Sunday, June 5, 2011

YOUNG ADULT AUTHORS - STORYTELLERS OR GATEKEEPERS?

Current listen:  "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" courtesy of Coldplay
ong from one of my favorite groups.


My blog today is on a serious note and comes from a personal level. In other words, my opinion only. I'm certainly not railing against any of my fellow authors, because if one of us gets ensnared in censorship, we all do.  I also want to credit my thought wave to a blogpost I read today written by Alethea Kontis [AltheaKontis.com], another young adult author who alerted our writing group to an article in the Wall Street Journal, attacking young adult authors. Below is the link, if you're interested. When I read it, I found myself wearing two hats. One, as a parent, and another, as an author in the young adult genre. Interesting twist in that the article borders on suggesting censorship which would take away my freedom to write what I want, but a journalist can write what they want? Hmm. We're both authors, are we not?



If it doesn't connect, try Control + clicking or go to website www.wsj.com and do a search.


In March, I posted a blog about story characters' morals not always matching the author's. The article above talks about the "subject material" of today's young adult literature. This loosely links with my earlier post in that some may find my stories to be inappropriate. I will admit, my books will not be on the shelves of religious bookstores. My characters aren't sugar-coated nor are the conflicts they face and how they handle their lives. But dark? Not really, but conservative critics may say otherwise. I write romance...the happy ending...and although there is a "dark moment" (necessary to any story), I write "hope" or light at the end of the dark tunnel. But I do not soften the dark moment.


Here's the dilemma that plaques young adult authors. When is too much detail "too much?" The article lists several books dealing with dark subjects, surprisingly adding a few fantasy based novels into the mix. According to the Wall Street Journal, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy is rated as one of the top ten most violent books for young readers. I've read all three books and recommend them to any young readers. Violent is not a word I'd use to describe her writing. Yes, there are attacking mutants, and the protagonist is thrust into the middle of a game of survival played out in real life instead of on reality TV, and the stories show how she survives and wins. It also shows what happens to her on a psychological level. Something very real in the fantasy. But, it is a fantasy. Now, who knows what will happen in the future, especially after an apocalyptic event, but to say that Suzanne Collins is responsible for planting violent thoughts inside young minds isn't fair. She simply created an imaginary world with imaginary characters doing imaginary things, but feeling very real, acting real, and the emotional aftermath real.


That's what readers, in particular young adult readers, identify with. The feelings and emotions of the characters. They find a piece of the character that relates to them, what they're feeling or whatever hell they may be going through (and with teens "hell" has many connotations depending on the day) and how that character made it through, showing the reader how to trudge through their own real life situation.

But, is it fair to put the responsibility solely on an author as to what thoughts are inside a young mind? The article sides with parents blaming young adult authors for planting dark or inappropriate thoughts inside impressionable minds. Are we authors the "gatekeepers?" If our characters drop the "f-bomb" does that mean sweet Jimmy will now use it in his dialogue? Or if a character has sex with a boy before marriage, or at least before college age, and innocent Sally reads about their forbidden love, will she suddenly decide to surrender her virginity? No. If Jimmy swears or Sally has sex, it's their choice. Believe it or not, our youth have minds of their own (although a few times I questioned if my teens' heads were actually empty).

I will not deny that there are some dark stories in the young adult genre, nor will I deny I enjoyed reading some of them. I tend to like edgier stuff. It's more realistic to me, and I assume, the same holds true for a teen reader.

This world is different from even ten years ago, and bad things happen to good kids. Dark crap surrounds them. Again, their choices are their own to make as are the consequences they suffer, but sadly, they can become the innocent victim for someone else's bad choice. That's what these stories deal with. Reality. The reason they sell isn't because a teenager is looking for a "how-to" book on rape, hazing, or using drugs. They know other teens, friends, or they themselves have been the victims of some type of abuse, and they want to identify with someone else, even a fictional character, who has experienced the same thing. How did that character handle it? Did their thoughts mirror the ones running through the reader's mind? And, what happened after? What coping skills were used, what choices were made that brought the character's story to an end...good or bad?

The dark moment in Riley's Pond deals with "date rape." Not a comfortable subject to write, but a very real happening in our teen's world. My story deals more with the characters coming to terms with what happened and working through it, than the act itself, but that's the level I write from. Designer Genes is all about the sexual tension between the teenage characters, set in a futuristic time when the government decides everything, including with whom and when they are allowed intimate relations, in order to keep the gene pool pure. 

A book about a girl who cuts herself to alleviate the emotional pain she suffers from the real pain of being abused, or the gay high school boy who suffers a horrendous hazing at his classmates hands, almost taking his life, are extremely dark, but real. Fake characters, but characters that are relatable to young readers, with lives mirroring theirs or someone they know.

Should parents just let their kids read anything and everything then? Certainly not, but don't blame the authors who write reality. What's not right for your child, may be exactly what another one needs. If your teen is reading something you are uncomfortable with, talk. Don't just "forbid." Maybe you'll both learn something.

Before I close my rant, I want to recommend three"dark" books I found invaluable and wished were printed when my daughter was in her teens. Sarah Dessen's Dreamland is unforgettable and an eye opener into abusive boyfriends. Parents should read as well. Teens are famous for hiding things from parents, especially if "love" plays a factor.  Sarah Dessen's Just Listen and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak deal with the importance of "telling" about abuse. One character does, the other doesn't, and although the consequence of choices is polar opposite, the emotional hell both characters go through is the same, as well as the final outcome. The difference, without telling, someone innocent gets hurt. Great books.

Like I said earlier, I like the edgier reads in young adult and most adult genre, too. Again, thanks to author Alethia Kontis for my inspiration. Oh...and a personal thank-you goes out to author Judy Blume!

Here's to life! Make it your own, but make it your best. Thanks for dropping by. 

6 comments:

Debora Dale said...

If we could shelter our kids from horrors in life and expose them only to rainbows and kittens, we would do so. Unfortunately, reality is often perverse - think of the Casey Anthony case and all the gory details of a murdered toddler, think of Jaycee Dugard who was kidnapped at age 11 and raped repeatedly, baring two of her rapist’s children and not seeing freedom for 18 years. These are facts. Actual events.

I don't want my child to be traumatized by a work of fiction, but I feel if the protagonist finds his or her way out of their personal hell, then that signals hope to my child. And, just maybe, all along my child would have seen the bad choices the protagonist was making and realized there were better options. And, imagine this, my child might even discuss the book with me if I show an interest in it and in her. It does happen.

I'd never squash my daughter's appetite for new reading material but I would always try to be part of the experience on some level. Fiction is just that - fiction. And as an author of fiction you have creative license. I say use it anyway you'd like. As for the WSJ journalist... everyone is going to have their hot button issues. It's up to the parents not a journalist to decide what their children should or shouldn't read. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

catierhodes said...

Young Adult literature has come a long way, baby. Twenty-five years ago, Go Ask Alice was about as intense as it got. We had Sweet Valley High and Cheerleaders. Lois Duncan's book were great reads, but they were nothing like what's available now.

Teenagers twenty-five years ago had many of the same issues teens have now, but it was all kept very quiet. I remember reading The Chocolate War for the first time and loving it for its realism. When your literary world is Sweet Valley High, the Chocolate War seems very edgy in comparison.

By the time I was eleven years old, I was reading Stephen King, Jackie Collins, and Robert R. McCammon. I had "outgrown" young adult literature. Looking back, those books were too old for me. However, series like Rachel Vincent's Soul Screamers, Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy, and Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires wouldn't have been. And I would have liked those books.

Anyway, I said all that to say I think the new Young Adult books are amazing. I think the authors who write them are the stuff of awesome. I envy young people for having these deep, well-told stories to read.

Angelique Armae said...

I've picked up a few recent YA books, all edgier than stuff I read at that age, but all good. I agree there are some awesome authors out there today.

Sandy said...

Just teach a day in a junior high school and you will hear stories that make the current YA books tame by comparison -- not to mention the language. Alas, we cannot return to a sweeter, gentler time (If there ever was one).

Calisa Rhose said...

Wow. As a parent, I watched what my three girls read growing up. But I never told them they couldn't read a book they chose, except once with youngest dd. That book was on a list of 'reads' for her junior year. I don't even remember the book today, but something about it, the time in our lives, where we were mentally- it struck a bad note for me. I may have even questioned the teacher's choice in acceptable lit. But I don't censor my kids' ability to make right and good choices. They understand real and imaginary. Even if those lines blur at times, they have enough sense to maneuver it.

Now, speaking as the preteen I once was (eons ago) I would like to add a book to your recommendation list. I read this book when I was 11 or 12. It stuck with me all these years, had a huge impact on me in that it showed me that life isn't all roses and hearts at a time when I thought it was. Life- especially for young girls- is real and in our faces. We Do need to connect with someone real or not. Now I'm not saying I am insane, though my family may disagree, but Lisa: Bright and Dark touched a chord with me enough that to this day I remember her emotions and fears even if the actual story line has faded from my mind. I guess I related to her (Lisa) as the sympathizer and not an empathizer. I became more aware and it helped me when I saw signs of trouble in a friend years later. It also helped me to help her. It goes to show that we take what we need from any book, whether we relate directly to what the character goes through, or we see that character in someone we know.

http://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Bright-Dark-John-Neufeld/dp/0141304340

J. Coleman said...

I forgot about Lisa: Bright and dark. Thanks Calisa.

Thanks for all your comments. This hit "home" for me on many levels. As a young adult author, I hope I write stories youth can identify with, and if it helps them through a personal struggle, I'm more grateful for my talent and that they found me.

No matter how much mud they sling at young adult authors, one factor can't be disputed. This is the first generation of youth that is actually reading for enjoyment. The fact a whole new genre was created and sales are exploding, is proof. I'm proud to counted among them.