YA Books and Adult Situations: How Much Is Too Much?

An author friend of mine recently started a discussion about YA books and the types of adult situations authors are putting into them now, such as drugs, sex, divorce, abuse, and so on. I know that there’s been a lot of discussion about this topic in recent days, so I thought I’d bring it up here to see what you thought. On one side of the argument, teens need to read about realistic characters to whom they can relate. It’s an unfortunate circumstance of today’s society, but not every teen is going to grow up in the Leave It to Beaver style household, and those teens who don’t need to have books and characters they can identify with.

On the other side, how much of what teens read and see today influence how they act? Below is my response to my friend’s discussion. I’m fully aware that I may be in a conservative minority, but to each his (or her) own.

Indeed it’s true that a teen who has been abused, picked on, and so on finds comfort in reading about other teens who are going through–or have been through–the same experiences. Being a teenager is an extremely difficult and sometimes painful time for everyone. All you want is to feel normal and blend in with the other kids your age.

However, because of all these things, this is also one of the most influential times in a person’s life, and teens will do, say, or act however they feel is necessary so they don’t fall into the “weirdo” bracket. That means that if everyone else is reading about sex, drugs and alcohol, abuse, and language (or are participating in these things), they’re going to at least seriously consider doing them so they’ll fit in.

I think they should break down the overall YA section into more categories so that parents really know what their teens are getting in to. Right now, the YA category really falls under 13–14 year olds through 18–19 year olds (and in some cases slightly older). But in most cases, a thirteen-year-old kid isn’t going to be dealing with the same kind of life situations as, say, an eighteen-year-old high school graduate. Similarly, the thirteen-year-old shouldn’t be reading about adult situations and explicit things, such as rape, drug addicts, and so on. (If you don’t sell R rated movie tickets to minors, why would you sell books to them that depict the same things?)

I’m not saying that all YA/MG books should be butterflies and rainbows and marshmallow clouds; life isn’t like that. As teens, we’re gradually introduced to the adult world through life experience and education, and we should present adult situations in a similar way. I am saying that “YA books” that contain graphic scenes, lots of adult situations, etc. should be upgraded to the adult general audience and moved off the YA shelves.

Kids grow up too fast these days anyway. What’s the harm in letting them be children in their books for just a bit longer?

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6 thoughts on “YA Books and Adult Situations: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. The problem is that the age bracket is too wide. 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds barely relate. And finding a balance between them won’t solve the problem either, because anything “in the middle” will still be too much for 13-year-olds and “too baby” for 18-year-olds. It just depends, then, on marketing the book to a particular audience, if any at all possible.

    Great post and thoughts.
    -GD
    My writing blog: http://shelleddreams.wordpress.com/

  2. Great points! I agree that the bracket is too wide, but then the question becomes, how do we split it up? Would thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds appreciate being pushed into the “middle-grade fiction” category? I think “young adult” would be a better fit for ages sixteen and older, although the teenage group may not agree with me.

  3. I just responded to the discussion on my website. There are new categories being formed in YA. Lower YA (for the 12, 13, 14 yo crowd. And “New Adult” or “Upper YA” for the 18 and above. This allows a better distinction so age appropriate material can be accessed by those interested. I’m about to launch 2 YA series, one in the Lower YA (13 yo main character, still intelligent and independent but not the focus on romance) and one with an 18 yo main character with more adult themes.

    The truth is, those 18 and older are often married, with children, or dealing with very adult life issues. 13 year olds are not managing the same life issues. I hope! So maybe it’s less about NOT addressing certain subjects as just labeling books better so that the right book lands in the right hands.

    Thanks for this post 🙂

  4. Thanks, Kimberly! It’s nice to know that they’re working to change the YA genre. I feel like teenagers, whether they’re thirteen or nineteen, have a lot going on in their lives, and it’s nice to know they’ll be able to find age-appropriate reading material no matter what. 🙂

  5. Hey Melissa. This is a great post with a lot of great questions! I see your point when you say that the characters in the story need to be realistic.
    But I guess it all comes down to a question of relevance. Some authors tend to be superfluous in their descriptions of adult themes, when the insinuation that they actually occur would be far better than a detailed description. Thank you, your blog is wonderful to read!

  6. I wrestle with this a lot, since I read some YA books, and some of them (although wonderful) are a little … well … DARK for teenagers.

    I’m beginning to think we need a rating system for books, just like we have for movies, only more specific. I DO NOT support censorship at all, but I also do not support ignorant parenting. If there was a rating system, maybe the parents would be able to see what their kids are reading and say “yes” or “no,” depending on the rating. I don’t want kids to be sheltered, but I don’t want them growing up too fast either.

    Then again, I read tons of creepy stuff as a kid, and I turned out fine. Right? Right??!!

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