Saturday, March 17, 2012

Marketing to Young Adults

It is spring in New England. That one perfect day a year when the weather is pleasant AND the bugs haven't woken up. I shouldn't be in the house. I should be on a beach somewhere. Besides, I enjoyed writing my series about romantic subplots, but when it was done, I was way past ready to move onto other subjects. But, lurking there in the back of my mind was some unfinished business.

Writing each of those 5 posts took interminably longer than usually takes me to write blog posts. My writing fell into a pattern that looked something like this:

Step 1: 
It's time to write about rule number 1. I remember that incredible scene from the television show XXXXXXXX XXXX? It illustrates this concept so well.

I go to youtube and hunt for the scene, stopping to watch a few of my other favorite scenes along the way. An hour later, perfect link in hand, I start to type my post. And I stall.

Step 2:  
I hunt through the house for books that will fit. I pile them around me in teetering stacks, and type out quotes from them until I have enough for a novella size blog. But nothing is working. Finally I realize that the first scene, the one from that amazing television show  XXXXXXXX XXXX doesn't belong. 

Step 3: 
So I delete everything and start from scratch.

It doesn't belong because XXXXXXXX XXXX, which was always a guilty pleasure anyway, had morphed into something morally reprehensible to me. I shouldn't market it to you, and possibly get you interested in it. Even if it didn't end up being something that bothered you, sharing it with you would be betraying myself.

But I love the characters in XXXXXXXX XXXX so much, and its writing is so phenomenal, that I find myself working through this torturous journey of self discovery not just once, but five separate times. I'm a little slow.

Line in the sand
I knew that someday I would need to do a blog post about how we, as writers, determine where our line in the sand is. Just like our hero needs to have an honor code, we need one too. I'm not ready to write that post yet. Every time I try to pin those thoughts down, they flutter away, just out of reach. It's a much more complicated discussion than it appears to be on the surface.

Here's the one piece of it that I feel as though I could eventually make a hard stand about, although even this is slippery and keeps changing shape whenever I try to grasp it. It's about the kind of books that are marketed as Young Adult.

Last week I read two YA books.
One of them, Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, had two sex scenes.

The other one, The Clockwork Prince, didn't.

A little background info:

I write young adult literature. I would estimate that roughly 95% of the books I read would fit into the middle grade/young adult genres. When I started reading young adult books, my mind was filled with the beautiful worlds of Tamora Pierce, Shannon Hale, Sharon Creech and Jessica Day George. Eventually I found the drop dead hilarious romances of Janette Rallison, and the heroic adventures written by John Flanagan and Brandon Mull. It was a giddy time--like a gas-guzzling American, I didn't believe that my supply of To Be Read books would ever dwindle. My oldest daughter, and to a lesser degree, my oldest son, went on this book-reading adventure with me. We would read over each other's shoulders, or stay up late so we could trade books back and forth.

Then we grew up. Without even realizing it, we got into darker stuff. Some of it was beautiful. Some of it forced us to talk about what we believed about right and wrong. I worried about letting my youngish son read the part in Hunger Games with the muttations at the Cornucopia. That may have been the first time my husband and I disagreed about what was appropriate for our kids to read.

Eventually, our supply started to peter out. For a while, we blundered through fairy tale retellings. We read all the good ones, and a good portion of the not-so-good ones, and then my daughter and I parted literary ways. She got into the darker romances while I headed into the world of dystopia and sci-fi like Shipbreaker, and Incarceron.

Because of this, the first time my daughter read a book with a sex scene, she was on her own. The book was Shiver, from a series she adored, but which I couldn't begin to be interested in.

I suppose it was naïve of me in the extreme not to realize that there might be sex in young adult books. With a little more experience under my belt, I'm now hard pressed to think of a contemporary young adult fiction book without sex.

I realize that "young adult" literature is a relatively huge umbrella. My fourth grade daughter probably never would have picked up The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, and if she had, she would have dropped it in horror the first time she saw the F-word in print. Though she doesn't talk like that, the teenager she has become is too seasoned to even flinch when she reads the words. It makes me sad. I long for the days when we sighed over the beautiful imagery in The Book of A Thousand Days, even as I know she needs to figure out where to draw her own moral lines in the sand.
Back to those two books I read last week.
In Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, there is very little description of the sex. Amy has to face some very real consequences for her choices. I liked the book. It was heart-wrenching and beautiful. I enjoy the occasional story about someone climbing out of the dark abyss of tragedy and learning to live again. Do I think it ought to be marketed as young adult? Probably. I did find the unspoken elements of statutory rape and casual sex disturbing. It was one of those books that practically begs for people to talk about their own values and what they would do in the same situation.

There is no sex in The Clockwork Prince, but it's not from lack of trying. Vividly descriptive scenes with no thought of self-restraint. There are scenes of people taking drugs, just to escape, just this one time...and scenes of people getting magically roofied so they can do what they've always wanted to do with that verbally abusive (but hot) guy. Tonight I'll be with him, but tomorrow I'll go back to HIM and...for goodness sakes. This is a young adult book.  
Just so we're clear--this is not where
I'm going with this. 

Or at least it's marketed as a young adult book.

What do you think?

Should there be limits on what is marketed to our teenagers (and let's be honest--to our pre-teenagers as well?) But what would those limits be? Books help us to define our own moral boundaries, and that's hard to do if none of the books we read ever jar us with that feeling of dissonance.

On the other hand, the books that are coming out these days are all about pushing the envelope for YA, and there isn't much farther to push it. The saddest part is that no one seems to be pushing back.


  1. Not to get off-topic here, but it's Victorian London, right? Do they have magical birth control? And what's happening in these roofie scenes if there's no sex? Sorry, Melanie, now I HAVE to read it ;)

    I don't know where the line is. I think that if a YA book addresses sex in a reasonably honest way, it's most likely to be a net win, at least for girls: If a girl reads a sexual storyline and is lucky enough to have a mother like you who reads along with her, then what she's really going to take away is your reaction. (Even if a parent didn't happen to read along, the book may still foster discussion indirectly.) At the other extreme, if a girl doesn't have a supportive adult to talk to, then a book may be the only source she has of working through those issues on an emotional level. (I have no idea if boys read these books or how they process them. Mine are too young, still.)

    Even when a YA book shows some unhealthy behavior, the nature of the medium is conducive to thinking through the story and its moral implications - books are more suited than television to conveying the emotional nuances of relationships, and they are less focused on unrealistic images of sculpted bodies in perfect lighting.

    I may have to get back to you, though, after I read CP...

  2. Melanie, you sound like an awesome mom. I love the idea of me and my girls all reading the same books together, like you do with your kids.

    I really think that this comes down to parenting. More parents should be like you and read the books your their teens do (at least in the beginning, at some point the teens will choose where their own line is). Books are a great ways to discuss these real, grown-up issues like sex, drugs, and violence. You can point out where the consequences of actions are glossed over or where they are fully explored, and discuss the reality of these actions and choices.

    I think we like to think that our kids are in some safe bubble, but the reality is that kids are exposed to a lot of these things everyday. I remember the shock of my first year of middle school and seeing kids making out in the hall, some pretty brutal fights (I can still remember a fight between two girls where one yanked a hoop earing out of the other's ear), and being able to point out the kids who could probably get me illegal drugs if I wanted them, and I grew up in a fairly sheltered area.

    I guess my point is that teens and even pre-teens are being exposed to these things whether it is in books, TV, movies, or real life. And while I think parents should be involved and take every opportunity to help guide their moral development, to some extent, parents also need to trust that their children will be able to find their own way.

    I think this is why there are no lines in YA literature. I think that most teens are ready to explore those hard, adult issues.

    Of course I'm a parent of very young children. I'll probably change my tune completely when my daughters get into their teens. :)

    Great post, Melanie. Very thought provoking.

  3. I think there should be a balance. I had a very similar middle school environment to what MaryAnn describes, I knew kids my age who were doing drugs, and having sex, and I just wanted to go home and play dolls. Not everyday, of course. That's the thing about teenagers, they are part kid and part adult.

    I'm glad there are books out there that kids can discover or experiment in a safe only in their imagination way, with the real things that are out there, and hopefully see the consequences, so that they can connect the dots to see what they should or shouldn't do.

    And at the same time, I'm glad there are books where the teenager can escape into a world where those things don't exist, where they don't have to worry about drugs or sex, and focus instead on vanquishing Voldemort.

    I say, write the books you want your kids to read. If you think there needs to be more balance on one side or another, then write that kind of book.

    But Melanie, I can't wait to be a mom like you. :)

  4. Sheena makes a lot of great points. :)

    I think a lot of the problem with YA is that as Sheeena says, teens are part kids and part adults. And some teens are more adult than kid and others are more kid than adult, so it is hard to find a one-size-fits all like you can with MG when they are all pure kid.

    All the more reason that parents should be more involved. As a parent, hopefully you'll have an idea of what your teen is ready for. All parents should be like Melanie. :)

  5. LOL, I did not mean to put three e's in Sheena. Sorry, Sheena.

  6. Sarah: You are so funny. I highly recommend reading The Mortal Instruments series before you read The Clockwork Angel/Clockwork Prince. I loved City of Bones, City of Glass and City of Ashes. They are set in modern day New York, and the Clockwork books are about the grandparents of the characters in the first series. I'm not certain how much sense The Clockwork Prince would make on its own. If you've got to jump right in, let me know and I'll try to explain the magic of the world to you.

    You are right, the books are set in a magical Victorian London, but as far as I'm aware, there is no magical birth control. For reasons that I can't divulge, the birth control thing isn't really an issue. I'd love to talk to you after you dabble in the world of Cassandra Clare. She's a talented writer, and quoting her first series is one of my all time favorite things.

    “The Inquisitor stared at him as if he were a talking cockroach. "Do you know about the cuckoo bird, Jonathan Morgenstern?"
    Jace wondered if perhaps being the Inquisitor—it couldn't be a pleasant job—had left Imogen Herondale a little unhinged.
    "The cuckoo bird," she said. "You see, cuckoos are parasites. They lay their eggs in other birds' nests. When the egg hatches, the baby cuckoo pushes the other baby birds out of the nest. The poor parent birds work themselves to death trying to find enough food to feed the enormous cuckoo child who has murdered their babies and taken their places."
    "Enormous?" said Jace. "Did you just call me fat?"
    "It was an analogy."
    "I am not fat.”

  7. Yeah, so suddenly I sound like I'm recommending the Clockwork Prince. Oops. I should remind everyone that I like The Mortal Instruments series. The Infernal Devices? Not so much.

  8. Reading with my children has been one of the high points of my parenting style, so thank you all for the parenting compliments. I've needed them this week. Parenting isn't always that much fun.

  9. Melanie, I actually loved Mortal Instruments so much that (even though this sounds backwards) I was avoiding the Clockwork series because I couldn't imagine trying to get to know a whole new cast in a whole new time period... like it would sully my imagination of Clary and Jace :) I know, I'm crazy. I'm over the sacredness of Mortal Instruments now... I liked the 4th one but it wasn't as amazing. So I've been meaning to read the other series for a while.

    I read a fair amount of pretty steamy romance, most of which gets recommended to me by the naughtier members of my book club. (Oh, sure, let's talk about the French in WWII... and then let me tell you about this OTHER book I read...) So anyway, I may find some sex scenes laughable but it's rare I find them objectionable, but I haven't really encountered much in YA and I don't know what would bother me there. Sometimes I surprise myself with how easily shocked I am when it comes to kids, maybe because I had such a completely innocent adolescence.

    I will report back after I read the Clockwork books :)

  10. Sarah--that's exactly why I didn't read The City of Fallen Angels. I was almost certain it would "sully my imagination of Clary and Jace." I'm glad to hear that I chose correctly.

  11. I just finished the first three in the Mortal instruments and the Clockwork Angel, so this is timely (haha). You are so right on the importance of consequences in books, because I think they do inform the real life opinions of teens.
    As far as censorship, my mom was handing me Clan of the Cave Bear when I was 14 and told me just to skim past the sex scenes (and rape, I might add), because the rest of the book was great. I guess with that kind of faith in me to choose what I could handle, I felt mature enough to make and keep my own standards in literature (and it kept up my skimming skills very well).
    Great post!

    1. Susan, you made me laugh out loud bringing up Clan of the Cave Bear. I was 14 when I read it as a SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT. I was taking a 2-period English/World History combo class and the crazy history teacher was so obsessed with PRE-history that I'm not sure we even hit A.D. dates before the end of the school year. I also remember, a few years before that, my free-spirited cousin showing me some passage from Valley of the Horses. That was the first truly graphic scene I ever read and I'm not sure I even processed what *exactly* they were doing ;)

      Ah, pre-historical nookie. Sooo.... unshowered.

  12. My daughter was 12 when she read Breaking Dawn--I showed her the parts I wanted her to skip, and she skipped them. I don't think she ever did read them, though I'm not certain. I really wanted her to skip the section about the birth, because doing it is scary enough without vampire baby scenes playing through your mind.


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