“Appropriateness” and YA Fiction

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I was excited to get a new book yesterday from an indie author. I spent several minutes scanning through the book (I know, I know! I’m bad like that. And yes, I did look at the ending.) I mentioned as I scanned through that the language was atrocious. But I knew it would be. This particular author curses like the stereotypical sailor. My husband then asked if the book was YA. It’s not. It’s intended for New Adult readers. He also asked about the smut level, which from what I can tell from a scan-through isn’t nearly as prevalent as some YA works I’ve read (I’m looking at you, SJM). The reason he asked is because he knows I draw some boundaries with my own work and have certain opinions about what is appropriate for YA reading. I thought talking about what’s “appropriate” for YA would make for an interesting conversation today.

I personally like to keep my work fairly clean, meaning little to no mild cursing (and only when I feel it’s essential to the story) and no on-screen sex, especially with YA. (Y’all, I just can’t ever publish anything too sexually graphic. The thought of my parents and male friends reading that makes me cringe.) I do have a lot of violence and rely on my betas to let me know when things may get too graphic. (I don’t have a problem reading a book with language and on-screen sex as long as I feel what’s there is essential to the story. I just hate anything gratuitous that draws me away from the story itself or feels as though it was just put in there for shock value or to titillate.)

I have a number of reasons for why I feel write the way I do. With YA, I’m super aware of the fact that some parents are concerned about what their children read, and I want to respect their concerns. And many school librarians will not stock something that is too graphic. Anything too graphic can also affect the marketability of a YA work. Besides that, I had a very conservative upbringing, which has influenced me greatly. But it’s hard to know where the balance is between being true to your work and keeping in mind the audience’s needs.

My friends and I were discussing this idea the other day. I’m in a writer’s guild and was looking through the forums. One of my fellow guild members is working on a Christian thriller and asked what level of violence was appropriate for inspirational fiction. The guild leader responded with something along the lines of “The Bible is dark,” which I thought was a great answer. There’s some hard-core stuff in there. But people have varying levels of sensitivity.  When I mentioned this forum thread to my friends, one of my fellow writer friends suggested that the best way to make an all-around unoffensive work that will appeal to the widest range of people (YA and up, of course) is to make it “PG-13.” That means a combination of little to no mild language, suggestive dialog, violence, or sexual situations, depending on the needs of the work.

That leads me to the idea of “rating” books. I have always wished there was a rating system in place for books like there is for movies. I would personally like an idea about what’s in a book before I pick it up. And I want my readers or purchasers to know what’s in my books. Commonsensemedia.org is a great resource for parents who are concerned about what their children are reading, but I think what I’ll do is have on my Amazon description something like “For ages 12+ for violence” and so on for my YA books. I just like the idea of being upfront (and that should help if somebody comes back later and complains).

So, what are your thoughts about sex, language, and violence in YA? Is it up to the author to write whatever they want (knowing that “whatever they want” may negatively impact the reach of their work) and let the parents/librarians/teachers draw the line about what they will allow? Should authors censor their work when writing for a younger audience? Should authors give a warning if there is anything graphic in their YA work? I’m curious what you guys think.

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