Shady's Edgy YA (or sex, swearing, drinking, drugs, and violence in YA)

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Shady Lane

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QUICK NOTE: This post was written in July, 2007. The market is not the same as it was then. "Edgy" is not the buzzword it once was. But there are always new writers coming in asking what they can do in YA, so this is still relevant.

All right, I'm writing this on request, and I'm generally awful at writing long posts, so stick with me here.

Edgy YA is defined, for the purposes of this post, as a young adult book that your average adult would not want their child to read.

Consider how this has changed through the years. In 1951, people were shocked by the language in Catcher in the Rye. Even today, there is controversy between parents and schools when Catcher is taught as part of the school year. (And, in my opinion, not nearly enough of this backlash is about the book's being, well, crap. It's about the semantics--the language, the rebellion, the anti-establishment atmosphere.)

1967--My absolute hero, sixteen-year-old S.E. Hinton, is sick of reading the mid-century equivalent of Gossip Girls (in her words, books like "Mary Jane Goes to The Prom") and writes a little novel called The Outsiders. This book was written by a teenager, and yet parents still protested that this was something teenagers should not be reading. Murder, gang warfare, cigarette and alcohol use...and people freaked out.

But it was real. It was Miss Hinton's life. She watched a friend of hers get jumped by the rich kids at her school, and she wrote about it. And the parents in her town insisted that The Outsiders was inappropriate for their children.

Are you sensing the irony?

If you listen to nothing else that I say, listen to this: If you are trying to write true, honest, controversial young adult books, it's good to read Catcher in the Rye. It's good to read The Outsiders.

But you have to read Smack.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0060521872/?tag=absowrit-20

Smack is the modern edgy YA. Smack is heroin, alcohol, sex, rape, abortion, prostitution, racism, vandalism, idealism.

Smack is the scariest and most controversial book I've ever read.

But it's out there. And it's sold fantasticly.

And for every Smack, there's a Martyn Pig, or a Sins of the Fathers, or a Be More Chill, or a The Road of the Dead, or Under the Wolf, Under the Dog, or Doing It, or Little Chicago, or Go Ask Alice, or Rainbow Boys, or every single other book I've hidden from my parents on the walk between the shelves and the cash register, because I knew if they saw those covers, or read those jacket flap, I'd be faced with a "HELL, no."

I'm sixteen. I know what teenagers want, and I know what adults don't want.

So this is why I get confused when I see these threads full of people worrying that their books are too controversial to sell because they're not pretty-girl-trips-to-the-mall. And I get confused when I read that there are no good YA books out there, that they're all shallow and formulaic.

Are you kidding?

Where are you looking?

Look for Chris Lynch. Look for Francesca Lia Block. Look for S.E. Hinton. Look for Adam Rapp. Look for Marvin Burgess. Look for any book with an interesting title or an interesting cover. Look for anything published by PUSH.

I can't give you a list of agents or publishers looking for edgy YA. My only book that's been accepted is relatively tame, to be honest. But, look, those books are out there. Those writers aren't burned at the stake. They're winning awards. They're winning readers.

This isn't all bullshit. And YA books aren't all bullshit, either.
 
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reenkam

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I completely agree with everything said.

And I want to second the suggestion to look for anything published by PUSH.

Excellent post, Shady.
 

Esopha

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Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! I can't say how many times I've bitten my tongue while reading the threads where people question whether the YA audience can handle something as simple as rape or teenage pregancy or -gasp- drug use.

This is my school:
Everybody smokes pot. Everybody drinks. Crack and cocaine are common. There are at least five girls who are pregnant. There are gangs (sort of) and violence and all sorts of other wonderfully stupid things going on that make you despair for the fate of humanity.

My school is probably the safest, prissiest, my-daddy-owns-a-bigger-yacht-than-your-daddy high school in the country.

Please, please, please don't assume that young adults can't handle real life. Because that's what drugs, sex and violence is. Real life.

And that's all. (Go Shady!)
 

Nakhlasmoke

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Thanks Shady. Cool post.
I need to go read some of these titles. I wonder then where the idea that stuff mustn't be controversial comes from - is it from agents?
 

Harper K

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*standing ovation*

So this is why I get confused when I see these threads full of people worrying that their books are too controversial to sell because they're not pretty-girl-trips-to-the-mall. And I get confused when I read that there are no good YA books out there, that they're all shallow and formulaic.
Argh! Me too! My husband gets stuck listening to me rant about this at least once a week. It seems that anytime I find a new writing community, whether online or in person (I go to conferences, and I belong to a local writers organization), people always bring up questions about YA that make my eyes bulge out of my head. "I heard you can't use swear words in YA. Is that true?" "Is it okay to have kids drinking in YA books?" "I heard it's okay to talk about kids drinking, but if they're actually drinking, you won't get your book published." Say what? I was a squeaky-clean kid in middle school and high school, but that didn't mean that I wanted to read about kids exactly like myself. I didn't then, and, ten years later, I still don't. I don't write about them either.

Adults handicapping themselves with the excuse that they aren't teenagers anymore doesn't work for me either. Hit up the YA section at the library. Start with A. Read to Z. There'll be books to hate and books to love, fluff books and super-serious books, formulaic books and experimental books and everything in between... just like in any other section of the library.

I LOVE when I meet -- in person -- another adult who can ramble on and on about YA books with me. But it's so rare! At the last conference I went to, among all the aspiring writers of pink-covered books, I met this one woman, a 70-year-old retired teacher, who was a huge fan of edgy YA suspense novels. We sat in a corner and ate cookies and talked about YA books for ages. 'Twas wonderful. Wish I could relive that.

Cheers to the other edgy YA writers out there.
 

althrasher

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You know, I think like that sometimes too. I really enjoy reading the books that most people would shy away from. But part of me wonders if that may be because I'm a bit twisted myself. I mean, really, do most people want to read something edgy? Or just those of us with dark pasts and imaginations?

Just a thought. (And I'm still going to write it, regardless ;))
 

Shady Lane

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I've yet to meet a sixteen-year-old who doesn't have a twisted past, not to mention a twisted imagination.
 

Kate Thornton

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I know lots of sixteen-year-olds without twisted pasts, but I don't know a single one without a twisted imagination.

The books you mention - the edgier books (I have to laugh about S.E. Hinton - I worked in a public library when her books first came out - we couldn't keep 'em on the shelves!) are certainly available and popular.

But not all the teens I know even read. Sigh. I'd rather see them with anything than nothing (including S. E. Hinton's latest - childrens books - or Dan Brown, or Harry Potter or Tom Clancy)

Maybe Robert Cormier ("I Am the Cheese") could tempt them...Shady, have you read that?
 

Shady Lane

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Maybe Robert Cormier ("I Am the Cheese") could tempt them...Shady, have you read that?

Nope, but I will.

I know lots of sixteen-year-olds without twisted pasts, but I don't know a single one without a twisted imagination.

Hmm, I daresay you're not digging deep enough.

I'm not Shady (Or am I? Hmmm. . .)

For your peace of mind, I sincerely hope not. ;)
 

JLCwrites

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(Grabbing pencil, writing down PUSH and Smack) Thanks for the info. I am currently speeding my way through a RD of a YA that has a lot of violence. I was thinking of reading Stephen King before working on the SD to develop a better way to create suspense and fear in the reader. If you have any more YA examples, I would love to read them too.

Great post by the way!
 
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greywaren

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Yeah great post!!! I don't know what irritates me more - someone asking me if their book fits in YA WITHOUT HAVING READ ANY YA or when someone says, "Oh, you write for kids?"

Grrr . . . these are the same people who talk down to kids in their books and in person.
 

Soccer Mom

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I think a lot of people (especially those new to writing) don't understand the distinction between MG and YA and the "tween" stuff.
 

Shady Lane

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I think a lot of people (especially those new to writing) don't understand the distinction between MG and YA and the "tween" stuff.

You're absolutely right, and it's really a problem. YA is so much closer to adult than MG. I'm thrilled that there's a tween category developing...because right now the gap is sort of unpleasent.
 

Soccer Mom

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Yeah, I'm pitching my stuff as MG, but it's really tween. Edgier than your typical MG, but truly not YA.
 

licity-lieu

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Shady, you're totally on the money! I spent my childhood hiding books like Go Ask Alice under my bed. Actually, my mum found that book and confiscated it! My reading diet was questionable for that age--The shining at 12 for example. We read S.E Hinton and Salinger as school texts so I never quite felt like they were rebellious enough. My faves (shows my age:D ) where Paul Zindle and Robert Cormier. I am the Cheese is a cracker but you should also read After the First Death--awesome! Overall though, I read a stack of adult novels because there never seemed to be enough edgy stuff out there.

On one level it surprises me that the fantasy market, for example, is so huge, but then again I'm not that puzzled because this genre presents an escape for kids. I teach severely troubled teens. The ones who like to read don't want to read about other kid's who have crazy lives because they live it themselves. Having said that, my kids represent about 1% of the population, if that. I guess, in the end, it all comes down to the financial. Many writers don't want to pour 2 years into a book if it's not going to sell due to it's content. Much easier to hit on a variaton of the mainstream (a la Harry Potter) and hope for success.

I say all the way with edgy, Shady. Maybe it'll be you who writes the next big one!

ETA: I read an article on the weekend. The author being interviewed (Pat Barker) said that you should ask yourself 'what is the book you would write if you knew it would never be published'. Now that's liberating!!!
 
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Danger Jane

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Word.

(btw, everyone that even mentions the book Go Ask Alice gets a rep since the title is from White Rabbit)

I write fantasy, but it is definitely not Harry Potter derived, and I don't think I would call it escapist. It's not exactly edgy, but I didn't tone things down because I didn't think my peers could handle it.

By the age of around sixteen, practically everyone is ready to read the same edgy stuff as adults. But I guess since we suddenly hit this I WANT EDGY phase-thing, we want MORE edgy than adults. And we're generally old enough to handle it.*

*my sixteen year old sister didn't know what pot was until I told her a year or two ago
 

Storm Surge

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I started reading adult books before I was ten, and yeah, sure there's a lot of adult books I wouldn't like to read because of content, but then the same is true for YA. (I have enough teenage angst to deal with in real life without having to read about it too!) Any kid can go to the library and get out an adult book and read it. How can parents expect to keep their children from what they consider inappropriate content by keeping it out of YA?
By the way, Shady, what do you mean exactly by "a twisted past"? I'm wondering if I have one.
 

Shady Lane

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I started reading adult books before I was ten, and yeah, sure there's a lot of adult books I wouldn't like to read because of content, but then the same is true for YA. (I have enough teenage angst to deal with in real life without having to read about it too!) Any kid can go to the library and get out an adult book and read it. How can parents expect to keep their children from what they consider inappropriate content by keeping it out of YA?
By the way, Shady, what do you mean exactly by "a twisted past"? I'm wondering if I have one.

If you're wondering...chances are you do. Just your general psychological warfare, most likely.

And you're absolutely right. Besides, once a kid hits 14 or so, it's time for parents to stop trying to control what they read.
 

reenkam

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Am I the only one that didn't hide books in my room or anything? I just bought and read whatever I wanted. My mom never cared. Actually, my aunt got in a fight with my elementary school librarian because she told me I shouldn't read Stephen King.
 

Melanie Lane

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*my sixteen year old sister didn't know what pot was until I told her a year or two ago

Wow.

Awesome post, Shady.

And people wonder why some teenagers don't read... it never occurs to them that it's because they can say the plot to most YA books backwards and fowards. "Rich chick wants snotty boyfriend to ask her to the dance but rich snotty so and so won't let her and blah blah blah" or "halb halb halb dna reh tel t'now os dna os yttons hcir tub ecnad eht ot reh ksa ot dneirfyob yttons stnaw kcihc hcir'

I don't have to read edgy YA when school's in session. I'm lucky (or is it unlucky?). I sit at my lunch table and watch as drug dealers, gang members, and kids carrying concealed are arrested by undercover cops (who are stupid. They keep their handcuffs in their jeans pockets, so you can always tell lol.). I watch drug deals, hear about rapes, watch fights, and hand out pamphlets on options to my friends who have gotten pregnant - whether they consented to have sex or not. It's just a fact of life. *shrugs*

But in my opinion, kids/teenagers need to know what's out there in the 'real' world if they don't have good examples already. If we're sheltered with all these snotty YA 'omg he left me, the prom queen' books, all we'll ever care about is the new Louis Vitton line.
 
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