Saturday, February 16, 2013

Breaking YA Taboos: Swearing, Violence and Sex in Young Adult

I still remember what my grandma sent me for Christmas in 2000.  I remember, because it was the first time anyone had given me a book the size of a dictionary for Christmas, and I had some seriously mixed feelings about it.  I'd never heard of the book--in fact, I must have been living under a rock up to that point, because at 16 years old,  I'd never heard of the Harry Potter series whatsoever.  Who was this Harry Potter and why did his goblet have fire in it?  Didn't he know goblets were for drinking?

The number 4 on the spine discouraged me.  I couldn't just jump into a series with book 4!  It took a few months to work up the desire to find books 1-3, but eventually I got around to it, and soon I was hooked.

A lot has changed since I took my first tentative steps into the world of Young Adult.  Christopher Paolini opened the door to teen writers, something Steph Bowe has since repeated.  Stephenie Meyer gave us Twilight, and made it okay to be an adult YA reader.  The Hunger Games made violence and death par for the course.  In my last blog post, I questioned whether Warm Bodies was classified as YA because of the violence, drug use, sex and swearing, and it turns out that yes, it is.  So what do all those changes mean for us writers?

When I started writing YA (about ten years ago now...gasp!) I ran into a lot of roadblocks and rules.  Teens can't swear.  They can't have graphic fights.  Kissing was about as far as anyone was willing to go in the romance subplots.  Even the subject matter had to be chosen carefully.  The main character couldn't have a drug problem, but the best friend could.  That way the reader could get a glimpse at the dark side of the world, without being put smack dab in the middle of it.  Today, however, the rules have changed.

Last year, BYU professor Sarah Coyne conducted a study to determine the level of profanity in YA books.  She pulled 40 samples from an adolescent best seller list, and many were shocked at her findings.  I, personally, have read enough YA in the last decade that it didn't surprise me in the least to hear that, on average, the books contained 38 instances of swearing from cover to cover.  However, the study has lead many to question whether YA books should come with warnings on the covers, to better help parents choose which books their teens should be reading.  (I'm not going into the moral debate that idea creates.  If you want to read an article containing the ALA's response, you can find it here.  This is another article, which takes an opposing view to the study and the BYU publication.  There.  Balanced information.  My job is done!)

Profanity isn't the only thing popping up in droves.  The evolution of the Harry Potter books themselves shows how dark and violent the world of YA is becoming.  If you need a really controversial example of what's being published under the YA banner, check out Nic Sheff's book Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.  If you weren't convinced before how quickly things are changing, that book will open your eyes.

It's not particularly new for teens to be exposed to violence and swearing.  Video games, movies, even cartoons have been a part of our culture for decades.  Before that, comic books.  Before that, fairy tales.  Ever sat down and thought about the story of the three little pigs?  At least two of the pigs get eaten, people. Talking, house-building pigs, reduced to bacon.  Or what about the original Little Mermaid?  Disney put a pretty spin on the ending, but earlier versions have the prince sailing off into the sunset with a different woman, turning the mermaid into sea foam.  (Undine, considered to be the myth that spawned the mermaid story, ended up killing her husband and his lover.  Talk about murderous revenge.)  For some reason, it's only just now beginning to catch up in modern adolescent literature.

Love the portrait of dad, guys

One boundary that is getting pushed more slowly than the others is sex.  The level of sexual explicitness in Harry Potter can be summed up with one word: snogging.  Twilight acknowledges a teenager's desires, but makes marriage a prerequisite before fading to black.  Becca Fitzpatrick and Cassandra Clare give their characters opportunities to sleep together, in the most literal sense, but both provide barriers to going any further.  But other authors have crossed the invisible line.  Kristin Cashore's characters in Graceling aren't having any babies, and the writing is fairly obscure, but it tiptoes just over the line that some writers (and readers) consider "safe."

Andrea Creamer, author of the wildly popular Nightshade series, took a stance supporting her use of sex and violence in YA books in an essay for the Wall Street Journal.  At one point she says,
"Teens don't live in a vacuum.  They inhabit the same brutal world as adults without the knowledge and tools of adulthood.  They're looking for help to gain those skills."
Simon and Schuster has spearheaded an interesting new online feature.  When Abbi Glines first wrote The Vincent Boys she had more than a few explicit sexual scenes.  Simon Pulse, a division of Simon and Schuster, chose to cut the scenes for the print version, marketing the book to teens, but later added them as online-only content intended "for mature readers only."  The aim of this online campaign?  To cater to the cross-over readers who want the excitement of YA plot and the steamy romance of an E. L. James.  Does this dual publication set a new standard for YA?

Not necessarily.

Another genre is emerging from all this debate and boundary-pushing.  New Adult, supposedly a genre to bridge the cross-over gap, is gaining a following in the publishing world.  I don't think that means we'll see YA settle back into the safe world of fade to black and "oh fudge!"  The line has been crossed, and we can't go back.  But hopefully with New Adult garnering shelf space in bookstores, there is room for both kinds of stories.  Writers that previously struggled to find their place in the YA world won't have to censor their plots and dialogue, while other writers can tell a great story without feeling societal pressures to spice things up with sex and violence.

Ultimately it's the author's job to guide her readers through her story.  We've been given a huge canvas on which to paint our scenes, but that just means we have a bigger responsibility to our readers.  Teenagers especially need to know that no matter how bad things get in a story--no matter how violent, how dark, how awful--there is always hope.

Maybe that was the most important YA rule all along.


  1. This is very interesting. I remember my school banning Judy Blume's Forever, because the guy named his penis Ralph. Ha ha. Okay, not quite YA, but a similar issue. It just made more kids want to read it.

    1. I think Judy Bloom was a precursor of the things going to print today. I remember looking for 'Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret' when I was twelve, but it had been banned from our school library. I think that was my first encounter with a banned book.
      Things are a lot more accessible today, with the Internet being as prevelant as it is. I wonder if teenagers even realize when a book has been banned now. If they can't find it at the library (or book store, or Walmart...) they can order it from Amazon. So different than when I was growing up!

    2. *Judy Blume. I've got to stop trusting my phone's auto-correct!

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  3. Great Post!!

    I went to LTUE yesterday (met Sheena and Susan, so awesome), and the keynote speaker Megan Whalen Turner talked about censorship of YA and MG. I loved what she said which was basically that we need to teach our children how to choose books by reading the jacket, looking at the cover, and reading a few pages here and there. By doing this, you can easily determine if this is the type of story you want to read. And at some point, we need to trust our children to choose their own books.

    I agree completely with her. I think that most people who make up book banning lists haven't actually read any of the books their banning. And a book that I think is horrid may be the exact book someone else needs to read. I feel that I can police what my kids read while they are young, but I don't feel qualified to police what all kids/teens read. I don't think anyone is.

    Very timely and thought provoking post. :)

    1. I love the idea of helping your kids choose for themselves. When they are still very young, it's important to give them guidance, but as they get older, they're going to need to know what kinds of stories are appropriate for them, and what's not.

      Sounds like LTUE was a lot of fun. Wish I could have been there!

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  5. It's so important to talk to your kids about what they read. Authors can't help but insert their own value systems into their books--I'm thinking about Tamora Pierce's advocacy of safe sex that she puts into almost every book she writes. It's a jumping off point for discussions, and such a wasted opportunity if parents don't know about it. It isn't something you would notice if you only flipped through the book.

    Incredibly happy (and jealous) that MaryAnn got to hear MWT in person! She's amazing. Incredibly jealous (and happy) that you got to meet Sheena and Susan. My turn will come!

    Great post, Trisha!

  6. I think some people have this idea that children and teens live in a bubble, and as a parent, I get it. You want to keep your kids safe. You want to protect them from the questionable, or from reading the questionable and taking permission to make bad decisions. This is the thing, books are magic. I don't think we should limit books, because the wrong label might take a book out of the hands of the person that book was written to save.

    One of the number one things that I got from MWT keynote address at LTue was that we need to give children the right to read the wrong book. For then they learn their own boundaries. We all have books we wished we didn't read, books that harmed us emotionally, or wrote their words in the places that give nightmares, and that's a beautiful thing. Reading questionable books can give the reader their own line in the sand of what they feel comfortable with, without testing it out with real world consequences. Also, like it or not, there are twelve year olds out there having babies, there are fourteen year old's doing drugs, and a whole heck of a ton of kids saying swears. Parents can monitor and discuss and lead their children to good books that will help them grow to good adults, but it's up to the kids to grow up. Protect them how we may, one day those kids are going to be grown ups and thrust into the real world. How else are they going to navigate it, without books?

    Brill, brill, brilliant post, Tricia. My favorite of yours so far.

    1. I've always looked forward to the age when my kids will be old enough for the YA genre. Talking to tweens or teens about sex or drugs is going to be hard, I know, but I feel like it'll be easier for both me and my kids if we can base the talk on something fictional. I guess the key for my scenerio is the fact that I plan to read the books they are reading, and following up with open dialogue when appropriate. I don't know how supporters of book banning manage such difficult subjects on their own.


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