A blog about the amazing things teenagers do, about writing for teens, books for teens, and occasional forays into my world and the world of publishing.

Monday, February 7, 2011

All the Cool Kids are Doing It: What Responsibilies Do YA Authors Have to Their Audience?

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?


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  2. I'd like to politely disagree. I think that yes, as YA authors, we have to think about the consequences of our writing more than authors who don't write for kids. But we also have to have faith in our readers. Teens are smart and strong and will make choices both good and bad (just like adults). And when they choose to read a book they can choose what they think about characters. I think it does readers a great disservice to only provide a cleaned up version of reality. And, ultimately, I think teens are capable of choosing books that are right for them. Like your reviewer, for example, who shares your values -- she knew that she didn't want to read a book with sex in it. She chose a book that she knew would not. And I'm guessing if a sex scene came up, she would have skipped it and put the book down. This teen is strong and smart and knows how to make the choices that are right for her. I think it speaks for itself, you know?


  3. Interesting post and view! Definitely food for thought.

    This is going to sound crazy, but when I write a story, I'm mostly thinking about my responsibility to the plot arc. To the art of writing.

    I write stories because 1) I love writing, and 2) I want to be published.

    Writing's a business for me, so I try to write the best plot arcs as I can. I try to make my characters develop organically as best as I can.

    That being said, I try to make sure everything that happens in my books happens for a reason. I try to make the actions fit the character.

    I do hope teenagers get something, just a little something, from everything I write. :)

  4. Fantastic post Jennifer! As a Mom and writer this is a topic I have thought about quite a bit. I tend to write from real life, which for our family consists of playing instruments, marching in the band, getting good grades, having disagreements with friends, watching family members pass away, and crushing on boys and girls and giggling late at night about it. For us, this is normal, exciting, and wonderful to experience. I see no reason to write about drugs and sex, because that's not what my kids find exciting or enticing. My girls want to grow wings to fly and be free (Maximum Ride series), watch the guy HOLD the girl's hand for the first time (Princess Academy), and feel the tension of trying to find your place in the world (Wings, Spells, Uglies)--which is what they themselves are trying to do. They want tension, not to have their values and personal choices challenged. That's the key difference, and so that's what I write. :)

  5. Thanks for weighing in! Kristin you made some good points. You're right, teen readers deserve some credit for making their own choices. I definitely should have addressed that. There are extremes to both examples.

  6. I am so relieved I'm not the only one that's talking about this! After reading your blog, and Ally Condie's book, it's great to know that it's possible to write and publish a book that's clean and that teens will love. MATCHED is now on the NY Times Best Seller List!

    I'll be totally honest: Sarah Dessen's books taught me more than I ever wanted to know about drug use! And I didn't want to know any of it.

    I've actually been struggeling with a situation in the story I'm working on, because while I could add something to make it more exciting, it would also mean the character has to compromise her morals.

  7. Very interesting discussion -- I enjoyed reading your post and the comments. The issue of responsibility reminded me of one of the fundamental differences between YA novels and "adult" novels, which is the tone of the ending.

    I've heard that it's kind of a rule for YA novels to end on a hopeful note. This doesn't mean everything's perfect, or even completely resolved, but that there's at least a sliver of hope in the conclusion, because there's a responsibility to show the presumed audience that what happens when you're a teenager won't determine the course of your entire life (and because there will be plenty of time for disillusionment and unhappy book endings later!). I was wondering what you thought about that...


  8. Love your comment Sarah. I totally agree about making YA novels hopeful. Life should always be hopeful. Even for adults. A book ends. Life goes on.

  9. M.S. Don't compromise your morals. It doesn't mean your characters have to be perfect. Some of the best lessons are learned from people making mistakes.

    If you look at the books that have gone viral, TWILIGHT, HARRY POTTER, HUNGER GAMES (yes HG is violent), you'll see that morals are a part of all of them. Keep doing the right thing M.S. the YA world needs more writers like you.

  10. And not many teenagers actually smoke or sleep around. The smokers are usually a sad little cluster of goth kids in the smoker's pit, and when somebody has had something with somebody, it goes around a bit- it's not a daily thing.
    If you're going to put one bad thing in your books, make it violence and gore.
    One thing that makes viral books so popular is this- you can recommend them to anyone. You don't have to worry what your friend will think of you, or if you can tell your daughter about it, etc. That's what makes books have multi-generation appeal.
    Seriously. Sex sells, but the people it sells to aren't going to be actively promoting it.

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