Today I'm going to try and tackle a BIG topic. One that makes me nervous to even approach because people react so strongly to it, and everyone has different feelings on it. But I've gotten some emails lately that have me thinking about it quite a bit, so you're going to bear the brunt of those thoughts. My apologies.
One of the emails I received was from a young writer asking me whether or not she should even bother trying to break into the YA market since her writing doesn't have swearing or sex or "edgy" content.
Ummm...clearly I am an example that you don't need to push those types of boundaries to get published in YA. In fact, I would say that you might even be better off because you'll have an instantly broader audience. Editors actually like publishing books that they can recommend for ages 12 and up instead of ages 16 and up. Librarians love having options for their younger readers who want to read the same types of things that older teens are but just aren't mature enough to handle some of the content. I get at least a couple of emails every week from parents and middle school librarians thanking me for writing a paranormal romance they can give younger readers.
I don't like the assumption that YA is, by its very essence, an edgy genre. Yes, there is a lot of content that frankly addresses teenage sexuality and drug use and drinking and other topics that no, you probably wouldn't want to hand to a twelve-year-old, but I don't feel that most of it is gratuitous. I can't imagine there are any authors out there, sitting at their laptops, thinking, "Hoo boy! I'm REALLY going to corrupt the nation's youth with this one!! TAKE THAT, CONCERNED PARENTS!"
Nope, really we are just sitting at our laptops thinking, "This is the story I have to tell." Sometimes those stories, by necessity, contain content that some people find offensive, or that really isn't appropriate for younger teen readers. Does that make these books bad? I don't think so. I think it just means that we, as parents and educators and librarians, need to be aware of what books contain and whether or not the children and teens we are giving them to are ready to read them--or if they will ever be. There are many books that I love that I wouldn't have been able to handle as a teen.
Let me tell you a story. When I was young--I'm talking fifth, sixth, seventh grade--I loved reading high fantasy. But I didn't have a library close by, and I didn't have any friends who read that stuff. So most of the time I went to the bookstore and picked blindly based on the back cover. One of the books I picked contained scenes that were, shall we say, WAY over my head as a twelve-year-old. I knew what I was reading was most definitely not something I should be reading (even if I wasn't quite sure what the characters were doing--but the fact that I was twelve and didn't know how s-e-x worked is a story for another time...or, really, never), but I didn't know what to do about it.
Then I got scared. What if my parents picked up the book and realized what terrible things I'd been reading? They'd be SO MAD AT ME. I'd get in so much trouble! So I hid the book and for the next couple of years had this nervous little fear at the back of my mind that they'd find it, and they'd know what I'd read, and they'd be disappointed in me.
This isn't a reflection on my parents. My parents were wonderful and involved and I really could have said, "Whoa, Mom, there was a scene in this book that I didn't understand but I'm pretty sure I shouldn't have read it." And she would have talked with me about it and definitely would not have gotten mad at me or been disappointed in me. But I didn't go to her and instead felt guilty and dirty and scared.
No kid should ever feel that way about a book. No author wants a kid to feel that way about their book. This is why I always, always say that parents need to be aware of what their kids are reading, read what they can of their kids' books, get recommendations tailored to their child's age and maturity level from trusted peers (such as...taa daa! librarians!) and always have a dialogue going. That way if, by chance, your kids do get exposed to something they aren't ready for, it can be a learning and growing experience for both of you rather than a traumatic one for your kid.
But where does our responsibility lie as authors? It was very important to me, personally, to write a book that would be accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. And, fortunately, the story I wanted to tell was one that lent itself well to that broad of an audience. However, I've been questioned on books I've recommended here on the blog because, unlike Paranormalcy, they aren't necessarily the best choice for a tween or very young teen.
I don't know what to do about this, quite frankly.
I love books. I love a lot of books. I love a lot of books that have content in them that I don't feel is appropriate for younger readers. I love some books that have SO MUCH content that I don't even tell most people I've read them because I'm actually afraid of what they would think of me. (File this under Kiersten White: Coward.) But I am an adult, and I choose what to read, and I know how things affect me. And the books that I love tell their stories honestly and truly and avoid gratuitous "content".
There have been many books I've put down because I simply don't want that voice or those images or those words in my head, that I felt, for whatever reason, were using that content to sensationalize or manipulate or distort things I hold precious. However, my "gratuitous" might another person's subtle. The story I feel goes overboard with content might be just what someone else needs to read.
And this is, again, where it comes down to personal judgment that we, as adults, are free to make for ourselves on any given medium, whether it be books or music or movies. And we have the maturity and intellectual development to be able to make those choices for ourselves.
Pre-teens and teens? This is where the parents come in. In the end, it is not for me or other authors to police what your kids are reading, or to only provide them with content that is "safe" for any and all readers. There are many, many stories out there, important stories, good stories, stories that are as varied in tone and content as the people we meet and interact with and love every day are. Some are the stories for us. Some are not. Some are the stories for our children. Some are not.
Do I feel that I have a responsibility as an author (whose book is read by younger audiences than I had originally intended) to only recommend books that are safe for any and all of my readers? Gosh, that is the question, isn't it. And I think the answer is: kind of. I wish people wouldn't look to me for "safe" books for their children to read, but fact of the matter is some do. I appreciate that people take my recommendations seriously, and I also appreciate when parents research the books I recommend and decide for themselves whether or not the book is appropriate for their young readers.
In the end, I don't know you. I don't know your kids. I'm reading as a twenty-seven-year-old adult with an English degree heavily involved in the YA book arena and recommending books that I love. Maybe I shouldn't recommend any at all. Maybe I should recommend more. It's a balance I haven't figured out yet.
As authors we tell stories. People--young people--take those stories and make them their own in ways that we never expect. It's one of the most magical and frankly terrifying things about having your books out there. Again, always, know what your kids are reading. Talk about it with them. Go on those adventures and journeys with them. Our books might be the path, but YOU are the gateway. Be a good one.