Boundbytheword Blog

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Too Much Grit in YA? July 13, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk lately about YA. Young Adult fiction that is, and the talk centers around just how much is too much. Gritty YA books that focus on social issues have come under attack and it has me nervous.

I’m a huge YA fan. We’re not talking the old Nancy Drew books here. We’re not talking Twilight either (though say what you will, Meyer has the angst of teenage longing down perfectly). I’ve read some YA in the last year that leaves adult contemporary fiction in the dust. Exceptional reads that leave you thinking about the characters long after you put the book down. Scars by Cheryl Rainfield educates and rips your heart out as it deals with abuse and self-harm (mutilation). It was up for a governor general’s award last year. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the first in a trilogy of dystopian novels that explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age. That book has spent more than 130 consecutive weeks to date on The New York Times bestseller list since publication in September 2008. Crank by Ellen Hopkins, is one of many in her verse novel series (a whole novel done in poetry) that deals with addiction to meth and the horrors that come with it. It was one of a series of seven books that all spent some time on the New York Times best seller list.

These books are not fluff. They are an immensely engaging read, they have characters that suck you in and won’t let you put the book down. You’ll drop your jaw once or twice, maybe more. These are books that make you think, make you dream, make you hope. It’s also likely you’ll clutch your chest several times and gasp aloud. But let me assure you, they’ll make you think.

All of these books and many more can be found in your local bookstore on the YA shelves. And they do sit alongside the books about vampires. They also sit alongside novels about shopping for the best dress ever and how life is unfair when you break a nail or get a bad haircut. Just like adult fiction, YA has a wide range of topics, a vast range of depth, and breadth of quality as well. But the fact that you can find anything out there now, to suit any kind of reader is fantastic. What did you read, after all, when you were 16? And wouldn’t it have been great to have a plethora of material to choose from?

I read YA with my 12-year-old son. I wouldn’t have a problem with him reading them on his own at say 15 or 16 years old, but even the Hunger Games was one that I read aloud to him at night so I could filter when I needed to, and discuss things when it was called for as well. I haven’t read the ones dealing with abuse or addiction with him yet, but they are on my shelf ready to do so when the time is right. Not that I would freak out if he read one on his own, but I want to be ready to have the conversation. I do like the opportunity to discuss social issues with him, and YA novels give me an opening to do that.

My struggle with YA comes from the writer perspective rather than the reader. My current work in progress, Life as a Teenage Mutant is a coming of age novel about a young girl dealing with sexual abuse and drug addiction. I wrote it as an adult commercial fiction, but the narrative voice (the main character Abby) ranges from 12-18 throughout the book. Mutant is gritty. Sometimes nasty. Mostly heartbreaking, but with a thread of resilience that draws on the strength of the human spirit. Abby’s voice is haunting and real, and is the very heart of the book. But there are abuse scenes, drug use, and sex. Not the Harlequin romance type of sex, but the bad choices kind of sex. The “makes you feel dirty, damages the spirit, but sometimes fun while it lasted” kind of sex.

And I am told by editors and agents and publishers that it is indeed a Young Adult Book, but I won’t lie; it makes me a little nervous. Like, somehow I fear my hate-mail might outweigh my fan-mail.

Here’s the thing: young females (and males) will read this book and be changed, that I know. This book will touch people, make them feel less alone. This book will send a message about understanding, empathy and kindness to people. This book will matter.

But – parents may hate this book. They may feel I’m glorifying a good buzz or promiscuity (though it clearly doesn’t look pretty on the page). High schools or libraries may think it’s too much too soon, and churches – don’t get me started – they might start prayer circles in my name. I don’t think I’d be a welcome speaker for Sunday school, let’s just put it that way.

I can’t Disney-down rape and its effects. The truth of it is Abby’s story is not crazy fantasy or non-believable fiction. Abuse and addiction affect every single person on the planet. If you’re lucky enough that it hasn’t touched you directly, count your blessings. But don’t be ignorant enough to think it hasn’t touched your life all the same. Fallout from the effects of abuse influence how you parent, how you connect with others, what kind of lovers you choose, how many lovers you choose, why you choose a lover, what kind of friend you are, and ultimately what kind of person you are.
It doesn’t always result in misery. Sometimes horrible things of all sorts have a profound impact that somehow spins into the side of light rather than dark. Things that in turn, make you a better parent or a more compassionate human being. But, if you think you (and in turn, your teenagers) haven’t been touched by the effects of abuse by someone in your life somehow – think again.

Isn’t it a good thing to let our children see the effects? Both the anguish and the resilience that comes from misfortune? Can understanding adversity create empathy?

So I ask you…what’s your take on the progression of YA books and the effect they are having on readers – young or old? Is there too much grit in our YA books, or are we simply and finally opening the doors for discussion and understanding?

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10 Responses to “Too Much Grit in YA?”

  1. Sheryl Botulenko Says:

    My mom let me read whatever I wanted growing up…better to be reading something, anything, rather than sitting like a zombie in front of the television….heck, she let me read the Flowers in the Attic VC Andrews series when I was 13.

  2. Dale Long Says:

    I remember when they banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover from High School. Made me want to read it to find out what the fuss was about. Turns out, there really wasn’t much to fuss about, at least not by today’s standards.

    I suspect the people that are having issue with YA are the very same people that watch Disney movies in slow motion, frame by frame, to find the word sex written in the swirling leaves. They must be the children of the people who listened to records backwards to find hidden meaning.

    Real issues are something that are sometimes hard and most times gritty but always educational. It’s the ‘real’, ‘hard’, and ‘gritty’ they have a problem with. Sex just for the sake of sex, drug use just for the glorification, or even gore just to be gory is unnecessary. When used in the right and appropriate context, they add to the story. Something you are very adept at.

    Don’t worry, history has been riddled with narrow-minded book bashers.

    • Thank you Dale. That means something coming from you, not only because of your brillant writing, but becuase you are the father of two teenage girls.

      Funny, my mom mentioned Chatterly being passed around from girl to girl in a home-made book cover. I guess we find our ways, right?

  3. Lisa Llamrei Says:

    I’ve read parts of your book and I wouldn’t have a problem with my kids reading it. I wouldn’t want them reading it at 12, but by 15 I’ll be encouraging them to read it. And Decara will be champing at the bit to do so because she’s always wanting to read what we pass around at Write Brains.

    When I was a teenager, I read books about drug addiction, teenage prostitution, abuse, etc. Today’s YA books are grittier, and more explicit, but they also tend to have stronger female protagonists (Twilight excepted) and more positive non-Caucasian characters as well. And the issues facing teens today are grittier than they used to be, or at least teens are more aware of them. Drugs were around when we were in high school, but we didn’t talk about it much and certainly our parents didn’t discuss it with us (I know mine didn’t). Now we have to talk with our kids because the drug problems are worse. Maybe if our parents had talked 30 years ago, they wouldn’t be. Books like “Mutant” are important for bringing issues out into the open and make teens aware of them. It’s unfortunate that our children have to be vigilant against pedophiles, addictions, eating disorders, bullying, etc., but being aware of them is the only way to eliminate them.

    May your book be banned by the church and may the pope publicly condemn it and ask that nobody read it. You couldn’t get better publicity than that. (That’s what got me out to see “The Golden Compass”.)

  4. Hi Lisa – I was lucky enough to speak privately with David Kent, wiho is the CEO of HarperCollins and you have echoed what he had said – about the banning part. (I guess that means you should be CEO of a publishing house!).

    I just hope it gets published!

  5. Stefanie Says:

    Hi Noelle,

    It’s Stefanie from Bent Pages. What a great night we had with you. Thanks for coming out! I think I might take your post on YA and use it with my 8s as a response journal to see what they think. I’ll let you know what they think! It could be interesting…

    • Hi Stefanie

      I would love if you would do that! I find young adult readers are hungry for novels with more than just fluff. In life they feel everything so intensely, it makes sense that they want to read that way too. Please let me know how that turns out.

      As for Bent Pages…what a fabulous group you are! I hope that I can talk you into reading Mutant one day – can you say eighties party??? 🙂

  6. Rhonda Says:

    My computer was in the shop and I missed this blog entry and I have to get my two cents in.

    My parental perspective is similar to Lisa’s. YA is a pretty large age range and not in numbers necessarily but in maturity. I think “Mutant” is a very important book and one that I want my daughters to read but later, when they are more mature, ages 15 or 16+. Besides, saying no at that point would probably be useless. We all remember sneaking that book that was “breaking the rules”. I remember us all crowded around the back of the bus reading exerpts from Judy Blume’s “Forever”. Shocking!! LOL.

    For now, I have SOME measure of control over the speed in which they mature, I will use it as long as I possibly can!

    • We all have those “sneaking in the pages” stories. Heck – I remember reading “The Joy of Sex” long before I should have seen it! LOL…it didn’t warp me…too much anyway.


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