Hi, Anne! One of my YA short stories will be released in a few days. "Edgy" would be one word I'd use to describe it. For my mc, anger issues stemming from neglect rule her world. It's a struggle teens face everyday. Connection with characters like this lets them know they're not alone.
I just blogged about my YA story coming out in Sucker Lit. Mag. on the 23rd. In the post, I hint briefly about finding a YA voice in my writing. There's a great article link on the post by an agent about mature voice in YA. It's halfway down the post:
We had a discussion about this in the fall about how much is too much. One of the great pieces of advice I've been given is don't make the character do or say something just to seem "edgy," let the character be who they are. If they have a foul mouth, then so be it. I think it's important for the characters to be authentic. Then again, I don't think YA should be stuffed full of profanity either. I teeter on the fence, can you tell?
As for that parent in the article, I can say, that at 13, I did NOT want my mother picking out my books for me. My soon-to-be-14 year old, would die if I picked out her books.
Content and characters young adult readers can connect with and relate to is what we as writers should be striving for. Your edgy story may not connect with every teen out there, but it will connect with some, and those are whom it should be written for. We can't please everyone. We as YA writers can't be bogged down about impressing adults with our writing. If we were, Hopkins would have never written the Crank series, which has helped many teens.
Also, as a mother and writer, I am concerned about what my girls are exposed to in movies or books. But at some point, I have to allow them to make their own judgment calls. Almost Perfect, a book about trans-gender issues wouldn't have been my first pick of reads for my daughter. However, she LOVED the book, and it has changed her in ways a parent can only admire. Her ability to have empathy for others and their situations makes her an incredible human being.
I say, write the story you need to tell, and if you decide to do something with it, its readership will discover it.
I think this is a matter of taste--your own taste. YA books seem to fall into a few categories. There are the rather clean, no-graphic sex or violence ones, which are marketed for younger YAs. And then, there are the books that have plenty of cursing, sexual romps and even violence. Hunger Games, for instance, is quite violent (yet hugely popular, not for the violence, but for its incredible plot and writing). And then, there are the sophisticated books that filter down from adult shelves-Rule of the Bone, I am the Messenger, The Life of Pi.
It's all valid, all good. You have to decide which market your writing fits into.
You have to be true to the story. While writing my own YA novel I had to keep asking myself 'Would she really say it this way?' 'Would he really do this.' A teen can sniff out a false character from a mile away (my 15-year-old tells me) and they won't get anything from your book be it good themes, redemptive characters... If a teen isn't reading then we've lost the battle period.
Anne, this question was timely for me because I often do the same ~ question whether certain things should be included or not ~ my situation is slightly different in that my characters are younger than the ones mentioned here (these characters are for teens?) - but in the mystery I'm working on an old mine is involved and I find that I keep getting in my way because I think: is this the right message? I don't want to be responsible for some kids thinking they should go check out caves and/or old mines - but at the same time it takes away from the story if the characters don't go into the mine...so then I wonder: should I just scrap the whole thing? (which didn't help because I want this to be a recurring character and in the idea for the second book - that I worked on for NaNo) - they are at a camp ...so again: would they be out at night? Would they this...would they that (I have a tendency to overthink things. lol!) --- so thank-you for asking this question, nice to know I'm not the only one who gets in their own way.
Andrea, yes, there are a few YA authors who seem to write gratuitous sex and violence, but by far, the majority write good stories that happen to include edgy subjects because those things are logical to the plot. The Hunger Games, for instance portrays death, but not to be salacious. The novel is so much bigger than that. It actually has an ani-violent message in that it shines a spotlight on the soul-numbing effect of violent spectacle in film and TV. Most teens know more about the world than adults imagine. They are not uninitiated virginal lambs.
Valid thoughts, yours. But I disagree on some points. It is NOT adults who initiate teens. Teens initiate teens. I have two boys who I witnessed going through teenhood. Their peers told them/experienced with them 90% of the gritty stuff. The other point I want to make, is that when I think back on my own teen years, I would have really appreciated some hardcore novels that spoke to the heavy stuff I was feeling and struggling through. Again, not gratuitous dirt, but novels that are like "strong alcohol rather than lemonade", as Chekhov used to say.
Another thought I had, is that teens can see through BS. My sons naturally rejected the second-rate fiction in favor of the (gritty, edgy) gems. Teens are smarter than we give them credit for. Smarter than those paunchy sales guys in publicity departments, smarter than authors who simply want to shock.
On the whole I would say that my son, now 18, is a murder mystery buff but he has always read a variety of works (unlike so many of his friends who unfortunately read NOTHING except short little blurbs of crap on the net). I recall when he was 14 or 15 I went into his room in search of MY noise reduction headphones and on his nightstand were two books both bookmarked. They were "I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell" and "The Help". When I asked him how he came to read those books he said he was looking for something different and according to what he read in the Times book reviews they both sounded interesting. He loved them both. I would never have picked either of those books for him.
I think one thing that is important to remember when writing for YA is to take into consideration that if your MC is 15 your aerage reader is going to be 13. Kids like to read about someone a little older, an age they can't wait to be. If the MC is 17, 15 year old read the book. So if you are writing about teen pregnancy and the MC is 15 don't tell us about the sex itself except that it happened. If the character is 17 you can tell the reader a real quick account of it without detail. If the MC is 20 tell the reader but don't get explicit.
It would be nice if we could all keep our children in safe little happy bubbles free from the exposure of sex and drugs and violence and inappropriate clothes, etc, but unfortunately when they turn 18 and step out of the bubble they are often unprepared for the world around them.
I had this same conversation with an agent recently. Her opinion was that children are pretty good at self-censoring and if themes and/or language in a book made them uncomfortable then they would abandon reading that book. Her adivce was to allow the characters to speak in a way that was natural to them - bad guys aren't going to believable if they don't swear sometimes.
Children leave their 'home life bubble' as soon as they are old enough to step outside the front door and that's assuming that their bubble is safe and happy, when, let's face it, who'se life is perfect? Reading about how fictional characters felt and coped with a difficult situation they are in can give children valuable insight into the world. Reading about how fictional characters felt and coped with a difficult situation that they themselves are experiencing can be a lifesaver.
My advice would be to write the book you want/need to write. After all, readers always have the option to put the book down.
I don't believe that YA readers 'always have the option to put the book down.' Such a decision is quite adult. I remember at thirteen finding and reading a book I knew was inappropriate -- I still remember its name -- yet reading it through for that very reason. Then there were the books and the passages of books shared among us under the table for that same reason.
It seems to me that there are children who have been "saved" by the reading of fictional characters coping with situations similar to theirs, but I've never read or spoken to any. (I teach English to YAs.) Are there such children, or is it just wishful thinking?