the book is about kids in an alternative or reform school – do we really think they are saying lines like “Oh sugar!” Exactly. My motto has always been to write the words the way they would come out of the character’s mouth. During the stage of revision, I’ll try and clean it up – not to alter the storyline, but just so it isn’t a focal point. Sex and drugs are more complicated, because I never want to be thought of as somene “promoting” these situations among young teens. However, if you are describing a fifteen year old male who just lost his virginity to some smoking cheerleader, do we really think he has any regrets?? Exactly. I struggle with portraying teen life accurately, while at the same time, being careful not to glamorize dangerous choices.

    HOWEVER, at the end of the day, here are my thoughts: Don’t get angry with me for capturing the truth. If someone is offended by language or sex or drugs or whatever the case may be – then look at WHY that is being portrayed. It’s because my teen novels are designed as REALISTIC fiction. Therefore, is it the book that is the problem, or is it our culture?? Food for thought.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Paul. I agree… kids in alternative school are not likely to use the phrase diddly darn (but if they hung out in a retirement home, they might hear it) and to portray them as doing so would not be a true representation. As writers we need to strive for that balance of realistic dialogue, and something which flows on the page well. Let’s face it, most conversations we hear on the street between teens OR adults would make boring, incomprehensible, or simply bad writing.

      And the topics of sex and drugs are not written with the idea of promoting the situations (I guess I should qualify that MOST for teens are not), but can be written to help prevent, to educate, but to do so in such a way that the kids reading the book identify with the character, and yet say, “I don’t want that to happen to me.” And that, my friend, takes a skillful writer.

      And I agree when writing realistic fiction, the author holds a mirror up to reflect society as it is… so your question is on the mark. But I’ll up your challenge for thought…can we as writers hold up the mirror and not just reflect, in the guise of our story, the microcosm of life we chose to portray, but cast that reflection in the direction we’d like to go?

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