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Where Do You Draw - Err, Write - the Line?

It seems like there's a general consensus among YA writers these days that almost anything goes in YA. It used to be that controversial subjects like teen sex, self-harming, and even (ahh!) menstruation were considered too indecent to write about - except by brave souls like Judy Blume. Such stories were pre-destined to spend eternity in Censored Books Hell, anyway (now that sounds like a place worth visiting).

But while censorship is still a problem for the YA genre, YA writers themselves aren't the ones doing the censoring anymore. In general, we embrace potential controversy for the sake of helping teens and illuminating long-ignored topics. We write about what's real - whether it sets off the censors or not.

Not everyone is the same, though. What about you, personally? Is there anything that you still feel you shouldn't write about, considering your audience?

You might not know your answer off the top of your head. Yours might be "nothing!" - or it might not. Also, keep in mind that just because a book about a certain topic has already been published doesn't mean you should feel bad if you, personally, would never write about that topic.

No need to share your answer in the comments - if you can, great! But just by thinking about your personal boundaries (or lack thereof), you might learn something new about your goals, philosophy, and/or style as a YA writer.

Now go forth and keep drawing... I mean, writing!
Emilia Plater

Emilia is a YA author who avoids studying, food that isn't covered in cheese, and waking up before 10:30AM whenever possible. A bundle of confusions.

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  1. The major problem with writing about controversial topics in YA is that it's assumed that the author is preaching in some direction. It's good to be gay! Abortion is the way to go! Yankees are better than the Red Sox!

    Okay, that last one was just ridiculous, right? Like the Yankees could ever hope to be better than the Sox...

    But, as the old saying goes, if you don't teach your kids they're going to learn it on the streets. Not bringing these topics into YA lit is like pretending that if we, as writers, don't bring it up, then the kids will never have to deal with it. That somehow if we all agree to never mention self injury in our writing, no teen anywhere will ever come across it or do it.

    Fact is, as years go by, teens are becoming exposed to more and more dark bits of our world. It's not as though these things were never present before now. But while it used to be a minority of teens dealing with this stuff, it's now the majority.

    And it wasn't so long ago that we were teens. I feel pretty confident saying that the one thing a teen really wants is to not feel alone. To not feel that what they think or believe is strange or alien. Writing about controversial topics is our way of letting some desperate, searching kid know that someone out there has been in their shoes.

    So yes, I say nothing is categorically off limits. It's not because I like to feel edgy. It's not because I like to rebel against censorship. I just remember being a weird kid and wanting to feel that someone understood me. Now that I'm a weird adult, I have the ability to do that for someone. Certainly not going to let that kid down now.

  2. I think you can write anything for a YA audience. It's not WHAT your write, but HOW you write it. Teens shouldn't be coddled. They need to be introduced to real world issues in a way that helps them learn/deal/accept/process these things. Censorship can be harmful in that it can create taboos which could lead to prejudice and discrimination. I think literature can help alleviate this problem by addressing controversial issues in a way that's positive/progressive/informative without being preachy. As an author I don't censor myself when it comes to topics, but I do choose my words and the consequences of decisions made by my teen protagonists with care.

  3. Anything. Real life happens to young adults, kids, and adult-adults. Not to include it for sake of propriety, censorship, etc, shows that we don't understand that.

    Besides, I'm not interested in writing books that appeal to kids' decency-minded parents; I'm interested in writing books that appeal to KIDS.

  4. Hmm...just the other day, I was discussing how masturbation was a topic that didn't pop up in YA, and everyone else was wondering why I was making such a big deal of it just by mentioning it in my book.

    Says a lot about the books I read.

  5. This is a tough one. As a YA writer, the answer is no. As a mother, well, the answer is still no, but it depends on how the topic is approached.

    As a teen, I was a cutter. I didn't realize I wasn't alone. It wasn't mentioned in the books I read (not that I read every YA book in existence). It would have been nice to know I wasn't the only one struggling with it. It's not like I could tell anyone what I was dealing with, and I did a great job hiding the pain. That's why I think it's important that YA books give teens the voice they are looking for, and why that voice should never be censored by adults who don't remember what it's like being a teen.

  6. Personally, it's hard to write things my family might construe as being about them or their lives. I know there's no way to get around people I know in real life "recognizing" themselves in my work, but there are specific subjects that would be awkward at the family reunion. It's hard to judge where the line between "respectful" and "avoiding" falls.

  7. I've always pretty much written about everything and anything, esp. because I started seriously writing when issue books were a big trend in YA. For awhile, I assumed you "had to" include stuff like smoking, underage premarital sex, fights with parents, sibling rivalry, drugs, etc., in any book featuring young characters! I still include those elements in my books (I write 20th century historical with a mix of social satire and spoof), but they're not the whole focus anymore, and they're not on every single page. Some of my YA characters in my European books/storylines are Shoah survivors, and I haven't shied away from depicting reality there either. One of my two youngest characters gets a hysterectomy when she's barely eleven, for example, and that's not done to revel in darkness or meanness, but because it has repercussions that play out over the next few decades.

    Real life has never been like a Norman Rockwell painting or idealized small town for most people, so why be intellectually dishonest and portray life like that? Real life isn't all bunnies and flowers, as I found out when I was three years old and chose Grimm's Fairy Tales as my first book to read by myself. People who wish to cover up real life for their preteen and teen children are doing them a major disservice and leaving them unprepared for real life.

  8. I can't think of anything I wouldn't write about for a YA audience, because all of the most terrible things in the world can and do happen, as often or in some cases a great deal more often, to under 18s as they do to adults. I think the only caveat is to try not to glamorize something that's inherently harmful. I'm not going to write a book about how awesome meth is or something. Maybe that could fly for an adult (though i doubt it) but it's not something I'd be comfortable doing for a teen. Nor however would I want to preach about the perils of drugs and pretend they don't have an enticing effect.

    I might add that I say all this having never tried meth people, it's just an over-extended example.

    I feel like this comment has just been a mush of thoughts. I hope you can make sense of it.

  9. To me, the worst kind of censorship is the kind writers impart on their characters. I love it when my characters have opinions, even if I don't agree with them. I've never silenced a character, and my goal is to keep it that way.

  10. I feel like there's nothing we should keep out of YA. Even the worst things happen in real life and I think if we shelter teens from that harsh reality, it will only make things worse. Being educated is so much better than not knowing anything about whatever the subject will be, especially as a teenager.

    My mother would never take a book away from me no matter what's in it. Because if it's in the book, chances are it happens in real life, and trying to shelter a teen can often just make them more curious.
    Now there is definitely a certain level of respect I like to see in a book, if a sensitive topic is approached. But that's whether is YA or not.

    Great post! :)


  11. I would never write about teen suicide, I mean really focus on it as a theme, because I feel no matter how negatively it is presented, it is still glorified and that's the last thing teens need. I would write about teens FEELING suicidal, because that's real.

    I wouldn't write about cancer a la TFIOS. I hate cancer books. My friends who have survived cancer hate cancer books too.

    That said, I don't think anything needs to be censored. Parents, teachers and librarians can choose what they think is appropriate for their readers. Readers, of any age, if they come up with the cash can read any book they can find in a bookstore.

  12. Someone made an interesting point about it's not What you write but How you write it. If an author's personal views and agenda come through the writing and the character is used as an author's mouthpiece to sway opinion, that's not right. Not to say that an author can't or shouldn't vocalize their opinion, but there is a time and a place and a book, that should be mostly for entertainment purposes, is not the time or place for that. An essay or non fiction piece would be the best if the author feels the need for it.

    Ultimately, I don't think it's an author's job to censor themselves from writing about a topic if they can handle showing all sides of the argument. If they can show characters with real opinions and consequences for their actions based on those opinions, then they should write that story. I think educators and parents should be more conscientious of what their children read, but they shouldn't force authors to censor themselves if they don't want to.

  13. I don't think an individual writer needs must be all things to all people. I would never write graphically about child abuse, although I believe it is important that some people do. I am extremely upset by such depictions, so much that I actively avoid books/movies that I know I would otherwise enjoy. Sometimes I get broadsided - Prince of Tides anyone? Can't get that scene out of my head with a crowbar.

    I swim against a tide writing about evolution. That word is almost never used in the media - it's amazing the oratoracial backflips when the subject of antibiotic resistance comes up. At least 14 states have restrictions on the teaching of evolution in schools. If that's not censorship, I don't know what is.

  14. Let me talk about MG for a moment. Every once in a while, I come upon an MG book that is an epic wild adventure, that is smart and funny and thought provoking, and is about things like religion and war and politics and history. And then I walk into the YA room and hear people asking each other what is okay to write about in YA, and I only see people talking about self-harm and sexuality. Now, self-harm and sexuality are indeed important issues, and they're something that need to be addressed in YA lit. But it seems almost embarrassing that we're asking questions about sex toys and handcuffs and not asking questions about how political is it okay to be, how much politics, sociology, economics should you include? Is it only okay in fantasy? What about, as Heather Hawke said, Evolution, or accountability for our own actions, or how do you become who you want to be in a world that isn't perfect, that won't offer you your soulmate on a silver platter, where you don't have the sort of power you need to change things for the better?

    So basically, I'll write anything that benefits the story. And when my story has sex toys and handcuffs, you better know that I mean them all the way.

  15. The teen years are not all lollipops and rainbows. Teens drink. They experiment with drugs. They have sex. They do all the things adults don't want them to be doing. In my opinion, I think parents, school administrators, etc. feel that by discussing these topics in a book authors are encouraging teens to do these things. We're not. We're just a mirror of the society we live in. Teens want books they can relate to, warts and all. I'm not holding back in my manuscript of fear from censorship. That, to me, would be a disservice to my intended audience.

  16. I'm not a writer, so this might not really count as an answer but IF I wrote, my answer would be:

    I personally wouldn't write profanity. I just wouldn't. I don't like to read it, so why would I make others read it? Same goes with other subjects. If other writers want to write about a sex-addicted, LSD-loving transgendered teen with a mouth like a sewer and daddy issues, okay. But I'm not interested in those topics, and I'm an intensely selfish person, so if I'm going to pour blood, sweat, and tears into a book that can be perfectly fine without adding these other elements, why not? It's like making me slave in the kitchen over a meal chock full of eggplant and peas. Blaugh! Who cares if it's good for me or other people like it? Bring on the mushroom-tomato pizza, people!

    I mean, take Beauty by Robin McKinley for example. A beautiful book, enduring, beloved. No sex, no profanity, no hot-button topics. It's just flat-out GOOD. I'd like to write a book like that.

  17. I've been thinking about this lately. The book I'm working on has a character who isn't introspective, who acts and doesn't really think about it. She has too much sex. She gets involved with the wrong guy. She curses. She has failing grades. There is no happy ending tied up in a bow.
    I hope there is a place for my book. I try to write truthfully, and I don't specifically leave anything out. I just try not to have too much cursing or sex or violence, because the book isn't about any of those things. It's about a girl. I want readers to see all of her, and not to focus only on one or another aspect of her.

  18. This is a hard one..I have no problems with the hard issues being in book, but the YA novels that romanticize sex, drugs, unhealthy relationships bug me. Losing your virginity to some teenage boy isn't a wave of pleasure with a hint of pain, it's awkward and gross and it hurts. A boy who tries to control you for your "safety" isn't romantic, it is ridiculous. On the other hand, the cookie cutter sweet heart books with perfect characters bug me too. There is a line, but it moves and is hard to see. Ultimately, writers should write what they want, without pushing their own opinions into them and parents should do their jobs and know what their kids are reading and if it is controvesial, it's a great time for a discussion on the good and the bad and the morals of the book.

  19. Everyone mentions the same old same old things that are considered "taboo" but what about political stuff? Why aren't we seeing the "uncensoring" of that? Why are we writers afraid of looking at our own governments (without sugar-coating them as the "Capitol" or the "Establishment" etc.) and how they're ruining lives around the world chasing phantom WMDs etc etc? (16 civilian deaths in Afghanistan just recently.) Now that's a taboo topic nobody wants to take on.

  20. I'm fifteen, and haven't done anything, at all, as in, never even held hands with a boy. But in my writing, my characters do do stuff. I don't write sex scenes, but there are a lot of sex references in my books, because, it's part of life. Also, in real life, I'm kind of a prude, so I think I express that side of myself in my writing, instead. I write to live, if that makes sense.


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Item Reviewed: Where Do You Draw - Err, Write - the Line? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Emilia Plater