Monday, December 6, 2010

Safe and Somewhere In Between

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.


Myra McEntire said...

*cheers you on*

Thanks for stepping out and taking action on your feelings about addressing this topic. I know how hard it was to do. I have mad respect for you, yo, and I completely agree.

Magan said...

Sex in YA has been a popular topic lately! After reading Paranormalcy and even other YA books, I do feel like yeah there could be sex, but sometimes that's just not in the characters cards. I felt like Evie didn't have a desire to have sex and there was really no way that would have added to the story if she did. You wrote a great story and you didn't use sex or swearing and it still made the NYT best seller list, WOOT. And while you were reading fantasy at 12, I was reading VC Andrews...yeah didn't go over so well when I asked my mom some very blunt questions.

Liberty Speidel said...

Very well said. I'm going to make sure I retweet this post.

And, Kiersten, I can definitely understand the being 12 thing and not knowing how certain things worked. I was even older by the time I figured it out!

Tawna Fenske said...

Great post!

We see this to some degree in the romance writing community. One of my critique partners writes inspirational romance, which means definitely no s-e-x and it's occasionally frowned upon for the characters to even be alone together. My books, on the other, they're a little hotter than that :)

I was recently at an event where romance authors were matched up with librarians so we could pitch our upcoming releases as something the libraries should consider purchasing. Many librarians asked about the "heat" level in our stories. Some were asking because their patrons might frown upon books they saw as overly risque, and others were asking because they've had a high demand for the really steamy stuff.

Bottom line, we all have different preferences, and what a great thing that is!


hmz1505 said...

This is an issue I can relate to. I'm a librarian in a school with seventh and eighth grades. I am also passionate about YA lit. Obviously not all YA lit is appropriate for my students. Some could handle it and others couldn't. Should I only ever read/talk about books for my middle schoolers? I don't think so. Should I only buy appropriate books for our library. Yes. However, not everyone is going to agree with what is appropriate. That is why there is this great thing called parenting. Parents need to be aware of what their child is reading/viewing/etc... They should talk to their children about what is appropriate for their family. Great post Kiersten. I think that you should have the freedom to recommend books you love no matter what age they are appropriate for.

lora96 said...

Thank you thank you thank you!

I'm a 32 year old YA reader, an elementary teacher who is asked by former students and their parents which books they "should" or "should not" read.
My response runs toward, hey parent--read the book and decide! If not, then you'll have to take my word for it.

It's a risk making recommendations, but I think in a lot of cases, parents want someone to confirm their opinions or give them an endorsement of some sort.

I've said things like, I was not comfortable with how dependent Bella Swann's character was as a female, but if your kid loves Twilight, just be sure to discuss that with her.

I've also said, I love Hunger Games but holy cow you better read it before you let your eleven year old get a hold of it.

Elisabeth Black said...

"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."


Patty Blount said...

This is an excellent post!

But I'd amend your directive "Always know what your kids are reading" to Always know what your kids are doing"

I think your advice is excellent for all parenting aspects, not just recommending books.

Bill Cameron said...

As a writer of adult novels, this is something I am often mindful of. When I meet potential readers in person, I ask them about the kinds of things they enjoy so I can get a sense of whether my own work will be appropriate for them. It doesn't matter if they're sixteen or sixty. On plenty of occasions I've told people, "I don't think you'll like my books, but if you give one a try, please be aware it has strong language, violence, and troubling imagery." I'm not going to censor myself in terms of what I think the best way the tell my stories are, but I am going to be aware that there are all kinds of readers out there.

I've now started work on what I think is a YA noir story. Though it's a long way from done, I'm already thinking in terms of appropriate audience. Though the story involves a crime, I'm actually looking at ways to tell the story to open up the potential audience a bit. Probably not down to 12 years old, but not limited to the 16+ that some contemporary YA targets.

Once again, I'm not looking to censor myself, but to tell the story in the best way possible. Being mindful of my audience is part of that. Kids in their mid-teens are obviously aware of (and often actively participate in) sex and violence, and in my experience as a youth director for 12 years I learned that even the most prim among them usually cuss like a Teamster. But that doesn't mean the best way to tell my story is to fill it with, er, colorful language and boinking. If I was telling a different kind of story, maybe it WOULD include that language and sex (some great contemporary YA proves it).

Anyway, I'm meandering. Ultimately, I think we ignore our potential audience at our peril, no matter the story we're telling. To do so means we're being good stewards of our own contributions to our literature and culture.

Bill Cameron said...

Uh, to be mindful of our potential audience means we're being good stewards ... etc. Doh!

Karen said...

Excellent blog post! I completely agree with you. Parents need to keep the line of communication open with their children. The responsibility lies with parents, not the author.

An author will write the story they feel they need to write. That is the awesome part of being an author! As a reader, I follow certain authors because I like their writing and I know their background. I appreciate their ability to tell a good story while keeping the same standards I enjoy having. For me as a parent and a reader, I tend to gravitate towards such authors because I know I won't come across any "surprises."

I have read YA books that are wonderful but have questionable standard content for younger readers. I simply recommend to others (parents) and say there was "this" or "that" in it and let them decide.

nancydrew14 said...

I really like what you said here about how different books appeal to different people, even if they don't suit your specific tastes.

At the same time though, about parents... I'm in my late teens right now and I have to tell you, if my mother knew half of what I've read, she'd shoot me. She's always censored my books with complete authority and if it weren't for my father's intervention, a few times I never would have been "allowed" to read books that have already changed my life and made me a much broader-minded individual.

And although I definitely understand parents being involved in their children's reading -- my dad and I have read together since the Harry Potter days, and continue to this day with books of that sort -- I think that teens especially deserve some kind of independence when it comes to learning.

I think it's great that you're encouraging parents to read books they know their kids would read, but at the same time, I think you need to allow for some wiggle room in the sense that not every book needs to be discussed as a family.

I know if my parents tried that with me, it would be extremely awkward. I would never have loved reading so much if it weren't for the escape and infinite imagination it's provided me with. It would definitely turn me off if my parents tried to restrict that.

Linda G. said...

Excellent post. Being a mindful, aware parent is the most important thing. Teachers and librarians might be in a good position to discuss the content of YA books with parents, but it is ultimately the parents' responsibility to keep up with their own child's reading material.

The author's place is to tell the story -- whatever it entails -- to the best of his or her ability. It is the reader's (or the reader's parents, if the reader is a minor) responsibility to gauge whether the book is personally suitable.

amilner78 said...

Great post:-) I totally agree with everything you said. And I commend you for writing a clean book for teens. While the book I'm writing does have some language and teen drinking, I refuse to go over a mild PG-13;-) One day, (I hope!)if published, I would want my own kids to read my book. I can't have my kids reading a sex scene and tell me, "Ew! Gross mom! Please tell me this wasn't inspired by a personal experience!! Thanks a lot, now I'm scarred and in need of therapy." Lol!

Spinch said...

I agree with you entirely. Parents should know what their kids are reading.

I stopped recommending books to friends for a long time because of an incident where I gave what I thought was an innocent suggestion (one of the Xanth series, for those who care) to a friend in eighth grade. I ended up being called a pervert and a deviant by their father, getting an hour long lecture on morality by their mother, and having the book in question burned in their fireplace because something that I read (and Mom and Dad had no issues with) in fifth grade didn't pass muster with their parents in eighth.

RK Charron said...

Hi Kiersten :)
Thank you for having the courage to write & post this. I was ready for more "adult" reading when I was 12. But I'm sure every reader is unique.
If it is integral to the story than content is in the context, like The Lovely Bones.
Love & Best Wishes,

patdwhite said...




Kiersten White said...

Nanydrew14--Thank you for sharing your viewpoint! I think sometimes we as parents don't want our kids to be ready to read things they really are : ) I'm glad you're finding the books you need to, and it sounds like you have excellent parents as well!

Becky Wallace said...

@Lara96: You hit it on the head. If you're worried about the stuff your kids are reading, then read it yourself!

And for the rest of us who are worried about WHERE to draw the line in our writing, test a scene out on a parent that you respect. If they are uncomfortable with what you've written, then find a way to tone it down. OR accept the fact that their child won't be among your target audience.

Connie Onnie said...

I agree with Nancydrew14 - Parents instead of sheltering their children need to give them the tools they need in the world.

Kiersten - Your recommendations came with warnings & if someone did not read them, than they are to blame.

Marsha Sigman said...

OMG, you are so busted by your dad!lol

I think you handled this topic beautifully and I agree with everything you have said. Love the last line, 'Our books might be the path but you are the gateway'. Completely true and totally awesome.

kellye said...

This is an interesting post, and I appreciate the open-mindedness here. I have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, so I've read a ton of YA (my favorite genre) and I also write ya (hoping to start the crazy querying process soon).

And, I'm a mom. As others have said, I think it's important to know what my teen is doing, which includes his reading. However, I believe parents should parent their own children, not everybody else's. I do not want another parent deciding what my child should not read. I'm angered and saddened every time I hear about an attempt to ban any book, especially YA.

I was fascinated by your story from your younger days, Kiersten. I read everything I could as a child, but "real life problem" stories especially attracted me and gave me solace. It's not an exaggeration for me to say that these books were my lifeline, especially as a young teen.

I rejoice in the fact that there are many types of stories told by a variety of authors so that each young person can find the words that speak to his or her heart. (Nancydrew14: LOVED what you said about how books had changed you. Me, too!)

Certainly, there are many fantastic YA stories that do not have questionable language, drinking, s-e-x, etc. I bought, enjoyed and tweeted about your book, Kiersten. As others have said, authors should include those things in a book when the character and story call for it. It should not be dropped in there willy-nilly. (The topic of kids "reading up" is a tricky thing that I've discussed many times with author friends. I think it's important to be mindful of that, and editors are.)

At the same time, I believe that books are a great way for teens (and everybody else) to explore difficult issues in a safe way, and I believe there are many wonderful YA books out there that include themes related to sexuality, alcohol, drugs, violence, et al.

In terms of worrying about the books you personally recommend, I would just be clear about whether you think there might be something that would bother somebody. As a former YA book reviewer for a large newspaper, I tried to offer a few clues so parents and others would understand what they were getting. (PG-13, etc.) The last thing you want is to recommend a book to someone and have them be surprised about the contents.

Ishta Mercurio said...

WONDERFUL post! Yes: parents are the gateway. And how can every author out there be expected to write for as broad an age range as possible all the time? There is a place for every kind of book, and the job of an author is simply to tell each story to the best of their ability. It's the job of the parent to make sure that each story is one that their child is ready for.

Kiersten White said...

Dad--I'll never tell. It's probably still hidden somewhere.

Anthony said...

A fascinating post into "the mind of Kiersten" (dun dun dun!).

As a teaching parent, my goal is not to read everything my children read as a gatekeeper of sorts, but for them to approach me with a questionable book and ask if it's appropriate or not. Or to simply stop reading on their own. My ten-year-old has done this twice.

Please, continue to recommend. To me, personally, it is helpful in pushing past the noise.

Megan.Christa said...

Thank you so much for this! I am a young writer and much of what I write it YA, but I don't have sex or drugs. Like you said, I just write the story and sometimes stuff like that can come up, but with me it doesn't. Some of my peers (and fans) told me that with this genre, for my book to be good, it NEEDS sex. But I don't believe in that. So thank you so much and I just want you to know that I am a huge fan!

Julie said...

Fantastic post about quite a doozy of a topic. I think you handled it well. Like you, I usually write the more "G" to "PG" rated stuff in YA, but I also read from a lot of different categories and if the content matches the tone of the story, I'm fine with it. If it gets to be too much, I certainly know how to close the cover and walk away. :)

Sarah said...

This was a great post.

Whether you're a writer, filmmaker, or celebrity, you can't escape the fact that people may look to you or your work as a role model. Now, that's not the creator's fault, but it can't hurt to be a little bit aware of it. That's what I think.

The kinds of stories that I am dying to tell just don't have much violence, sex, or bad words in them. And, although I enjoy appreciate a variety of stories that may include some of these things, for my own tastes, I do prefer stories without them.

I think you are smart and right that parents and individuals are the responsible parties.

Cinette said...

I remember picking up a book in sixth grade from the library that was 'over my head'. Only, I was too curious to hide that fact from my mom, and asked her some pointed questions. My poor, naive mother stumbled through the answers, but was honest with me, at least. She never tried to curb my reading addiction either.
I think that trying in trying to protect our children from 'inappropriate' books will force them to seek it out. A thirst for knowledge isn't a bad thing.

Patti said...

I have to say that I loved your post today, it is very encouraging.

patdwhite said...

your just trying to trick me into finally cleaning your room out since you left 9 years ago......

ellen said...

I'm that kind of a coward too. Still I loved Paranormalcy for not having the need to "go there" to be interesting.
I don't think that whether or not a book has sex in it should define how good it is.

Kelly Bryson said...

Kiersten, your dad is cracking me up.

And Bravo. You have really helped me to express some of the feelings I have about book recommendations but haven't had the words for.

When I review a book, I usually add a line at the end that says what kind of sensitive topics are touched and what attitude about them is expressed.

Tweeting the link to this post. Thanks- Kelly

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Really well said!

folksinmt said...

Ha-your dad is as funny as you!

Thanks for speaking up on this. I was so glad that Paranormalcy was entirely clean and I didn't have to say "It's really good, but there's that one part where you'll have to tape the pages together before you let your teen read it."

To me, this is a really simple issue and I don't understand why the publishing industry hasn't embraced the rating standards that are in place everywhere else. How hard would it be to put a little label on the spine of a book saying what content we can expect? Nothing has to be censored. Nobody has to be told what is and isn't appropriate to write. All we need to do is warn the reader what content they will find in the book. Parents can't always read all the books their kids bring home ... especially when you have five kids:) If I took time to read all their books, I wouldn't have time to read blogs like this!

Michelle said...

Kiersten, thank you for addressing this. I, too, feel that we should have a way, as parents, to better understand what our children are reading.

Any book with excessive violence or swearing with references to sex should be the equivalent of PG-13 and, and any book with explicit drug use or sex should get the equivalent of an R-rating. So easy!

That being said, the Holy Bible is R-rated. Ta da!

Truly, the resposibility for the content belongs with the writer, and the responsibility for truth in marketing belongs with the publisher.

Paranormalcy is a terrific story, but yes, its minimal steaminess was just a wee bit over-hyped by the publisher in order to sell more books. Personally, I'd rather that be the case, than no mention of it at all and finding explicitness in the book.

Other authors, such as S. Kin_sella, make steaminess somewhat convenient to "skip a few pages" if desired, and not lose the flow of the story. I tend to read either MG, YA, or classics, because most adult literature is just much more explicit than what I choose to read.

Parents need to be the ones to ask the questions. (Sorry, Kiersten's Dad!) I think I need to talk to my fabulous offspring tomorrow to find out more about what they've been reading.

Stepping off my tree-stump now. Ker-plunk.

ps. I'm the Michelle who's Ashley's friend. :-)

Whirlochre said...

Sometimes, swearing is necessary (imagine Trainspotting without the bleeps), sometimes, it isn't.

Where the line is blurry is where it gets difficult: how many times should teenage vampires use the F word if they still want to sell to the under-5s?

Claire Dawn said...

Oh Bleep! Nail on the head, Kiersten.

kellye said...

LOL, Claire! I'd forgotten about the "bleeps" in Paranormalcy, which I loved!

Angela Felsted said...

Good post. I think it's hard never to offend anyone. There are lots of people around the world offended by Harry Potter because of the witch craft in it.

Krista V. said...

Absolutely right. How much content to include in a manuscript is a judgment call every writer has to make for him- or herself, but that will never overshadow a parent's need to PARENT.

P.S. Thank you for recommending THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. Enjoyed that one immensely - or maybe just mensely:)

Daisy Whitney said...

When people ask if a tween can read my book, I say you need to make that decision as a parent but here's what it's about...The fact is I write edgy YA, I write books that deal with "issues" - sometimes they are issues of sexuality in various forms. As a writer I don't talk down to my audience, but I also try to draw clear lines and not glorify the edgier behavior. My goal is to show how teens can be good, smart and ethical in light of the edgier issues they might be confronted with. But that also means it may not be approps for younger readers. I'm OK with that because I know the older readers get a lot out of it.

Sierra Gardner said...

I think sometimes we assume that YA books HAVE to reflect the 'real' world and that means sex, drugs, violence, etc. Sometimes these books (when read appropriately) can be powerful. But not every teen lives in that world. As a teen, a lot of these things would have been very disturbing to me since my world didn't involve any of those elements. The books I read and loved were the ones that created a fantastic new world that let my imagination free. Generally, I think both kinds of books have merit and it just depends on what you want to accomplish with what you write.

Jennifer Morian Frye said...

This is a great post! I work in a library and have a love/hate relationship with people asking me for recommendations. Sometimes the "off" switch in my brain goes "click" and I can not for the life of me think of any books. Nope, we don't have books......or worse, sure here....nope, that must be about this? Nope, must be out.....then "click". When I do suggest things I ALWAYS worry that they won't like it, or their parents won't like them reading it, or.....Well, all I know is that everyone is different, sometimes I read older less appropriate books, sometimes the only books on my mind are picture books. To me it is the story, and if the story is great, I can overlook a lot. Which will get me into trouble someday most likely. Thanks for this post. :)