I'm a mom with two teens, so I think I have a different perspective on books then many Young Adult authors. When I read YA, I have to read as a writer and as a mom. I can't read a book without wondering what effect that book would have on a teen reader. More specifically, what effect the story would have on my kids and on their friends.
I love my kids and I love their friends. I love to spend time with them. I worry about them and about the choices that they're faced with every day. I read a lot of Young Adult literature, and I'm going to be honest here.
Some of it scares me.
Recently I read a blog about sex in teen literature. (That's a whole 'nother discussion that I'm only going to touch on here.) One point the blogger made was that an author's first responsibility was to their characters and to telling the story. That gave me a big pause. In my opinion, an author's first responsibility, especially an author of books for kids, (yes, teenagers are still kids), is to their readers. BIG POINT--the characters are fictional, the readers are real.
For example, I've read a lot of books where the main characters smoke, AND the main characters are portrayed as the "popular kids," AND it's no big deal. Say my 12-year-old daughter (or one of her friends), picks up a book like that. She reads up from her age level (as most kids do), and she's curious about what high school is like. If she reads a book where the popular kids all smoke, what message is she getting?
Same thing goes for main characters who drink, do drugs, or have sex.
Now I know there are people out their screaming "But that's what high school kids do!" And you're right, some high school kids do all of those things.
And some high school kids don't.
It feels like the majority of YA literature has smoking, drinking, drugs, and sex as the norm. Often those things happen without any consequences to the characters. The message is "that's what everyone does." "All the cool kids are doing it." "It's all part of growing up."
As an young adult author, I've honestly felt like I have to justify it when my characters don't drink, smoke, do drugs, or have sex. That worries me. I think I'm getting a taste of what teens who don't participate in those kinds of activities have to live with. The feeling is they have to justify NOT doing those things when T.V., movies, music, and books show all of that as normal teen aged fun.
I find it interesting that when I asked for teen reviewers, the first girl that stepped forward, M. S. Steed, (see last week's review) said she chose Ally Condie's MATCHED because it was clean. She also said it was hard for her to find books that reflect her values. I would like to point out that although I share her values, I didn't know her before last week. I didn't have any idea what she was going to write about until I read her review.
As a writer and as a mom, I think it's important for teens to see examples of kids in books doing the right thing. I cheered for the main character, Tyler, in Laurie Halse Anderson's TWISTED through the whole book, but never so much as when he did the right thing. For those who haven't read the book he was put in a situation where he could have taken advantage of a girl who was drunk. (In fact that was kind of what was expected.) Spoiler alert: He didn't take advantage of her, he did the right thing. Even when she laughed at him for it.
I loved it in C. J. Omololu's book DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS, when the hot lead singer of the high school band introduces the main character to his "special brew" after he sees that she doesn't like the beer at the party. The "special brew" is root beer. The cool kid made a responsible choice. YAY!
On the flip side I've heard of, and read YA stories that read like how-to book for drug use, or shop-lifting, or date rape. (No, I'm not going to cite specific examples.)
I'm not advocating censorship, or book banning, and we aren't having a bonfire at my house to rid the world of inappropriate teen literature.
What I am advocating:
YA authors should take responsibility for what they write.
I know you're trying to portray reality. (So am I.) But being a teen is not all about sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. It's a time for learning independence. It's a time of mental and physical growth. It's a time for discovering who you are. It's an amazing and exciting time. (That's why I write for teens). But it's also a time when outside influences play a huge roll in what you do and how a you see yourself for the rest of your life. (I still carry scars from my teen aged years. I bet most people do.)
It's a time when bad choices can screw up your whole future.
I believe books have the ability to influence their readers like no other media. That's why I advocate parents reading with their teens. An author can develop a character, or a problem, or a consequence to an extent that isn't possible in a half-hour sitcom, or a three minute song, or a ninety minute movie. A character in a book can be a window to a new world or a hero to a kid struggling for understanding. (Check out the comments section of my review of LHA's SPEAK if you don't believe that.)
I think that most Young Adult authors write for teens because they care about them. With that in mind, I'm making a request, as a mom and as a fellow author. In your quest to write the perfect YA novel, in your quest to influence the teens who read your book, (because you will influence them, like it or not,) even in your quest to sell as many books as possible, consider your readers.
You have a responsibility to them.
For my fellow children's writers: What do you think is your responsibility to your readers?
For my teen readers: What books have influenced for good or bad? Do you feel like YA books reflect reality?