Young Adult–Naughty or Nice?

Young adult books are generally aimed at readers in the 12 to 18 year-old age bracket. However, it can vary sometimes by a few years either way. There is also a sub-classification of “upper” and “lower” YA. Lower might be 12 to 17 years-old, whereas upper could be around 14 to 19 years-old. Young adult books are not really age oriented as much as they are content categorized. I lean toward the upper young adult level of 14 to 19 years-old. There are no fast and hard rules about this. It’s a generalization because there is also a huge crossover appeal to adult readers. Look no further than the Harry Potter books which started out as middle-grade, then slid upward to young adult and then shanghaied the adult audience.

LENGTH

YA books can be shorter than adult books and get away with it. I’ll shoot for around 200 to 300 pages. I feel comfortable with that; I plan it that way. Only because I want to appeal to younger readers who do not feel trapped into reading a long and detailed tome. They have lessened attention spans. YA books can be of the novella size, which are shorter still. As much as the term is not widely worshipped, I write what I consider “beach reads.”

SEX DRUGS AND ROCK ‘N ROLL

Generally, with adult books you can pretty much let it rip. I think you know what I’m talking about. If you go too far with mentions of physical sex, drugs, multiple partners, adultery, violence, foul language, suicide, law-breaking and other stark and unsavory topics, you’re entering ghetto, punk or erotica territory. Graphic adult romance is nothing new, although there is the sweet variety that is very popular—more so than the other type.

The same applies to young adult books only you have to be very careful of what you include in the text and story line if you want to keep it clean, safe and non-threatening. After voluminous reads and research in this category, I would think that holding hands and kissing would be the best way to go without offending scruples, religion, or the adults who might be the purchasers of such books for their teens. Anything more could be a turn-off to one of the largest audiences and purchasers of young adult books—the librarians. They recommend books to all manner of sources, but particularly to schools. Such books have to pass muster with the teachers. It’s definitely a form of censorship. It is not the type of censorship that violates freedom of speech rights. It is more of a checks and balances of morality with what might be considered appropriate and sane. Notice I said “sane.”

There are some publishers and reviewers who have stated, in words to the effect: “I don’t go for the sweet and innocent portrayals of teens that are unrealistic and status quo. Rip my face off and tell the blunt truth about how real teenagers act, live, believe and talk. To be sure, these preferences are in the minority. But there’s a heck of a lot of gray area too. There are some things you can get away with, and ride the fence, and there are times when you’ve crossed a boundary line. The question is, how much naughty can you get away with without drawing fire, yet still remaining true to the characters and real life circumstances?

Not much—it’s limited. You can touch upon taboo subjects from afar, or hint or make reference to them. Even then you should to careful. When you start painting images via innuendo, it will show itself in the eyes of an on-guard adult reader. Believe me, condemnation is more prevalent when you’ve crossed the naughty line as opposed to receiving praise for telling it like it is in all its naked glory.

I’m very conscious of what I write in young adult books now more than ever. It does not take much to set somebody off. When you start crossing lines you have word-of-mouth critics to contend with. Anything that is negative about your written word can go viral and dash a book to smithereens. Never mind your reputation. That was the first thing that went!

Example: I’ve made mention of drugs before in my books but kept them out of use. I’ve had older teens take a few sips of alcohol under stress. Such scenes were over before they began. I dropped the F-bomb and several other swear words about a dozen or more times in the length of a book. I had my main characters witness a copulation scene from a hundred yards away, and forget about it in the next moment. I’ve had some unintentional nudity in scenes, but there was no emphasis on it. To me, these scenes and subjects were relevant to the plotline and situation. I had to strive for realism. Even if it was borderline. The result was, 90% of the readers took it in stride. The other 10% were offended by it and voiced their opinions. Nothing can destroy your review rank faster than a reader who blatantly disagrees with your subject matter. I know, I know…to hell with that bunch. (hey, I used a swear word)

The balancing act between naughty and nice is skewed toward the nice. That’s hardly unexpected with young adult books. Remember those librarians and teachers? It’s not a good idea to lay it all out there if they’re going to grab a copy of your book. They are a credentialed gatekeeper. They have a heck of a lot more experience with literature than you or I. If they are young adult book librarians their expertise is magnified three-fold.

Chris, what about sex behind closed doors? Teens indulge in this activity whether we object to it or not. It’s all part of the growing up process. It’s instrumental in every facet of their passage into adulthood.

I wouldn’t. The characters might talk about it. Leave it be. It’s giving the green light to underage sex. Stay away from it. At 18 years-old plus: knock yourself out, or knock the boots of your characters (doh). Although use a little moderation. In case you haven’t noticed, the NA (New Adult) category was created for one of its most primary reasons—permission to lay and get laid. Never mind college. Think Spring Break, wot?

So what the heck can we get away in this very subjective analysis? I can only guess and give you some borderline examples of what you or your reader might find inoffensive in this analysis. Remember, everything in moderation. You will have to ultimately decide where your comfort zone is.

Fondling

Nudity

Alcohol consumption

Drug use

Bullying

Extended suicidal depression

Dirty jokes (not kidding)

Groping

Gross violence

Physical and mental abuse (particularly toward female characters)

Animal abuse

Murder

Marriage (this one requires parent’s approval depending upon the country or other facts)

I’m learning more and more about moral turpitude in this category. My sister even advised me to have characters marry before sex. Not a bad idea. Didn’t Stephanie Meyers hold her characters back for three volumes before anything happened? I can’t remember. It’s a great hook technique—keeps the reader guessing.

Christian young adult fiction usually abstains from sexual activity before it is morally and legally appropriate. That goes for other religions and cultures.

But, Chris, doesn’t your views make you an unrealistic prude? Not really. I was a teenager once too, although some will dispute this! I know what goes on. The trick is to read between the lines where there is a lot more there to discover about messages than you think. I’m lucky enough to pull off this kind of subterfuge. I just can’t get away from blundering on occasion. That happens to all us scribblers. I hope you don’t blunder.

Just remember, there are not only some speed bumps that you have to consider in writing young adult literature, but there are some barriers which are best not crossed. The parents and librarians will never need to wipe sweaty brows or unclench a fist after reading your story. If…you are mindful.

Happy travails. I’ll red-shift outta here….

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