Monday, April 16, 2012

Do YA Writers Have a Responsibility to Readers Who Are Young Adults?

Happy Monday, sweet readers!
(Just a reminder, I won't be replying to comments for a week or so at least. Check out my housekeeping note for more, if you want. I still love your comments, and especially YOU!)

Being a writer for Young Adults is an incredible privilege. The teen years are a time when many people fall in love with reading, and to write books that they might pick up and that might have a really big impact on them is SUCH an exciting endeavor.

 I love teenagers. Half the people I work with are teenagers. I think they're awesome. I love talking with them. I love watching them learn to navigate new phases in life. I love that they're some of the most passionate people on the planet. I love their enthusiasm and the way they're sucking up learning like super-advanced sponges and thinking of new ways to use information.

In short: I think teenagers have a lot to teach us.

Just because "adults" have lived more years doesn't mean that we approach the world in a better way.
Problem is, a lot of conversation I see floating around the writers' community is what we need to teach them.

More accurately, the question of "Do we have a responsibility to write - or not write - a certain way for teenagers?"

Some examples:

Do we have a responsibility to only present healthy relationships as desirable?
Isn't it most responsible to be realistic about what balancing life in the real world is like?
Is it okay to write about sexual assault (or other potential triggers) in YA? If we do, must we write about it a certain way?
Shouldn't we put a warning on books containing homosexual content?
Is it okay write about teenagers having sex?
          If it is, is there a certain way we should write about it?
          Is that 'certain way' only if we're using it as an opportunity to educate about sex?
          Don't we want to "protect" teenagers from "overt sexual references?"
Overall, is YA literature "too dark?" Shouldn't we try to curb that?

Now. Some of these posts open up great conversations, and others make me want to scream and throw things. (I'm sure you can guess which are which.)

But here's my answer to the question:
Do we as YA writers have a responsibility to write YA fiction in a certain way to communicate certain messages?

Absolutely not.

And here's why: Teenagers are people. They have brains. 

They can use those brains to read stories and think about them critically.
They can talk about them with their friends, or their siblings, or their teachers, or maybe even their parents.

They have an inherent sense about what's okay and what's not okay FOR THEM.

We need to remember that writing is powerful, and it's a privilege, but it's not mind-control. You might think you're sending one message with your story, but anyone reading it might get something completely different from it.

You can't control that. You just can't.

(Now, whether or not your story will get you signed, or will get published, or whether people will like it or despise it is a completely different topic.)

But I will say this. No kid ever picked up recreational masturbation just because they read Catcher in the Rye.

Honestly, if I hear "teenagers are impressionable," "teenagers are emotional," "teenagers are self-centered," "teenagers are super-susceptible to peer pressure," "teenagers are flaky," or "teenagers are very body-conscious" one more time, I'm going to throw up. Because, yeah, they are. Except for the ones that aren't. Same goes for grownups. Same goes for EVERYONE, okay?

Enough with the generalizations.
Just write the story. Make it a great story, and write it beautifully.
Make no assumptions.

Teenagers can decide whether a book's for them, or whether they like the messages it sends, all on their own. Being above 20, or 25, or 30, does not imbue someone with some magical power that makes them capable of pontificating on what is or is not "okay."

Teenagers are people.
They have brains, and they can think for themselves.

If you can't accept that, and if you can't write books that acknowledge that, don't write YA.
Because the one way we should never, ever write Young Adult Fiction is disrespectfully.

What do you think, sweet readers of the writerly type? Do we have responsibilities to our Young Adult readers? And reader-types...what's your take?


  1. YES!!! And yes again!!!

    When I was growing up, my parents both worked full time and my sister and I were left home with nothing to do all summer but read and watch TV. And what we watched most was MTV, complete with videos that are overtly sexual, or depict gang violence, or what have you. But did either one of us grow up to become strippers or gang members or high school drop outs?

    No. Because all we wanted to do was listen to some freaking music. We understood that it was there for entertainment value. And the values we'd been raised with outweighed anything we might have seen in a 2-minute video clip on TV.

    Same with books. You're absolutely right. They're written to tell a story, to send a message - TO ENTERTAIN, and people can take from them what they will. But no one is going to base their entire thought process on something they read. And if they do, well, it's sad that they're just that impressionable.

    Great post, my dear.

  2. The only thing I feel I should do is open minds. Instead of thinking "oh no, I can't write about violence because then my readers will be violent!", I trust my readers to make up their own minds. Teenagers can, and want to, deal with tough subjects; shielding them is not helpful.

  3. I agree to an extent. I was raised in a situation where I knew of things happening, but was never really exposed to them firsthand - for which I'm grateful. Therefore, I like books where the ideas are there, and issues can be faced without actually seeing the sex, or taking the drugs, etc. That's how I write, I think. Does that make sense? Hope so... lol. Great Post Leigh!

  4. I also love teenagers, especially late teens - I work on a college campus, and I *love* it. Like, LOVE it. Do they make me feel older than my almost-27 years sometimes? Heck yes. (And sometimes I want nothing more than to grab their shoulders, give them a good shake, and the best Big Sister lecture possible, haha) They also help me keep my finger on the pulse of the world. People who make the argument about keeping X or Y out of YA literature clearly don't see the world. If we're going to censor the reading, shouldn't we censor the news? Life is messed up. Like HUGELY messed up. The real, honest-to-God true stories of the actual people inhabiting earth -- including, gasp, teenagers -- make my heart ache. There are people who go through hell, or who know people who go through hell, and I think we owe it to these young readers, these people to let them find some form of "answer" in their reading. If the only YA books available are happily ever after, roses & candy stories -- how does that make the kids who've NOT had that life feel? Even more outcast? I can understand the wanting to protect the children - but how far does protecting extend? To the point of excluding everything but the perfect (and unattainable)?

    At the same time, there are lines I think. Though actual reading decisions should be made by the readers (whether wholly on their own or in agreement with parents/guardians/whoever), we need to make sure what they are reading is GOOD. You know, a worthwhile story and not just disjointed scenes strung together with whatever weird or random filler sticks. A GOOD story - a story that lives - with characters who are real, relatable. I think we owe readers - young adult or otherwise - the best story possible.

  5. That's a bit like saying that teachers aren't responsible for what they say to teens in the classroom because teens have BRAINS. They can think for themselves.

    I'm sorry, but stories are one of the ways that people learn. That's why we've been telling them since the beginning of human society. We learn a lot of our social skills and standards from stories. That's what they're for, really. Entertainment is just a way for our brains to experience situations we might not actually come across in our daily lives and thus to learn from it.

    So, yes, you are responsible for what your stories teach to people. Does that mean you have to write a certain way to protect people? No. But it's something you should be keeping in mind whenever you write a story. You should remember that your story will effect people. Think about that while you're writing. Think about what people might learn from your writing and whether or not you're comfortable about what they might take away from your work. Because you are responsible for the negative things you teach people through your stories. It doesn't matter if they're kids, teens or adults. You put that stuff in their brains. If it changes them, you are responsible.

  6. Sarah, I have to comment -

    When I write, I write for me. I'm the only person I can write for. I'm not writing for someone else, or for an audience, or for kids, or adults, or anyone other than myself. I hope the output is something others would like to read, and I hope the output is enjoyable, but I don't feel obligated to write to anyone else.

    I have gotten feed back that my writing has too much profanity for teenagers. My response to that? How many teenagers have you been around lately? Are they all in church? Have you talked to the same teens outside of church.

    I think people write with a purpose, and my hope is that the purpose is to let their own creative animal out. I hope they are writing with a passion that has nothing to do with anyone else.

    If kids learn anything from that type of writing I hope that it is to have passion, express emotions, be creative, and dream. Teens have lots of angst and conflict generally. The best way to handle that is to express it!

    So that this isn't actually anonymous, my Twitter is @societyofsix - R. Scott Whitley

  7. I guess I don't feel like I have a responsibility to write about strong females or healthy relationships, but I feel like since that's what I want to write about, then that's what I'm going to write. to me, it doesn't matter whether they're teenagers or not, or whether teenagers will read it or not.

  8. I don't necessarily feel like we need to shield teenagers from the world... I mean, they live in it. Sucky things happen to us, and stories are pretty much required to have crushing trials in them. But we do need to be aware that as writers we DO have influence. Great books I've read are still there in the back of my mind... and I can't help but remember the violent/sexual/profane things in them as well. I can't say I've ever specifically done something because a book condones it, but I can tell you that I've been so disgusted or horrified that I had nightmares because of a book I was reading.


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