Friday 8 July 2011

Is Young Adult fiction safe for young adults to read? Discussing darkness in teen fiction

By Jackie Marchant
Guest Blogger

‘Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity’ Discuss.

Is it? Does it matter? Should we write this stuff? Should we rinse our pens out with soap and water and slap ourselves on the wrists for putting such depraved thoughts on paper?

I went to a recent CBC  meeting, where the recent outpourings from Wall Street columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon were discussed.


A controversial blog post Darkness Too Visible by Megan Cox Gordon recently sparked outrage from the most eminent echelons of the YA writing community. She described Young Adult fiction as "like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is".  Among teen books she mentioned were:  Go Ask Alice - drug addiction, rape, overdose; I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier - murder; Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler - self-injury; The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith - a boy is drugged and raped.

The panelists included Joy Court, past chair of CILIP  and co-ordinator of Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards; Bali Rai, a writer of contemporary fiction that may be described as an example of the above (but who has not as far as I know ever rinsed his pen out with soap and water); Julie Randle of Scholastic Book Clubs, who is responsible for direct selling of books to children in schools and Shannon Park, executive editor of fiction at Puffin.

The room was filled with publishers, writers, teachers, librarians and anyone with a passion for children’s books.

 It was billed as a ‘debate’, but although the discussion was lively at times, it wasn’t really a debate - because everyone agreed that the books Meghan Cox Gurdon was so concerned about deserve their place on the shelves of our bookshops and libraries.

The closest we had to disagreement was a suggestion that YA books should not be labelled as children’s books.

Parodies of teenagers by British comedians. Vicky Pollard (left) the obese juvenile delinquent motormouth, and (right) Kevin the Teenager, rude and sex obsessed

I think this is a valid point - there are content issues with YA books, which may well be inappropriate for younger readers. But YA books do carry warnings that they are not suitable for younger readers and their covers should reflect the age of the reader they are aimed at.


YA authors Katie Crouch and Gradie Hendrix write that the 'insane pace' of YA fiction is affecting quality

YA writer Tahere Mafi responds in hilarious fashion

Wall Street Journal publishes Gurdon's piece Darkness Too Visible

Provoking strong responses from YA literati Judy Blume, Neil GaimanLibba Bray and Sherman Alexie.

Maureen Johnson starts up a Twitter hashtag YAsaves which immediately goes viral.

Gurdon defends her essay in another Wall Street Journal piece.

Loretta Nyham warns in International Business Times that if YA Saves, there's a danger of equating the genre with self-help ... which isn't literature

Scott Westerfeld calls on teens to help their parents understand YA fiction

Here are the interesting points raised at the CBC debate:

• Young adult books differ from adult books only in the age of their protagonists. That means YA books have main characters their readers can relate to.

• Young adults should have the same freedom to choose what they read as adults. They will have access to adult books and will read them.

• It is not in the interests of publishers to take on books that won’t sell. If the teens are buying them, they will publish them.

Bali Rai is the author of
Killing Honour and (un)Arranged Marriage
• Some published and highly acclaimed authors were brought up in deprived inner city areas. They know what they are writing about and they do it well.

• There are a lot of ‘paranormal mums’ out there - a whole market of mums who can’t get enough of teen vampire books.

• Publishers do have a sense of responsibility. Violence must have consequences, sex must be in context, swearing must be in character and filling a book with violence and depravity for its own sake will never work. The most important thing is that the writing must be strong and engaging. (Hmm, wonder whether you’ve heard that before?)

• Reading is SAFE. Young adults can read about the real world and all its issues without going there.

• Reading violence does not make young adults violent, any more than reading crime turns adults into murderers.

Bali Rai in correspondence with Notes from the Slushpile had this to say:

I feel that reading is often under attack from some quarters and as such we should take every opportunity to defend books, the importance of reading for pleasure, and our right, as authors, to write challenging and boundary-breaking fiction without being vilified as a bunch of evil misery-pushers. Reflecting REAL teenage experiences is far too important to leave it to a morally righteous minority who forget that the 1950's and the rise of the teenager ever happened. Left to their own devices such people would have sixteen year olds reading the Famous Five and wearing Hush Puppies!

The one issue that cropped up over and over was quality of writing. That is what sells books and that is what us writers are aiming for.

So - where does all this leave us, the humble writer?

 The answer is simple - exactly where you were before.

 Write what matters. Write from the heart.

 And if you feel the need to write about the real world where teenagers meet abuse, violence and depravity, then feel free to write about it. As long as your writing is strong and engaging, that is what really matters.

Jackie Marchant writes humorous fiction for boys 8+, as well as YA fantasy. Her story Picture This was published in Scholastic's Wow! 366 - a collection of stories of just 366 words each.

Jackie lives in North West London with her husband, two teenagers, and a her ex-trainee guide dog. Jackie has helped train three guide dog puppies and now looks after guide dogs while their owners are away. She spends a lot of time walking in the woods, thinking about what to write and bumping her head on low branches.

Jackie is represented by Alice Williams at David Higham Associates. Photo: Rosie Marchant


  1. That sounds like it was an amazing discussion. My hope is that publishers do label books with warnings - or perhaps 15+ type labels. We have ratings on our movings - we need to on books as well.

  2. Sounds like a lot of common sense was spoken here. The whole of my PhD has been about this, or more specifically, the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol. And yes some of Bali Rai's books were included in my research. My research illustrated that there has been a change in that in some instances these 'issues' are more graphic but this is not a necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of books out there that do not include these things. Often for YA readers a book is a source of vicarious experience meaning they can partake in 'risk-taking' behaviour safely. They can work out who they are but perhaps more importantly who they are not. I hope they do not put ages on books but I am not going to repeat that argument here. But it was my understanding that there was to be a change in that YA was going to be split into 'teen' and 'YA' where YA is known to contain 'issues' as such. Jackie a great post, thank you for feeding back to us on this.

  3. It was indeed a great evening though, as Jackie says, not really a debate as there was very little disagreement.

    Ness - is your PhD finished? Did you look at the reluctant-reader fiction for teens that covers difficult issues but is written in language accessible to readers with a much lower reading age? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

  4. Jackie, thanks so much for reporting on this: I wanted to be there so much!
    I love that comment: 'reading violence does not make young adults violent, any more than reading crime turns adults into murderers'.
    I'm a bit of a wimp: working in a library and reading jacket backs of adult crime novels - yikes! - I wouldn't touch many of them personally, I wouldn't sleep for a month. But everyone, whatever age, has the right to choose what is relevant to them.
    And all those sweet little old ladies and gents reading horrific crime novels don't seem to transmogrify into villains. At least, not yet....

  5. ha, teri, how do you know what those sweet little old ladies and gents are thinking?

  6. So wish I could have been there, it's a topic dear to my heart! As I said on Miriam's pice on The Edge blog: The panel echoes what I've always believed and yet, in the past, argued with so many about. The reality is out there, in every other place from real life, the media, games, movies, stuff on the net - for too long writers have been dissuaded from facing the real issues as though fiction is somehow immune and needs to portray an "unreality" or a sanitised version of life - which does neither writer nor reader any credit. Kudos to the panel.
    Thanks so much for sharing, Jackie!

  7. Great post, Jackie - thanks so much for summarising the points raised and for including the links to the pieces which sparked the debate - so helpful.

  8. Candy, I forgot to say, thanks so much for inviting me to be a guest blogger on this wonderful blog.

  9. The only people who don't seem to be debating this are the young adults who buy the books.
    I'm not sure there should be warnings as there are with films, don't the cover and the blurb serves as warning enough. And anyway, kids can pass them round can't they if their parents won't buy them.
    Even with young people it's a matter of taste and what they are into at the time. I went through a period of reading books like a Child Called It for a while. But then overdosed and haven't touched one for years.
    So, I reckon as long as the books are brilliantly written they should be published. I probably wouldn't read them, but then, I write about trolls bottoms and they're not to everyone's taste, are they.

  10. Great post - very informative. Thanks Jackie and the Notes team.
    This is a subject close to my heart and the more I read about these discussion the better I feel about a couple of projects I have underway.
    Thanks again!

  11. I agree with Maureen, write a story off the page (as in leaping off it) and it will be read whatever. I'm more of an escapist myself and like to be transported away from grim reality. Trolls bottoms work for me.

    thanks so much Jackie!

  12. Trolls' bottoms? Now, that's what I call depravity!

  13. Thanks for this post, great to read about it having not been able to attend.
    I like Ness's suggestion that there should be teen books distinct from YA.
    I don't think it would be a good idea to have warning labels on books, and I like that the main thing that seems to have emerged is that it's the story and writing with integrity that matter most.

  14. ... but what's wrong with wearing Hush Puppies?

  15. Great post Jackie! Just to drop another side to the debate in - I was in a big bookshop recently, and a girl (probably around 11-12) was trying to buy a YA book, not sure which one. To her credit, the woman behind the till asked the girl if it was for her. When she answered yes, she asked her to fetch her mum, who wasn't far away, and proceeded to warn her mum that the book was really written for older kids, and contained lots of stuff that would probably be inappropriate for someone so young. The mum looked unsure but bought it anyway. All the shop assistant could do was advise she have a flick through it before letting her daughter dive on in.

    Two problems really: Are parents aware enough of how much kids books have changed? And what happens if the shop assistant doesn't know what age the book is written for? I love that YA fiction is so free about what it writes about - it's fantastic - but what that girl took home may have been far too old for her.

    Thanks again Jackie!

  16. Jo, I think you make a valid point. I think that YA books should probably have their own section in bookshops at least. And there aren't always booksellers about to advise.

    I gave my son 'a child called it' to read when he was about 13. I gave it to him because he thought I was a bad mother because I insisted on feeding him healthy food! But I would never have given that book to my daughter to read at the same age, or even older, as I know it would really upset her. But I knew my son could cope. I would never have given it to a child I didn't know either. Which makes me realise what a great job librarians and booksellers do.

    Of course, if a YA book proves too much for a younger reader, they only have to put it down.

    Oh, my son is now 18 and I'm still a bad mother!

  17. @Jo Scott Westerfeld's piece dealt with trying to educate parents to what YA is actually all about.

    YA Fiction really needs its own place in a bookstore - older teens really shouldn't be made to browse next to the picture books.

    Many booksellers now realize this and set up young adult fiction in appropriate locations - it's respectful to a very discerning readership.

  18. @ Candy - can there be a section for Adults Who Shamelessly Read Kids Books too? I don't like hunting for books standing next to 5 year olds either...

  19. @jo you can always go in disguise. refer to comedy teenager photos on the blog.

  20. I'm just not sure I could pull off a shell suit any more Candy. (Refer to comedy child photos of me hidden in some dark recess of my desk.)


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