Young Adult Fiction – Taboos?


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.


18 comments to Young Adult Fiction – Taboos?

  • This is a popular topic now. I think that YA started to make a break into it’s own genre in the 80’s. The magazine Bitch had an article on this as well a few months ago.

    It’s hard trying to write something you think is YA because there are certain boundaries that may not be able to be crossed,but they are very small boundaries, we just have to get the right formula for it.

    Nice post!

  • Lucienne, Thank you for this. As somone who has read young adult and considered writing it, your statement >>I don’t think there are taboos of subject so much as differing levels of graphic presentation>> was helpful. I’ve been fearful of stepping on young (and parental) toes.

    And >>The most important thing in writing for young adults is to get the voice right.>>
    As with any genre, it always comes back to voice. I once heard a professional in the field say he could teach anything about writing except voice. That a writer either had it or found it on his own, but couldn’t be taught it. And so far, I don’t have it. But I’m still looking!

  • Lucienne said, It’s the place where you address teens’ actual world, experiences, insecurities, pressures, etc.

    One of the most requested YA books in our collection is Shattering Glass bu Gail Giles. The initial theme isn’t new – four popular boys decide to “improve” a fat, unpleasant classmate enough to get him elected as Class Favorite. Underneath that, the story is about how their “help” is only insidious bullying disguised as friendship. The whole experiment ends tragically. It’s a tough book, but I suggest it to all my 8th grade boys, because it’s just that good. My students are dealing with sexual harassment, gang influences and other issues at home that would send me screaming into the street. They need to read something that relates to what they have to handle.

    I’m still waiting on some parent to come in and fuss at me for letting her precious baby read such filth, though. 😀

  • Faith, Oh, you do too have it. In spades!!!

  • Great post, Lucienne. I have two young, avid readers in my household, one nearly 15 and one 11. Both are girls. It’s remarkable to me the differences in their tastes. The older one has never really liked fantasy/sf, except for Harry Potter, which she loved. But she does enjoy the Sarah Dressen type stuff about relationships/friendships and the kinds of subjects you mention above. The other one LOVES fantasy. I guess it’s not all that different from the variations in taste that one finds among adult readers. But I do think that YA lit has broadened so much in recent years that there is lots out there to satisfy all tastes. I don’t remember that being the case when I was young.

  • I do believe I have read Shattering Glass. I think that “insidious bullying disguised as friendship” is actually a pretty common thing in many schools, mostly secondary schools. I’ve also heard it refered to as being “the dog of the group” and “kicked puppy syndrome”.

    In my experience, YA has definitely started addressing more relevtant issues than it used to. There are a lot of people out there who still view it as “cliques, dicks(bullies), and prom”, but the boundaries are thinning, and the variety is growing. As people become more willing to accept the darkness underneath all of that childhood nostalgia, the YA genre is becoming less separated from “adult” themes and issues: sex, drugs, sexual orientation, bullying, suicide, profanity, etc. Which is a very good thing for children and teens.

  • heteromeles

    Great post. One thing I’m quite puzzled by: on the one hand, we’re talking about Shattering Glass, which seems to be a message book, and on the other hand, we’re talking about YA being about entertainment more than message. I’m wondering how much of that is that we’re adults talking about writing “their” literature, and how that feeds into us finding books for “them,” and how much of that is David’s observations that like old adults, young adults have different tastes.

    Actually, another puzzlement. What’s in YA, and what’s not? Ever since I was a kid, I thought that Ursula LeGuin’s first three Earthsea books (particularly A Wizard of Earthsea) were YA. Maybe it was the coming of age story and the fairy tale “voice.” Not that I’m saying that all coming of age stories are YA (Kushiel’s Dart is a good counterexample), but how much of YA is voice, and how much is setting? (and how much can be argued about?).

  • Now you’ve got me thinking, Lucienne. I’m curious — Have I become so old that Judy Blume is no longer viable to the YA audience? Does she still sell well or is she seen as no longer relevant?

  • Wolf Lahti

    It has been wisely said that an adult book is meant to sit on a coffee table and be discussed, whereas a Young Adult book is intended to be read.

  • Stuart, I’d imagine Judy Blume is still being read. She’s classic, but since I don’t see her royalty statements , I have no idea how well she currently sells or who’s doing the buying…modern teens or adults revisiting childhood favorites. Her themes and characters are universal, however, the technological advances alone have probably made the books somewhat dated. Can you even imagine a modern teen without a cell phone in hand?

  • You make some great points. I’d have to agree that more and more it seems there are less taboo topics in YA literature. I love the fact that regardless of whether these were taboo topics or not, they were still happening in real young adults’ lives. If it’s actually happening, why isn’t it okay for us to talk about? We all know about the power of reading; allowing these subjects to come to light and letting young adults’ know that it’s okay to talk about them is key if we’re to keep our kids and each other sane. I don’t doubt that there have been many young lives saved by the books they have read. A kid thinking that his or her life is cruddy might feel some sense of relief seeing these same thoughts and his situation discussed openly in a book.

    I see the big difference between YA and adult literature being the level of graphic nature in some scenes. I, for one, am glad that we don’t have to dumb down our YA books and can validate these taboo topics as happening in the real world.

  • Cinnamon, Absolutely – I think you make a great point. It’s important for teens to be able to read about things that reflect their own experiences, =especially= when it’s something that’s difficult to discuss and that they might feel they’re going through alone. To answer Heteromeles’ point, fiction doesn’t have to be an either or between entertainment and issues. In fact, I think fiction works better than non-fiction in many ways for dealing with issues, because there is a compelling storyline to draw readers in and pull them along (life so rarely comes with an actual plot) and a viewpoint character or characters we care about and identify with. Yet at the same time there’s comfort in the fact that it’s fiction. The viewpoint character allows us to live the pain, thoughts, feelings, insecurities and triumphs that are only =talked= about in non-fiction. Fiction is often, to me anyway, a more satisfying read. (And despite what I said about the comfort of fiction, the very best makes you forget entirely that it’s not absolutely real, at least while you’re reading along.)

  • Great post, Lucienne. I like that LA Times quote you shared; it summarizes my feelings exactly. And I agree that the fact that YA tends to be shelved together, instead of segregated by gender, adds to the richness of the entire group.

  • Interesting stuff. I actually think that part of waht draws me to children/ya books is the possibility of escaping some of the more “adult” content! I think it’s great that there are gritty, real books out that will help kids deal with the real life tough stuff they are encountering, but I also want to be part of a genre that still lets kids be kids.

    Wow. I’ve never heard myself sounding like Pollyanna before!

  • A.J., I agree on the escapism too. In fact, I feel a little funny talking about weighty things when my own YA is so tongue-in-cheek.

    I turn to my old childhood favorites like comfort food. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND.

  • (covers face) I *meant* that I hadn’t found my YA voice. I need an editor. Sigh…

  • Lucienne said, It’s important for teens to be able to read about things that reflect their own experiences, =especially= when it’s something that’s difficult to discuss…fiction doesn’t have to be an either or between entertainment and issues.

    The best stories entertain and let the message slip in all quiet-like, when you’re not watching for it. Not to mention that even if their home lives are perfectly peaceful, teens are still drawn to lurid subjects. (We’ve replaced four copies of A Child Called It in the five years I’ve worked here, because it’s literally read to pieces.) My own book, while not intended to be a YA novel, was nevertheless nominated for the SCASL Young Adult Book Award. The winner was announced today – Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s the story of a girl who commits suicide and leaves a series of cassette tapes detailing what drove her to such a choice. Suicide, sexual harassment, rape, bullying, depression and adult apathy…poor little “Mad Kestrel” never stood a chance! 😀

  • Lonnie

    Someone asks the question of whether Judy Blume is still read. YES! The classic coming of age stories from back-in-the-day are still read and vital to kids in 2010. Three of my daughter’s all time favorite books are “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” by Judy Blue, “The Outsiders” by S. E. Hinton and “Go Ask Alice”. She’s read each multiple times and so have her friends.