Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

The Final Frontiers

by Justin Stanchfield
SF and Children's-Young Adult Fiction Moderator

2001, Justin Stanchfield

Once upon a time...

It 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.

Times have changed.

Today, 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 children's topic?

Are there any taboos left?

"I'm 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.

"And 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.

"I 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?)"

Cathy 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."

"I've 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 the authors'."

About 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."

One 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."

But 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:

"There 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.

"At 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.

"Unfortunately," 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."

Good advice.

A 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.