I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about young adult fiction, as both an agent and author of the genre. (Have you been Vamped?) The question arose recently about whether there were any taboos left in young adult fiction. The answer is that I can’t think of many, though there are certainly issues that are much more difficult to present as well as to read about.
When I was growing up Forever by Judy Blume was the underground rage. It might have been the first book aimed at young adults that addressed teen sexuality. Being the good Catholic girl I was at the time, I opened it up to glance at a single page and nearly went blind, just like my mother had always told me I would. I remember the surprise coming across a book in my school library called Up in Seth’s Room (1980) by Norma Fox Mazur, which I did read cover to cover, wondering the whole time if the librarian actually knew what the book was about. It was very shocking to me then, but not nearly as shocking as I find Rainbow Room (2005) by Paul Ruditis even today. Young adult novels have touched on suicide (see Jay Asher’s debut Thirteen Reasons Why), severe abuse (Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin), homosexuality (like Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan and Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters), assault (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) and many other difficult topics.
Young adult fiction isn’t adult lite. It’s not the place to preach to kids or present things as you’d have them appear rather than as they are. It’s the place where you address teens’ actual world, experiences, insecurities, pressures, etc. Even if you throw vampires or werewolves into the mix, you’re still dealing with peer pressure, bullying, friends/parents/faculty/enemies with agendas of their own. And the big secret…none of this ends with high school, which might be why so many adults are attracted to young adult fiction as well. We’ve all been there, and in many ways have never left. The LA Times had a wonderful article recently on the widespread appeal of young adult fiction, where one author (Lizzie Skurnick) speculated that part of the attraction may lie in the fact that “a YA book is explicitly intended to entertain.” I think another factor may be that YA isn’t broken down along genre lines, but is a category all by itself, which means that writers are less tied to any particular conventions. A book doesn’t have to be A or B, but can be something all its own. (Of course, the genre boundaries have become increasingly blurry in the adult fiction market as well.)
The most important thing in writing for young adults is to get the voice right. To be honest and true to your characters and their story. I don’t think there are taboos of subject so much as differing levels of graphic presentation. There are times where something might happen off stage or that slightly different language might be used, but their world and ours are really the same, and the fiction should reflect that. Young adults have always read adult literature. It’s good to see we’re finally returning the favor.