Discussion: From Appropriate to Taboo: Where to draw the line in YA

In the spirit of Banned Books Week (and the fact that my Top Ten Tuesday was horribly boring this week), I decided to stir the pot a bit with a discussion post. Here I want to ask the age old question: How far is too far when it comes to young adult novels?

You know what I’m talking about – the sex, the drugs, the drinking, the swearing. They all play a major part in our lives, obviously for some more than others, and despite the controversy, also in the lives of teenagers. I often wonder if I were to write a book, how would I feel on including these controversial subjects? Would I sensor myself in order to reach a wider audience and younger teens? Would I have a tell-it-like-it-is attitude and keep my novel gritty and heavy? Obviously this is going to vary from author to author and the reception of this will vary from reader to reader. Technically, there is no right or wrong answer on exactly what is appropriate for young adult readers and what is not, and I’m more so talking about the inclusion of these elements in general, not quite the severity of them (I think the majority of us can agree that graphic sex scenes, rampant cursing, and very heavy drug use is generally inappropriate for teen novels. This is meant as an interesting and fun discussion so please understand what I mean when I’m talking about what’s “appropriate” to include in YA).

I don’t know about you guys, but I swore like a sailor as a teen (I guess I still do. Oops). A lot of times there are ways to avoid using curse words to make a book a little less harsh in language and a little more friendly to the younger teens (I’m not a parent, but I would venture to guess the parents would be happier about this too). The best example I have right now for this Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I’m in the middle of the audiobook (gotta love Wil Wheaton’s narration…) and I’m actually quite surprised at not only the frequency but the selection of curse words throughout the book. Now it doesn’t bother me in the least – if anything, it enhances the story for me a bit because it makes it seem more real. With plenty of surprising moments, bouts of frustration and anger, etc, swearing not only seems appropriate but naturally how I would react in these situations too. I can easily see where people would say it’s too much an unnecessary. For my tastes, it really works with the story. Another thing to think about here is that the main character Wade is also eighteen. It’s not like this is a book where the main characters are on the younger side of adolescence. If they were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year-olds, I’d actually say the cursing would be a bit excessive for what I’d like to read from that age group. Obviously this is all my personal opinion, but for me, it fits. The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to see that it really depends on the age range of the characters and the age range of the target audience that seems to be swaying me in either direction. Another example that comes to mind is Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne. Emmy has quite a different approach to swearing in her book: if ever it’s a “harsher” curse word, she actually censored the characters herself. Sometimes it was just “Screw you” or “you’re such a jerk” instead of the more crass language. A lot of the time, that actually took away from the story for me because it felt so unnatural. If I was that angered to the point of insulting someone and yelling, let’s face it. I’m not gonna use the word “jerk”. When the actual swear words were used, it was the bare bones of the swear and letting us fill in the rest of the letters to figure it out. From this method, I would guess that the target audience for Monument 14 may be a younger one and this would be a way to stretch the audience down to younger teens, even pre-teens considering we have characters that range from around 5 years old to 18; but then comes my issue with that balance. Throughout the book, we also have teen drinking (and a lot of it by the “cool” kids), nudity, sex, and violence (although the violence isn’t severe). So then I was left with the question, how subjective are one of these “taboos” to another? Personally I thought it was pointless to censor the swearing if we’re also reading about underage drinking, sex, and teenage fantasies. I thought those ranked a bit more severe on the taboo scale, but of course, that’s just another opinion. Which leads us to….

Sex in high school was kind of a non-issue for me. I didn’t really have any relationships that lasted in high school so I was never really in that situation and I never had to think about it. I guess if I had to say how I felt about it back then, it was towards the negative side because I heard the negative stories: the wild parties, the teenage pregnancies, etc. So when I read YA books where the characters are sexually active or losing their virginity, I’m never quite sure what to make of it. Okay, here’s my confession: I was raised fairly conservatively and despite the mass amounts of movies and TV shows where sex is no big thing and everyone’s doing it in high school, it wasn’t like that for me. I grow a bit hesitant at the amount of young adult books I read with the same kind of situations. Is sex included because that’s the ultimate step to take as a teenager? That’s how you know the characters have finally committed to each other and fallen in love? I can see some books including it, but I’m afraid at just how many there are out there that all included a sex scene with their characters at 16, 17, or 18 years old. I don’t want to bring up books that may result in spoilers so I’ll try to use more familiar ones, like the Twilight series. I was crazy surprised that part of the main theme in Eclipse/Breaking Dawn is sex. Let’s be real: That’s the main reason Bella even marries Edward, right? Let’s get married so we can have sex? It didn’t seem like she really wanted to marry him otherwise (especially the way they portrayed it in the movie! I haven’t read the books in a while so that part is a little fuzzy). Am I right in saying that at least a little bit? And then Breaking Dawn happens and okay, so they’re married at this point, but the big moment finally happens and Bam! Immediate pregnancy. I guess that does really set up the plot for the rest of the book, but still. You just barely graduated high school, throwing away the college experience, begging to be a vampire just so you’re A) not older than your boyfriend by one year and B) so you can get it on. I don’t know. The more I think about it, the sillier it sounds. And don’t get me wrong – the Twilight series is still one of my favorites, but when I really stop to think about it, you can’t deny that sex shaped the entire second half of this series. Another series I loved but was still left with my jaw-dropped: The Chemical Garden by Lauren DeStefano. When I finished Wither, I was so excited to finish and really, really enjoyed the book, but at the same time, I was slightly appalled in a way. Whatever crazy mutation that this was that killed boys at 25 and girls at 20 (okay, what virus is really that specific and could really do that? – I overlooked it…) created a crazy teenage pregnancy break out. In order to keep the human race alive, there has to be teen pregnancy. Some of these girls are picked as young as they can so they can produce the most amount of babies for their teenage husbands, and poor little Cecily who is either 13 or 14 in Wither (I think maybe she turns 14 in the book?) is the first to get pregnant. And she’s excited for it. Wait, what? I mean, when I stop and think about it, I’m not sure how I ended up liking this book so much because how is that okay in any way? But again, this theme is something that shaped the entire plot of the whole series.
There are plenty of others of my favorites where the guy and the girl finally get together and then have sex. And sometimes, as much as I’ve loved the book, I just roll my eyes. Is sex always necessary to prove that this relationship is valid? For me, sometimes it’s the absence of sex that makes the book even better. I love the slow burn relationships and the sexual tension that pulls you along the whole story – and the characters don’t even have to hook up to make for a great ending – and sometimes I think that’s even better writing than having them jump in the sack together. Perfect example: I just finished Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins and it instantly became one of my favorite books and one of my favorite literary relationships. No sexy times involved there (in the euphemistic sense…. because there were PLENTY of sexy moments between Anna and Etienne) and honestly, I think it was so great and perfect without the two of them hooking up.

Another thing we can’t deny is part of the lives of teenagers is the presence of drugs and alcohol, although I’d say more often alcohol. I still frowned upon drugs pretty hard when I was in high school (again with the conservative upbringing), but I’d say by junior and senior year, the vast majority of kids were breaking into their parents liquor cabinets and having their older siblings buy them some booze. I’d say alcohol and some forms of drug use (I guess most commonly marijuana) are bound to slip their way into young adult fiction because they really are that present in so many people’s social circles. For me, I’d say their presence in YA books aren’t quite as controversial to me when it’s the “upperclassmen” (junior and senior aged high school kids) drinking and smoking pot. I think it’s fair to say that drug use more than marijuana isn’t commonly seen in YA lit (at least I can’t think of drug use like that in books that I’ve read – let me know if you have) due to the fact that once drugs like that are introduced into the story, I think the story immediately takes on a much more serious and controversial tone that aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot at hand. Alcohol, however, plays a much stronger role. It’s what makes the classic party scene and seems much less taboo to include. I was actually quite surprised to see such a strong presence of drugs and alcohol in one of my favorite books, Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins. The story goes that Anna is a nephilim of one of the Dukes (that is to say, a higher demon) and along with others that represent the Seven Deadly Sins, Anna’s father is the Duke of substance abuse. His job as a demon is to lure people into alcohol and drug abuse and Anna as the super-innocent Southern girl has never touched the stuff. So long story short, we see Anna get familiar with these substances, learn how to control them, and has the classic battle between good and evil and whether to lead these people astray or keep them clean. I actually found the plot line extremely interesting, but really, once we were talking about serious drugs and those drugs showed up on the scene (although not actively used by the characters), it still brought up a serious turn in the tone of the book for me. It was instantly transformed into something that was just a little bit darker and a little bit more for “maturer” audiences (for lack of a better word). In Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry, the pot usage by Noah and his tight group of friends didn’t really seem that off-putting. It’s a lot more common to see that show up, even among teenage crowds. Not to say I’m always in favor of its presence in YA novels, but I think it’s much more acceptable – in a way – than any other drugs. Then as far as alcohol goes, I think that’s a very real part of teenage life, like it or not. Where I think it really starts to get taboo is the age of the alcohol drinker. Like I had mentioned earlier, the norm for the kids that I knew at that age  was drinking at 17 and 18 years old. I think if the drinkers in the story are younger than 17 (for me at least) it starts to cross a line a little more and begins to raise red flags   the younger the drinkers get. I think I start to feel uncomfortable when the main characters are under 17 and drinking. I’m sure it has a lot to do with my personal experience so I’m interested to see what other people have to say about that!

This turned into quite the long winded post so I’ll start to wrap it up. All of these situations are clearly my personal opinions – and really, that’s what makes all of these situations so touchy. Everyone has their own personal experiences that shape their reading experiences as well. What’s taboo for one person is on the fence for another and is crossing the line for the next. It’s really all on the perception of the reader. I’m sure my opinion (as a 20-something) on these topics can vary extremely from someone who is a parent and has children who are reading the same books, as well as varying quite a bit from the actual teen. Mostly I’m really interested to hear what you guys think! I know a lot of us are adults reading YA novels because they’re fun, there are so many great ones being published, and they’re so enjoyable. So here are my questions for you:

How do you feel about these topics?
How controversial do you find them?
If you’re a parent, how do these themes affect how you feel towards the books?
Would you tell your kids not to read any books because of these themes?
Do any one of these elements turn you off from a book just because of their 

Let me know anything I missed, any opinions you want to throw at me, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!!

16 thoughts on “Discussion: From Appropriate to Taboo: Where to draw the line in YA

  1. jen@ thebookienook

    It’s nice to know that I am not the only adult reader out there who reads young adult fiction. And, who thinks about things like this. I remember reading Something Like Normal by Trish Doller a few months ago. It was an incredible, gritty read about Ty, who has recently returned home from Afghanistan. He lost his best friend in the war. I flew through the book in a day. The one thing that I did notice was the cursing, and I had an internal debate on it. Kids as young as 13 could be reading it- appropriate? Not? Then I decided it was essential in developing his character, to show what he had been through. That was how he expressed himself. I think it depends entirely on the novel. If it doesn’t have deeper issues, or a real REASON to have the cursing then I think it could do without. But, if it’s integral to the setting or character development, then I say keep it.

    As far as sex, that is another central issue in ya fiction. I also read Wither, and had mixed feelings. It was beautifully written, don’t get be wrong. DeStefano has an amazing voice when she writes. I wasn’t bothered so much by Cecily wanting to get married, because, let’s be perfectly honest- at thirteen, that is when you are most impressionable.It was more Linden that disgusted me. Here he is, married to three girls, and really — he was played off as one of the victims in it. That bothered me. I also just finished Tilt be Ellen Hopkins, and there was some sex littered throughout the novel. I think with the subject matter and the story that she was telling that it helped to paint a certain picture. Do I think that sex scenes should be shown in ya novels just to show a romance? No, not so much. Like you, when I was in high school sex was a non-issue. I just wasn’t interested, I was more invested in my friends and activities and rarely went on dates.

    Mmkay. So, I really shouldn’t have read your post this morning before work. Because I haven’t even started getting ready and have to leave soon. Ack! So long winded.

    Drugs and alcohol in fiction I think have become a lot more relevant since I was in high school. Not to say that the temptations weren’t there, but they are a lot more present now-a-days. I think that in a lot of contemporaries it is useful- I think the authors are not using it to tell kids “hey, go out and drink and do drugs”… it’s to tell their story. AND I think most of the time, their stories reflect of the damage that will be done if you allow drugs and alcohol to consume your life. Again, this was a theme in Tilt, and I know in some of Hopkins other work, although I haven’t had the chance to read them yet. It really depends on the context. I think that drug use is the one thing that might turn me off from a book, but it just depends on the book as a whole.

    I’m not a parent, yet. But I think that these issues would be things that I would take into consideration when letting my teenager pick out books. But maybe it’s a good chance for dialogue about things that you know are going to be brought up in their teenage years. Okay, off to work now. Great post!

    1. Brittany

      Yay, thanks so much for your input!!!
      Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I glossed over Linden – that was just as scandalous if not more than Cecily being pregnant.
      I agree with your thoughts on the drugs/alcohol part too – I think a lot of places it’s used in stories is kind of a warning or a deterrant.
      Thanks so much for your feedback! 🙂

  2. Candice

    First off, awesome post! You’ve made lots of great points and raised some interesting questions. I’ve been thinking about this topic myself lately. How far is too far? How much is too much? And what’s funny is that my answers have changed drastically in the couple years I’ve been reading YA. The other night I had book club and we had read Ashes. Two of our members, who had kids, were shocked at how gory it was and how they would be very hesitant to let their kids read it. Which I totally get. If your kids are 10.

    I think back to when I was a teen. I was reading my mom’s romance novels fully of highly sexual scenes. Some were prob borderline pornographic. And although I sometimes get squeamish thinking a teen might read the sex scenes in a YA book (yeah, weird fear, I know) I remember what I read and feel its pretty tame compared.

    I think sometimes YA books, whether it’s the content or the themes, may go too far. It may cross that line we’ve as a society put up that separates teens from adults. But the thing is, teens are going to cross that line whether it’s there or not. They’re going to seek out books with the adult themes because that’s what they want. They want books that have elements that either their life includes or maybe they want it to include. I somehow feel more comfortable with my teen (you know, if I had one) finding those elements in a YA book where the characters are struggling with things the teen is rather than the adult book with a fully developed adult who isn’t dealing with those things.

    1. Brittany

      Great points!! I really like your point about the teen dealing with it vs adults.
      I was totally reading VC Andrews books when I was like 11 years old which are somewhat sexually explicit (not terribly so, but still) and my mom wasn’t realyl happy about that. But she never tried to stop me actually…
      Thanks so much for your input! I love hear what others have to say 🙂

  3. Tales Untangled

    I am a parent of four children, ages 18, 15, 9 and 6. YA literature is a tricky subject. In general I object to cursing, sex and drugs in any book. As parents we all know teens want to push the boundaries but, I don’t like to see books defining a young person’s moral compass. I think parents need to be involved knowing what is in a book to determine if it is acceptable within the bounds of their own family morals. Some teens will need the gritty books to help them understand their own lives. The hard subjects shouldn’t be glorified, and that is what happens in some of the books which, in essence, encourages teens to spiral out of control. I am glad to see there are others considering these moral dilemnas. Thanks for the post!

    1. Brittany

      Thanks so much for sharing!! It’s especially interesting hear from a parent’s point of view since I’m not a parent and I haven’t actually been a teen in a long time.
      I can definitely agree with you – the hard subjects shouldn’t be glorified, which I didn’t think to mention but is really a big part of a lot of these issues as well. I know all of these are a part of teen lives (as a generalization), but really none of them should be glorified at all. I always get so uneasy with sexual content in YA books because I’ve always felt like movies and TV shows glorify having sex at a young age way too much and make it too commonplace. I’m not saying that teens aren’t going to do it nor it is my place to say who shouldn’t do what, but I WILL say that I don’t think that should be the norm or what’s “cool”.
      Thanks so much for sharing with me! I really loved hearing what you had to say 🙂

  4. Elizabeth

    You know, when I hear about this topic I always think back to what I was reading as a teen… which was often romance. With sex scenes. I even read White Oleander back in high school, which has sex and drugs in it. Yet I was pretty much the model kid in high school… didn’t do drugs, didn’t have sex, I drank once and it wasn’t even a full drink. I didn’t want to go out an emulate the actions of the characters in the books I read (unless it meant becoming a wizard and going to Hogwarts, but that’s another story). I think what my friends were doing was much more important to me than what fictional kids in books and movies were doing and I would not have fit in with my friends if I slept around or started smoking pot.

    I’m not sure if my parents ever realized the sometimes graphic content of what I was reading, but I’m glad they didn’t try to censor what I read and trusted me to make smart decisions about what I read, what I said, and what I did. I like to think that as a parent, I will allow my teens to have the same sort of freedom to choose what they read because I don’t really want to be the sort of person who censors others. Generally as a kid, I knew when something wasn’t right for me or made me uncomfortable (though usually this was scary stuff– couldn’t read the Goosebumps books, for example) and stayed away from it.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m being unrealistic, but I don’t know that it’s appropriate to remove swearing, sex, and alcohol/drugs from YA when those are things teens deal with and the YA audience is, hopefully, old enough to understand the repercussions of their actions and to make good decisions based on real life… not what they read in books.

    1. Brittany

      Thanks so much for your comment! And you know what…. I never thought about it, but it’s so true! You can still enjoy what you read and it doesn’t necessarily have to influence your actions. I read a lot of romance books as a kid (well, VC Andrews specfically) but it’s not like it changed my morals in any way. I guess parents have to trust their kids that they can separate ficton from their real life. I mean, I read all kinds of things, watched all kinds of PG-13 movies (some which prob shouldn’t have been), but it’s not like it ever affected how I acted. It’s true – it was really how my friends acted and what they did that really shaped my actions and how I perceived people and situations.
      Thanks so much for bringing that up! I really enjoyed reading your response!

  5. Tee

    This is such a great post. I have dual issues when it comes to sex, drugs, etc in YA. I think most often if it feels authentic, I don’t even notice it. As everyone has said, for a book to be realistic it must deal with the issues the characters would truly face in real life. That being said, as a mom with two daughter (one of whom is beginning to read YA), there are specific limits to what I’m willing to let them read right now. I won’t ban certain more risque books completely forever, but I will monitor what they read for as long as I can so that I can be certain it’s age appropriate. For example, I’m a Girl Scout leader and a few years back, when my girls were Brownies (that’s second and third graders) I actually had a few that were reading the Twilight books. Even the last one. And while those aren’t racy, I thought the whole sense of Bella’s longing to get it on with Edward was definitely a main theme and wasn’t something I’d want my own kid to read about at the age of 7 or 8. Same with books like The Princess Diaries series, which don’t have any sex in them but have some hilarious discussions about who touched whose naughty bits. Totally funny, but not good for my 10 year old. I look forward to sharing certain books with my kids, but not necessarily right now. The sames goes for books with harsh language and drugs. Also, on a separate note, I’ve noticed that I get a little creeped out when I read a YA book with descriptive sex (I rarely find books like these). I just don’t want the details. If the characters do it, then I prefer for it to be glossed over or hinted at, but overall, the best sexytimes are the ones that have good kissing and swoon, but not the full monty. 🙂

    1. Brittany

      Thanks, Tee! I appreciate the input. I totally agree too – I wouldn’t want 2nd or 3rd graders reading that in Twilight either. And that’s exactly it – it’s not explicit, but it’s still a topic I wouldn’t say is necessarily age appropriate. I don’t think my mom ever really told me that I couldn’t read anything, but she did have TV show restrictions and I wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies until I was actually 13, etc – But I think that was more of her guiding my morals for me to understand what was right, what was age appropriate vs what she thought I might actually be influenced by. I think I was raised with a pretty good moral compass and I dont’ really find that I was influenced all that much by what the media said. I just responded to Elizabeth that it’s true – it was mostly what my friends were doing that shaped me.
      Yay, I love the responses! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. akamaireader

    This is a great post. When I was reading books as young teen, I explored all sorts of subjects like sex and drug use. My mother was very liberal with my reading choices. It opened my mind to all sorts of experiences and it didn’t lead me down any roads of sin. It just made me aware of the myriad choices available and the consequence therein, so I think it’s important for authors to continue to explore these difficult and controversial subjects and to open young readers minds then leave it up to the parents as to whether or not they’ll let their kids read the books.

    1. Brittany

      Thanks for your input! That’s a really great point. I kind of didn’t realize it until I started getting responses, but I’ve read a few books that may be considered more risque, but that doesn’t mean I was going to follow in their footsteps. In fact, sometimes learning about it through a book helped opened my eyes to other situations that were out there and what I DIDN’T want to do or say. It helped me experience things without actually experiencing them.

  7. EM Castellan

    As a YA writer, I was afraid at first that my writing was too gritty to ever get published (I write epic fantasy, but still). Then I read Wither when it came out and it was quite reassuring for me: if Lauren DeStefano can write this and get published by a major publisher, then maybe my stories stand a chance. I think there has been a shift in the last few years in what is now seen as appropriate for YA fiction: 3 years ago at the London Book Fair every industry professional kept saying that there couldn’t be any sex/drugs/drinking/swearing. In 2012 however, they all told me that it was fine if these elements were not outrageous. I’ll quote one of these professionals to finish this comment: “As long as you explain the reason WHY these things (sex, drugs, etc.) happen, it’s fine to include them in your YA story.”

    1. Brittany

      Thank you so much for sharing! It’s so awesome to hear from a writer on this subject as well. And I find that to be very true too – As long as they do have a real purpose and add meaning to the story, then I think it’s more easily accepted!

  8. vmcarswell

    I can say that most of the times when I read stuff that has this in it, I believe it can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on how it is handled. I don’t mind some sex stuff in YA books as long as it is done in a way that isn’t disgusting or makes me feel like I have to shower afterward. I don’t go out of the way to find a book with or without it, but if it is there, I hope that it is done well, otherwise the author will probably not be getting anymore readership from me. And I really hate it when sex is used as a way to “prove” your love. One book I read the main character told her boyfriend she loved him and he replied with “Show me” as he started undoing her jeans. Seriously?? No thank you. As for swearing, I’m not one for the curse words. In fact, people I know think it is weird I NEVER cuss. I have used a curse word in a story I wrote, though because it was appropriate for the content. It was a prison setting and what prison setting doesn’t have curse words flying all over the place? But it should fit the content! One of my complaints with Night of the Purple Moon that I just reviewed recently was the fact that the GD word was on one page 5 times and this is a book that could be suited for a 12 or 13 year old. I haven’t really read many books were drugs were a big topic, and I understand sometimes characters will be hooked on drugs, especially if the book is a tough stuff kind of book. But I do think that all of this is ok in YA books as long as it is done in an appropriate way and the target audience is kept in mind.

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