Avoiding certain topics in YA
Last week I was lucky enough to participate in an event at a local bookshop called Brunswick Bound. The event was First Chapters – it’s run on the first Friday of every month and features authors reading for 5–7 minutes from their latest work and then taking part in a Q&A. It was a great event, particularly because it was dedicated to YA fiction this month. With me were fellow YA writers Michael Earp and Jes Layton reading from the just-released YA anthology ‘Underdog’.
During my Q&A the panel host, Megan, asked if I feel a particular responsibility to my readers, given that most are probably teenagers. I took the question to mean whether I feel I should highlight certain themes or avoid certain topics because of how it might influence/affect young people. Could they handle certain content? Should I be promoting political correctness and inclusiveness?
In my answer I talked about two things: political correctness and bad behaviour.
My kids are both teenagers (a girl, 19, and a boy, 17). They, and their friends, use language that we’re not allowed to use anymore. I won’t repeat the kind of thing I mean, but it’s a lot of the same stuff we said when I was in school. The kind of put-downs that are no longer socially acceptable (to older people) because of their association with mental health issues, genetic disorders or a person’s racial background. I don’t think I’m biased when I say that my kids, and their friends, are good people. They come from ‘good’ families and went/go to ‘good’ schools. They are not mean-spirited and they’re not without empathy. To them, they’re just words. And they use them. That’s the reality.
I think I have a responsibility, however, to not use this language in my work, even if it doesn’t reflect the reality of what I see around me. Or, if I do use this language, not to let it go unchecked. For example, if a character were to use a derogatory term in order to reveal something about their own background (‘that’s how I was raised’) or character, then another character, preferably another teenager, should pick them up on it. They should point out that it’s not okay. Because it isn’t. There has to be consequences.
Kids behaving badly
The second thing I talked about in relation to responsibility was kids behaving badly (I recently wrote a guest post on Allison Tait’s blog about this very topic). At the event, I said that I wouldn’t have a character act in a totally irresponsible way without consequences and gave the following example.
A 16-year-old learner driver gets behind the wheel of a car after a few drinks and drives erratically with four friends in the car.
Although this happens without any real consequences all the time in real life, I couldn’t let it go unchecked in my fiction. The consequences wouldn’t necessarily have to be legal (the driver gets arrested), and they wouldn’t have to die or anything that dramatic, but there would have to be negative consequences of some kind. Maybe his girlfriend realises what a loser he is and breaks up with him. That would be a real consequence. And the consequence would have to have a lasting impact (in other words, the girlfriend could not then turn around and forgive him and everything goes back to normal).
I realise that this is not necessarily realistic – people get away with bad behaviour in the real world all the time. But I would feel a certainly responsibility as a YA author to show that there are consequences for bad behaviour. Otherwise, what message are you sending? Give it go, you might get away with it? I don’t think I could do that.
Is there anything more ridiculous than a library or a school banning a book? If I was a teenager and I heard about a YA book that had been banned, I’d be onto it straightaway. I’d want to know what was so bad or evil or warped in it that some authority wanted it banned.
Anyone can pretty much get their hands on anything these days with the help of the internet. I dread to think about the kinds of video material my kids have accessed from the internet over the years.
Kids these days are exposed to more horror, pornography, trauma, violence, death and emotional upheaval than any generation that came before it. Parents are living in a fantasy world if they don’t think their kids are looking at stuff online that isn’t ‘age-appropriate’.
YA fiction is the perfect, safe place to dissect some of this stuff they see and to contextualise it.
There’s no issue that I would avoid talking about on the basis that it’s ‘too mature’ for YA. As much as some people want to pretend it is not this way, there is really nothing about the adult world that we can hide from our teens anymore. There are, however, topics that I would avoid in the interests of good taste (well, my taste at least). I’m not sure I would want to explore incest, for example. But I would avoid that if I were writing for adults too. It’s a matter of personal style, and interest. And I don’t think I’d feel comfortable writing about it.