Teenagers have sex. Oh yes they do. Most of them do. You probably did. I definitely did. They do drugs, they set things on fire, the shoot each other in the face with guns and they dream of impossibly beautiful violence. But that doesn’t mean these things should be written out in detail in books marketed as YA.
I can hear the crowd already, don’t underestimate teenagers, they can handle more than you think. Indeed they can. And they will. So they should read ADULT books. Adult books where content is king and the author can go into as much detail as they want without concerns for the audience. If a teenage reader can handle that, let them. Let them read every book they want.
I read Henry Miller when I was 15 thanks to the lyrics from this song:
That led me to Anais Nin which led me to Dostoyevsky. I didn’t understand half of it, but I read it. But no one EVER suggested the content was appropriate to market to a teenager. Read above your comprehension, push the limits, look words up in your dictionary and try something new.
But books actively marketed to teens are expected to have a PG-13 rating. At least to me. I find consensus on this point from marketers, readers, parents and writers. Yes, I know, the YA market is huge and by labeling yourself YA you can make more sales, but should you? Self publishing authors aren’t the only ones falling into the trap of the idea that just because a book is about a teenager it’s appropriate for teens. I have read a number of traditionally published authors who have written things wildly inappropriate for the YA market.
Would I let a teenager read these books? Depends on the teenager, but probably.
But I also let my 10 year old read the back of any book I own, including the erotica. Then she can ask questions and ask permission to read said book if she wants, but the ones in HER room that I didn’t read before she did, are marketed as children’s books.
In White Chalk the main character turns 14 during the arc of the story. I have had people place it on the YA section of their websites and refer to it as a Young Adult novel. Trust me, the people who do this haven’t read the book. When I notice, I always contact them and ask for it to be moved to either Literary Fiction or Coming of Age.
Some people may wonder why I do this, especially since having it in YA would sell more books. It’s because White Chalk was written about teenagers for adults. It’s raw. It’s real. There are many teenagers who are living this life right now, and perhaps reading White Chalk will be a source of comfort for them because someone out there understands. But it shouldn’t be shelved next to Judy Bloom.
White Chalk deals with issues of sexual abuse, identity, self harm, suicide and pedophilia. It’s a dark book. I believe it’s a good book. But I also believe handing it to teenagers as if it’s the next Twilight would be dangerous without some kind of understanding that this is an adult novel.
Perhaps I’m over sensitive. Perhaps it’s because I have two little girls. But I don’t recall anyone ever referring to Grapes of Wrath as YA just because every teenager in America has read it or Huck Finn as Middle Grade because the main character is a 12. They are adult novels, literary novels, and teenagers should and do read them. But that’s different from being a Young Adult novel.
What do you think? Do you think explicit content like sex scenes and cutting are appropriate in YA books? Do you think there’s a line between a book on these topics for adults and one for teens? What would be the difference?
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