SF and Children's-Young Adult Fiction Moderator
upon a time...
used to be easy to know what you could, and couldn't, put in a children's book.
The rules were simple. No one swore. Violence was fine as long as it happened to
nameless spear-bearers, and sex was something better left unmentioned. Certain
subjects were off-limits, period, and whether you were writing short fiction or
novel length, to cross the lines meant a no-sale. Furthermore, the division
between children's literature and real' literature was distinct. Young Adult
novels, as we understand the term, weren't even considered a separate genre
until a few decades ago. After all, by the time children were ready to face
life's tough questions, it was assumed, they would have long ago moved out of
children's books and into more meaningful adult fare.
most subjects have, at one point or another, been tackled successfully in kid's
books. Beginning in the late1960's and 70's, authors began pushing the envelope,
changing forever the landscape of children's lit. Sex, violence, drugs and
alcohol abuse--in fact, nearly any social ill imaginable--have been the subject
of at least one teen novel. Unfortunately, for the writer struggling with her
own work in progress, wondering what subjects to broach or to avoid, this wide
latitude, rather than offering freedom, merely complicates the issue. How far
can a story stray into the darker side of human nature and still be a viable
there any taboos left?
not sure there are any taboos in YA books any more," says Annette Curtis
Klause, author of novels like Alien Secrets and her current Blood and
Chocolate, an acclaimed young adult werewolf novel. "--it's a matter of
presentation." She goes on to add, "Sex and violence are okay but not
gratuitous sex and violence. There has to be a reason for the action that comes
naturally out of the situation and the story could not be told adequately in any
other way. When the censor dogs come a-growling, there should be the
meat of an argument to throw down before them.
one is still not allowed to dwell too much on the graphic details, although it's
amazing how much one can suggest with the right words.
I'm amused by all the people who come up and tell me how surprised they
were to find all that sex in Blood and Chocolate.
I suggest they read it again. It's
all hot, steamy language and no actual penetration.
Perhaps violence with perverse sexual overtones is the last bastion
considering what I was asked to remove from The Silver Kiss. But that was over ten years ago, and look at Tenderness
(Robert Cormier, bless him)--perverse sex and morally ambiguous main characters.
think," Klause continues, "there are editors who are dying to break
boundaries and get a name as advocates of the 'cutting edge,' but the writer has
to present the materials in the right way. It's hard for me to say what the
right way is, however. It helps to
be 'literary' I'm sure, whatever the hell that means.
(Use poetic language and lots of long words that nobody understands so
they don't realize they are rude?)"
Atkins, author of When Jeff Comes Home, a young adult novel that touches
on more than one difficult subject, agrees. "I think the view on 'taboos'
is all over the map. Life is
Funny, by E.R. Frank, which came out last year, doesn't hold back on
anything. Graphic language, the most graphic sex scenes I've seen in a YA.
I thought The Beet Fields, by Gary Paulsen, was remarkable for its
honesty in its sex scenes, violence, and language."
also read two YA's from last year on controversial issues where the authors
seemed to be holding back. In my opinion, this lessened the impact of both
stories. But I don't know if the cautiousness was the editors' call or
her own novels, Cathy recalls, "One prominent editor told me that while it
is fine to depict sexually abused females in young adult literature, sexually
abused males are taboo. She told me this after When Jeff Comes Home had
already been published. She also
said neither girls nor boys would want to read about a sexually abused male.
Other editors, while When Jeff Comes Home was making the rounds, made a
point of saying the subject matter was not a turnoff for them. Some,
though, who are open to just about anything, may have personal buttons on topics
they don't want explored."
caveat, however, is offered by Delacourte Prize winner Amanda Jenkins. "The
only subjects that aren't acceptable are those that don't move the story or
develop characterization in a particular book. Editors and authors have to
decide what's okay and what isn't is on a case-by-case basis, so that one book
may be published in all its necrophiliac incestuous serial killer glory, while
another may get a kissing scene cut in the editing stages." She continues,
"I tend to think this is good for YA, because it keeps us writing tight. It
seems adult fiction is allowed to go off on long tangents, especially about sex
(perhaps about gore, too?); tangents that don't move the plot along or inform
the reader. I call that sloppy writing."
what about genre specific topics? While edgy' subjects are permitted, even
encouraged in mainstream young adult novels, are they as easily accepted in
kid's fantasy and science fiction? Linda Joy Singleton, whose twenty-plus novels
include the widely popular Regeneration series as well as the My
Sister the Ghost books, has this to say:
really isn't a separate SF/F genre for juvenile books, except related to
specific author names like J.K. Rowling and Tamora Pierce. But overall I would
say that I seldom see sexual/abusive scenes in this type of book, as the main
goal of SF/F books is escapism, not dealing with gritty reality. Or sometimes
reality will be masked in different languages and customs of another world.
the high end of YA novels," she continues, "I'm amazed at the language
allowed, whether by the main character or the protagonist.
It depends on the editor and the marketing. If a book has too much bad
language it will probably not sell to the school book club market and libraries
may put them in the adult section rather than YA. As for midgrade, it's rare to
see bad language, and using it could be risky for reviews and sales.
Singleton adds, "violence is too acceptable. An editor might cross out a d*mn
or sh*it, but leave in a blood and guts scene. Overall I would caution using bad
language or graphic situations except where important to the integrity of the
book. I applaud authors who come up with inventive ways of swearing or can
allude to violence without describing every blood drop and sword slice."
parting thought. You can't please everyone. Sooner or later you will write
something that offends someone. This is not meant to discourage you from writing
what's in your heart. Far from it. Write the story that you need to
write, and worry about the rest later. But keep in mind, the writer's path is
never so lonely as when you are blazing trails.