With the latest hoopla over what is "beyond the pale" in YA literature, I thought it would be helpful to discuss age / audience, and who is it exactly that's out there reading young adult material. Here's an interesting take for writers about the subject: what is the difference between MG / YA?
As a former librarian assistant at an elementary school, I can honestly tell you, a lot of younger readers (9-11) are wanting to read YA novels. I had a group of 4th graders (girls) who would come in everyday and discuss the latest chapter of Edward, Jacob and Bella's love triangle with me. We didn't house the books in our library, but the girls were reading them at home. I personally didn't have an issue with it, but I have to say, my librarian thought differently. So, what is your take on age and audience for YA?
As far as what YA material is beyond the pale, there is an interesting article about it here
I'm not a huge fan of the source, but I'm curious, what are your thoughts about this?
One of my all-time favourites as a kid! :)
I have mixed feelings about this. My niece and nephew live with me, and my niece (who's 19 but was 16 when she moved in) isn't too bad about swearing, but I tend to swear like a teamster, without even thinking about it. I don't see what the big deal is, and I've always seen swearing as a sort of magic. It gets a response, but it only works if the person on the receiving end believes in it! If you don't freak out about it, it will tend to fade off.
The novels I've written (so far unpublished) have characters that swear, smoke, drink, and do drugs (pot and acid, because honestly, "illegal" dope is easier for underage kids to obtain than "legal" alcohol). But they're based on the things my friends and I did at that age. The characters in the two novels I've written about that time are in the 16-19 age range, so it's as "true to life" as I can make it, without naming names.
I wrote a third novel for a much younger set. The main character is 13, and although some of the characters smoke, there's no sex or swearing and only minimal violence. My point is--I think it's better to be honest to the story and characters than worry about someone being offended. In real life, people swear and smoke and do all kinds of nasty things, you can't change or gloss over that fact. And they're not necessarily "heroes" or "villains," either, just folks.
When I was a kid, I started reading Stephen King when I was 8 (yes, I was precocious). Sometimes, it scared the hell out of me, but mostly I just loved the stories, and was entertained. The swearing didn't affect me because my own mother ALSO swore like a teamster (where I learned it, heh). Some of the stuff that happened in my house was also way more gruesome than any horror novel--she had a skin condition called pyrodermagangrenosa (it's on Wikipedia, look it up), and guess who got to change the bandages?!
I think kids are way more savvy than a lot of adults give them credit for being, and I think it's a parent's job NOT to ban or censor, but to read and discuss the books with them. If a kid thinks something is wrong or bad, they're going to go out and do it just to spite their parents, but also to understand and experience the world around them.
As for the "rule of thumb," most content is OK as long as it's handled carefully, I think. And your reader is going to be about 2-4 years younger than the age of the main protagonist. So if I'm writing about a teen who's 15, the reader could be as young as 11, and I have to consider an 11-13 year old's way of thinking and questioning the world.
I will also add that I find that there's WAY more sex and relationship stuff in teen books than I or my friends experienced at that age. My characters try but their relationships are often very unsuccessful (i.e. it's painful, awkward, and it ends badly, much like real life). Romance is a fantasy and I think YA authors need to address that more often.
I read KL Going's book about how to write YA fiction, and although the writing advice was about standard, what was really interesting was the comments from the teens themselves. They want to know less about romance and more about friendships and other types of relationships, and I thought that was really astute and helpful. And sex isn't all that interesting because, contrary to what most fiction would have us believe, less than half of teens have lost their virginity by the time they graduate high school.
The kind of YA fiction I don't agree with is the kind that places all the importance on having a boyfriend. (*cough* Twilight sucks * cough*) Or VC Andrews, which as I get older seems more and more godawful. Not just the incest and rape, but its treatment of the female protagonists in general (check out the Flowers in the Attic drinking game if you have a chance! Priceless).
Selene, thanks for your comments! Wow, you had lots to say. Have to admit, I was a huge V.C. Andrews fan. Something about the incest interested me, sick, I know. But it was the "forbidden" or is the forbidden, and it was definitely pushing the envelope in my days! Stephen King, I know him well. He's actually written one of my favorite craft on writing books, along with the horror and scary.
Interesting that you say if your protag is 15, the readers will be 2-4 years younger. I found that true when I worked as a MG library assistant for five years. What I find confusing is how some craft books on writing for YA say to make your protag age the same age as you're gearing your novel towards. But it makes better sense with your take.
Swearing, cussing, I'm up in the air about that one. I read a book that was humming along, singing a song (okay, not really!), but seriously, after pages and pages of dialogue one of the teens whips out an F-bomb. It stuck out like a mountain in the middle of the road! Had she had a mouth on her earlier, I probably would have just read on, but she never swore before, and the situation certainly would've sufficed with a "What the hell are you doing?"
What I'm trying to say is, if the story or character's voice calls for swearing, by all means, swear! If not, leave it out.
Teens want to be treated like the young adults they are, bottom line. They're certainly smarter and more informed than we as adults give them credit for. My 13, soon to be 14 year old told me today in the car, "Mom, all my friends cuss." I was dumbfounded. She's straight-A, Gifted & Talented, Honor Roll officer, band nerd, etc. and she said it with a shrug, like it was no big deal. And, you know what? In her world, it isn't.
I appreciate your comments! Thanks for joining in!
You must be reading some old how-to books! :) Most of the stuff I read says your "target audience" will always be a little younger than your main protagonist. That's probably why you get more 12-14 year olds reading Twilight than say, 17 year olds.
I can see why the F-bomb wouldn't fit, if your protags don't swear. But my characters swear in their heads. To them, it's almost descriptive or lyrical, part of their general lexicon. As in "So I was at the mall, and this f-ing jackoff comes up to me and was all like 'hey, show me your tits" and I'm all like f- off, I wouldn't touch you with my worst enemy's c-. Then he sets his bi- on me and I had to take her down." Extremely vulgar, horrible grammar, but people actually talk like that. :) Especially of a certain age and (dare I say it) class. And my friends and I were in the advanced (college/honours) classes, too, although definitely working-and-lower class.
Ahhh...VC Andrews. After I read the FITA drinking game, I was talking about that to my niece. She's not a big romance fan, so she hadn't read them, but one of her high school friends' assessment of the series was "It's SO f-d!!" Which, of course, I had to put in my current YA novel because I thought that was hilarious. As I said, the incest bothers me less than the rape and woman-shaming that happens incessantly. Blah.