One group is a YA book group, which I think I joined by virtue of one of the admins being someone I knew. Initially I thought, well I don’t write YA but I have read some of what I consider YA, and have been made to sit through movies and TV series based on YA paranormal romance. So I stuck with it, and the other day read a really great thread on a YA writers work getting chopped off some award nominations because of sexual content.
It got me thinking about the genre, not least because since I joined the group I’ve written a book targeted at teens. It came about because the oldest two kids (Charlie, 10 and Evelyn, 8) wanted a book by me that they could read without falling asleep or reaching for a thesaurus. So I wrote one. And now I’m thinking, what ‘category’ should it fall into?
Literature is getting like music with its genres/styles, and like the cinema with its censorship/age classifications. In t’old days life was fairly simple, or so I thought. We had books for kids (Dr Who books, CS Lewis, Winnie the Pooh, Enid Blyton) and books for grown-ups (the rest). We also had ones written for kids that adults liked (what are now called cross-over books). The idea there was kids books for older kids that weren’t suitable for young ‘uns never really occurred to me. This was probably because by the time I was a teenager I was reading adult ones (mainly fantasy, sci-fi) and chuckling at any rude bits.
But there was a definite teen-literature market even then. Books such as Catcher in the Rye, with its teen protagonist, was a popular book amongst angst-saturated teens and the Outsiders, by SE Hinton, really got the ball rolling in the Sixties, not least because Susan Hinton was a teenager when she wrote it. I remember the film, with its plethora of brat-packers, and its depiction of gang fights, smoking and drinking, and swearing. Not surprisingly it was a perfect YA book, as it didn’t patronise its audience.
I think as a male geek-nerd of the first order I missed out on the YA evolution in the Eighties. I recall the Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews being popular, but I was never clear whether that was a book for teens or one for adults that teens read. And herein is a curious dilemma. Is the whole idea of YA a little patronising?
YA is targeted at teens: the common age range is described as 12-18. The bottom end is often overlapped with another genre, middle-grade, which I think is kind of 10-12/13 ish. I find it fascinating when I think of the maturation of adolescents between 12 and 18 just how anyone could think there is a book whose themes/contents would be relevant or appropriate for the whole group. I suppose what I’m pondering is the content, and what is acceptable for MG, for YA and what is adult?
When we boil it down I think we’re looking at language, as in expletives, sexual content and violence/horror. Even the bottom (MG) end of the market is happy with violence. Take Harry Potter: we have plenty of scraps, some torture, bits of murder, death, snakes eating wizards. I read Conan as a 10 year old and loved splattering viscera. The reality is that kids won’t bat an eyelid at most violent content, within reason. Acceptable violence in YA? I think of a 15 film: a bit of splatter, spurting vessels, guns, swords, but not full anatomical gore and torture.
Expletives? That’s tricky too. Teenagers are the worse swearers on the planet, as they think it’s cool. What’s OK for expletives in the books they read? I suppose its volume, rather than precise usage, and also whether it’s appropriately put in versus put in to titillate. For my part, I don’t tend to put cussing in my books, even the adult ones!
And then finally we come to sexual content. As a father, this is the one I struggle most with as I’m probably in denial about the whole issue. Teenagers at my high school, even in the Eighties, were obsessed with sexual themes. By the time most were 14-15 porn had crept into lives, 18 rated sex scenes were passed around on video-tape, and a few were already practising them. And since then we have the internet, and kids with laptops and locks on their bedroom doors. The reality is that what we consider too rude for kids isn’t probably a scratch on the surface compared to what they’re reading or watching. Which isn’t to say we should condone or advocate it in our literature. I think its all down to context, isn’t it? Pointless, exploitative, overly detailed erotica hasn’t really got a place in YA books IMHO. Intimate scenes, sex scenes which are relevant to characters/relationships/plots, are surely OK in our YA books? Other aspects of sexuality, such as homosexuality should definitely have a place. Perhaps even sexual crime (incest, rape) may be acceptable if written in an appropriate fashion. We do our teens a disservice by shying away.
Now, having said all of that, just because we can doesn’t mean we have to. Books like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines, The Hunger Games and Cirque du Freak are tame by the above standards yet read by adults. My book, with its group of teens being chased by killer androids, touches on some mature concepts of identity, self-worth and mental illness, but in a manner I think puts me in the MG category akin to Reeves,
and Rowling. And I’m happy being there—with no cussing, shagging or
Until the sequel.