Saturday, February 16, 2008

YA Shock

I'm supposed to be thinking about a proposal for a YA SF novel, since an editor approached me about this and I like the idea. Now that the novella is titled ("The Erdmann Nexus" -- thank you, Jack!) and sent off to Asimov's to await its fate, I've started reading some YA novels to see how they've been updated since the last time I read many of them (which may have been when I was 11).

I'm in shock.

I bought Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie, by New York Times best-selling author Holly Black. I had no trouble with fifteen-year-old Val's cussing, or her gay best friend, or her general punk attitude. But in Chapter One, Val walks in on her boyfriend having sex with Val's mother.

Now, I was not expecting Nancy Drew. But... surely this sort of behavior isn't very common? Is it something you'd want your ten-year-old reading? (YA is supposedly for 12-15-year-olds, but in fact younger kids who are good readers consume most of it.) Yes, fiction is about stuff that isn't necessarily common, but is this level of brutality and the number of "unhealthy relationships" (to resort to psychobabble for a moment) typical of all YA fiction?

The only way I'll know is to read more YA. Next on the list is Alison Goodman's Singing the Dogstar Blues. Meanwhile... if there are any librarians or book sellers reading this, do you know if Holly Black is read a lot, and by whom?


Sarah said...

There was a reason I basically went straight from "junior fiction" to adult fiction like Agatha Christie. It isn't all that nasty. In fact, in the wake of Harry Potter, there's been a huge surge in YA fantasy that's pretty friendly to the pre-YA crowd. But certainly there's a subset of YA books that I don't feel old enough to read, and don't.

As for Holly Black, I'm not familiar with the book you mention but she has a fantasy series for slightly younger readers, The Spiderwick Chronicles, that seems to be pretty popular - a movie of the first book is coming out pretty soon.

S.M.D. said...

No, that's not very common in YA. You might consider reading some Scott Westerfeld. His works do deal with themes important to teenagers, but not in a very explicit way. Peeps is my favorite by him, and then the Midnighter's series is good.
That sort of brutality, though, is really not common. If you've read Harry Potter, Leven Thumps, or the new The 13th Reality, you'll see that the issues presented deal more with typical growing up dilemmas. Granted, there are bound to be books written for younger readers that deal with the darker side of life, but don't expect that to be a common feature.

karen wester newton said...

Nancy-- I don't think it's un-typical, if you know what I mean. Think back to THE GRADUATE.

Any book with a teenage boy as a major character, either protagonist or as a love interest for the protag, will have to have something about sex because that's mostly what teenage boys think about. I'm working on a YA 1st person novel with a 16-year-old boy as the protag, and it's not easy making myself think in that single-minded way, but my son assures me that I'm not overstating the emphasis. Although I think the mother would have to be hot-looking for most teenage boys to act on an offer. Anne Bancroft yes, Roseanne Barr, no.

Speaking of hot looking, I love the new picture on your home page!

TadMack said...

" this level of brutality and the number of "unhealthy relationships" (to resort to psychobabble for a moment) typical of all YA fiction?"

You've got the right idea: definitely read more YA fiction. Please.

If you're going to enter into YA literature at all you've got to be conversant with who's writing; in YA SF/F, there are just as many sub-genres as there are in SF/F for adults. It's unwise to lump all of young adult lit together and then ask "is this common?" of one element, as if you've now been exposed to all of it. Too many people who try to cross over from writing for adults to young adults make that mistake. Young adults are... people, with just as many varied life experiences. So, no, not everyone is going to have a hideous mother like the one in Tithe. She'll probably be hideous some other way...

It's not clear if you're asking a genuine question with this post, or making your opinion known in a roundabout way. What did you think of Black's writing? The plot? The characterization? Or did that single scene - which I felt integrated well into the novel as a whole and was neither graphic nor gratuitous, but representative of the life of the character - so put you off that you noticed nothing else?

Holly Black's Tithe is a great example of urban fantasy that appeals to those of an edgier mien in the 14-17 age group; try reading some Diana Wynne Jones (the Chrestomanci series is excellent) or Sarah Beth Durst to see what's out there for 'Tweens. A. M. Jenkins's Repossessed, Shannon Hale's Goose Girl, or Princess Academy; David Lubar's True Talents -- there are myriad examples of great YA SF/F. Check out the blogs of those who read, write and review for YA's, and the ALA awards (Printz, Newberry) to get more great book suggestions.

Good luck.

TadMack said...
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BillP said...

My wife is a librarian at a middle school and regularly complains about the content. There's a push to be unnecessarily "edgy." Like any medium, they're competing in terms of "sexiness" with TV and movies (and you know what kids are seeing these days). Do people feel some "call" to write this stuff? Rarely. Publishers want salable franchises that make young kids feel older. It's cyncial. There's the view, though, that if a kid is reading, it's all to the good. Thus the reviews in library publications that make no mention of problematic material. The ALA regularly confuses thoughtfulness with censoriousness. There's a kind of false "realism" being promoted (oddly, a lot of it in fantasy writing). To me, another sad part about a lot of YA lit in the choice of a somewhat inexpressive adolescent voice (writers learned the wrong lesson from Salinger).

BillP said...

"cynical," not "cyncial"
"is the choice," not "in the choice"


Derryl Murphy said...

Aidan turns 12 this year, and I'm finding I have to thread the minefield first before passing on the books. There are authors I know I can trust, and there are also reviewers who will hopefully give me the heads up, and I also trust Aidan to be able to handle whatever is thrown his way.

My one published YA story I wrote under a pseudonym, because I simply don't believe that much of the work written under my own name is appropriate for children of a certain age. Yeah, they can look on the copyright page and see it's really me, but if they're going to search that hard, more power to them.


Elver said...

Please excuse me if I'm incoherent. Haven't slept in 24 hours.

There are two explanations I've heard.

From young adults themselves: But this is actually what's going on in life! If you don't include it, it's not authentic!

I was shooting pool with a friend today and in walked a group of youngsters, about 15-16 years of average age, and one of them had a baby with her. Turned out to be hers and another young dude's who was also in the group.

It's not uncommon for teenagers to have sex and if you believe the rumors (and you should, since they're true) at least a quarter of 13 year old girls are already giving head to boys their own age and older. For fun. Without expecting anything in return. Not even a relationship. (And "compensated dating" (an euphemism for prostitution) is not uncommon among youngsters either. This is quite depressing.)

I've argued about the topic with several teenage girls who don't even see non-vaginal sex as sex, but rather as a fun way to spend time with quite random people.

If you write a book marketed to young adults with a young adult as the protagonist, then you need to include sex. Otherwise the reader, being a young adult for whom sex is a part of life (whether he/she actually has had it or not) will feel cheated.

From well-meaning adults: Kids should learn about these things. What better way than reading?

I think that this is quite moronic. Kids underestimate risks and overestimate rewards. If you write a book about a girl who runs away from home, gets molested by some pedophile, meets a lot of different people and finally returns home, then the reader might think: "Hey! Running away from home means I'll meet a lot of cool people. Sure, there's that pedophile, but hey, it's a small risk and the rewards are totally worth it."

The road to teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, and other such things is paved with the good intentions of well-meaning adults who don't know jack sh*t about teenage psychology.

Quite possibly the most eye-opening film of this decade is Terry Gilliam's "Tideland". It's a film engineered to be super scary to adults and not scary at all to children. Should be compulsory watching to anyone who claims to know how a child or young adult will react to anything.

But, anyway... There's really nothing you or I or anyone could do to stop the tide. All of this has happened before on a smaller scale in the 60s and 70s and early 80s in various parts of Europe and USA. I'd talk more about the subject, but unfortunately it's taboo.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

FASCINATING topic. Thanks for blogging about it! I liked the way John at
took it another level, too.
I am a young adult fiction author, although my book will most likely have a wider audience than teens. My book is realistic fiction and deals with a teen girl's initial foray into recovery from sexual abuse. It is not unnecessarily graphic but does include enough detail to draw the reader in to what the character is experiencing. I think whether the detail in YA fiction is gratuitous or is there to authentically advance the storyline.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse

Emily said...

What an interesting topic! Found this via Ellen Datlow’s link to the SF Signal discussion.

Although I haven’t read Holly Black’s work yet, I know that The Spiderwick Chronicles are marketed to younger children (I want to say maybe 8-10?) and the Tithe/Ironside/Valiant group to the older “YA” crowd. From reading a myriad of other YA-style books over the course of my life, I think that it’s not completely unusual to have that kind of thing but also not the norm. Some authors do write about harsh situations in YA fiction, and, if handled well, I think it can actually be valuable (I can’t speak directly to Holly’s book, but I can recall one YA-age book I read in middle school which was about a homeless boy, and serious in the issues it dealt with but not inappropriate for the age group). I can also remember reading Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) in school when younger – it contains a (disturbingly graphic to me, at the time) scene where the protagonist discovers the rotted body of a crashed plane’s pilot, but it didn’t scar me for life or anything. Of course, that book was supposed to be more realistic than the fantasy style books like Holly Black’s. But I know there are such books for that age group out there, and I read them, and (again, I have to emphasize) if the topics are handled well (i.e. not “hey, this is COOL to do XYZ bizarre thing), then I don’t think it’s harmful. (Of course, I read anything I could get my hands on at all ages, so I was reading things like Clan of the Cave Bear (which has a rape scene) in 5th grade and so on.)

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessary to include all the “issues that kids face today” or go for shock value in order to have a good and/or successful YA book. Take Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, for instance. Both deal with interesting social issues and/or serious topics in their YA, and neither has graphic or disturbing scenes. Even as an adult I love reading their YA. And honestly, both old and new style YA have always appealed to me – I am as happy reading Anne of Green Gables or something from that era as reading something published last year – I think as long as the book is engaging and the characters seem real, young readers aren’t going to stop and go, “what, this character isn’t thinking about sex all the time? I hate this book!” I certainly never did.

Whew! Sorry for the long comment – that’s my take.

P.S. I picked up Writers for Relief from my friend Davey last October, and I have to tell you your short story was my absolute favorite in the anthology. :)

Janni Lee said...

No one's recommending Valiant for 10 year olds. Seriously. YA has become a complex and varied genre, and there are books for a wide range of ages--Valiant is more of an upper-YA than a book for 10-year olds, who would be more likely reading middle grade or younger YA.

My take is that just like adults, teens have the right to choose from a broad range of fiction. I've never heard anyone argue Valiant is for all teens; but it is an extraordinarily well-written book that's just what some teens are looking for.

YA readers are as varied in their tastes and needs as adult readers are. And that's the first, most important thing any writer needs to understand before writing YA.

(The second is that teens, like adults, mostly want to read books because they enjoy them, just like adults. Not all YAs have edgy content, nor should they--that's part of the varied tastes thing--but a sure way to write an awful YA novel is to try to write something that's actively good for kids, or what one thinks they "ought" to read. Writing for teens is not all that different from writing for adults, ultimately.)

Elver said...


Kids those age are very impressionable. They haven't developed a taste yet. They don't know if they like edgy, sexy stuff or not. If they actually do read this sort of stuff, they're likely to think that this is how the real world works and this is what my life should be like. One of the saddest things I've seen in my life was a 15 year old girl quoting sex tips she reads almost religiously in the Cosmopolitan while she herself had only had sex with a single guy... ten years older that she had met on the internet.

And you can't expect people to actually divide YA into subgenres. Do you honestly expect a parent or, hell, even a kid to know all the varied subgenres and find the book that matches his/her taste and level of development? That's really bloody unlikely. Hell, walk into a bookstore and ask the salesperson to list at least three YA subgenres and you're likely to get a blank stare.

Janni Lee said...
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