On Young Adult Fiction

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I’m being asked about writing Young Adult fiction a lot. (Go figure.) I can point to this post, where I could finally announce that Strange Angels had sold and went on to talk about YA, bullshit, and low expectations. That was a year ago, it’s probably time to revisit the subject.

I’ve mentioned in a few interviews lately that I never thought I would write YA. I knew, even starting out waaay back when, that I was not going to be very, well, PC as a writer. I write dark little stories full of violence and profanity. This would seem to preclude going into any genre where “won’t someone think of the CHILDREN?” is not just a sarcastic tagline. It just never occurred to me such a career move would be possible.

I mean, I had drabbles and finished novels where the protagonist was between the misty rocks of 13 and 20. I don’t care how old a character is, if they serve the story, fine. They’re in. The problem with those drabbles and novels (issues of first-draft quality aside, thank you) is that the kids in them cursed and bad things happened to them.

In the “young adult” fiction I read growing up, the kids weren’t allowed to cuss and the “moral” was always evident like the shape of a body under a blanket. The classics that could be trusted to tell the truth–like, say, The Outsiders or Judy Blume‘s stuff–were good, but they were so few and far between. I started reading adult fiction at nine years old, with (I will admit this) James Clavell’s Shogun.

I’ll just let that sink in for a second. Let me tell that story. It might be instructive.

I was nine. There was a wooded path to some small shops behind our back yard. The shops were a sort of 1980s rural British version of a strip mall or a stop’n’rob–one sold what I’m sure was lingerie and other, ahem, erotic materials (I never went in, being uninterested in lace knickers), one sold tchotchkes and cheap commemorative tea services, and the most popular sold candy, I think cigarettes, small figurines of animals[1], comic books, and racks of mass-market paperbacks. I didn’t have much money and I was tired of kid books, so I hied myself down to the store and bought the thickest book I could afford. I figured more for my money, right? I took it home, hid it, and had eye-opening reading material for WEEKS. The book starts out with scurvy and shipwreck on the coasts of Japan, a peeing-on-main-character-to-humiliate-him, political skullduggery, lots of fisticuffs and swordfights and muskets, and (gasp!) a Romance. With actual smexxors, or what passes for them in a Clavell book where the favored euphemism was “pillowing.” (Historical or linguistic verisimilitude aside, I found that hysterical and STILL DO.)

To my uncritical nine-year-old self, this was the Best. Thing. Ever. (I can trace my obsession with katanas to this one unfortunate childhood moment.) It was a Real Book. With Real People doing Real Things I knew grown-ups did, like sleeping in the same bed and cussing. From that moment, I read adult fiction and very rarely, if ever, trundled over to the YA section of the library or bookstore. I had found a brave new world of people who spoke the way I knew real people spoke, and very little was off-limits. (God bless the librarians who gave me curious looks but never stopped me. Librarians RULE.)

Things changed in the very late 90s-early naughts. I was well past high school but I found myself reading more YA, and not for nostalgic reasons either. It seemed to me there was a sea change in the YA slice of the publishing industry, and suddenly taboo subjects–obsession, drug use, even cursing–became a little more okay to talk about. I came across this with LJ Smith, whose Forbidden Game series I ate like candy. It featured an obsessive, stalking otherworldly male (sound familiar?) after a confused teenage girl, and there was real risk–dude, Smith killed a character in the first book! Sure, she brought her back later–but it was heady stuff in a YA.

I started reading other young adult titles after Smith reintroduced me to the genre, and YA seemed a lot better. The new books that were coming out had risk, rewards, the occasional bad word. They were a lot truer to the experience I remembered of being that age, under the strictures of school, hormones, and the crushing non-perspective of youth.

For example, I read Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland in 2000, when I was *mumblemumble24*, and was stunned at a young adult author taking on the subject of teen dating violence[2]–something I had suffered, but that I had never seen directly addressed in a book before. It was like someone had reached back into a trauma of my youth and said, someone else dealt with this too. Your feelings are normal, you’re not alone.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried.

It could be that the “sea change” I perceived in YA was just a result of my own limited experience, but I don’t think so. I was an omnivorous reader, hungry for just about anything that rang true. If YA books that spoke directly to my own experience would have been available, I think I would have found them. I think those books–the true speakers–have become much more common and have an easier time getting published as the YA genre has loosened up a bit. It could be kids getting more buying power, or the effect of MTV (back when it used to play music instead of Jackass) and a youth-obsessed culture, or publishing following the loosening of certain social constraints. I’m just grateful it’s happened, as a reader.

As a writer, though, I still never thought I would write YA. It took an editor point-blank asking my agent if I’d consider it before it even occurred to me as a possibility, and even then I made very sure the publisher knew what they were getting into. Particularly in the matters of violence and profanity. You’re not going to get a sweetness-and-light story out of me. It just ain’t gonna happen, honey, so you might as well not try. I can do certain limited short stories with a bit of light humor and happy endings, but there’s still the gore factor.

I write from a dark place, and I’m okay with that.

Profanity, too, is something I’m okay with. Like it or not, it’s how people talk. The trick in profanity is to use it appropriately.

People asked me if I was going to stop cursing when I had a kid. I really thought about it, and my answer ended up being, “F!ck, no.” In the privacy of my home I will cuss if I want to. But how to make sure my kids didn’t end up being filthy inappropriate little bandits without being a total hypocrite and saying “do as I say, not as I do?”

My answer: timers.

Here’s the deal my kids under 13 get: “Certain words are Big People words. They are used appropriately (and sometimes not) by Big People. Little People probably shouldn’t use those words, but I know you’re curious. Whenever you want to use those words, you let me know, we’ll set the timer and I’ll leave the room, and for two minutes you can say whatever Big People words you want.”

Then comes the pause and the Mommy Look. “I know you’re going to cuss when you’re out of my sight. Be careful with that.”

And you know what? Having an avenue to express those words takes all the fun out of the forbidden-fruit of saying them. We’ve only used the timer once or twice, and each time the kid in question actually didn’t want to cuss because it wasn’t fun anymore. I’m told how remarkably good-mannered and clean-mouthed my children are in public or social situations, and I just smile. The timer–and watching me clean up my language in certain situations when I’m on duty to be appropriate and reasonable–teaches the little ones all they need to know about how and when to use the Big People words.

Kids aren’t stupid. They’re hungry for answers, and they will find them wherever they can. I’m glad of young adult books taking on a wider range of issues more true to children’s experiences. I’m glad that I told the publisher “this is what you’re going to get from me” and they replied, “We’re behind you.” At the end of the day, whether I’m writing for adults or young adults, I’m seeking to tell the truth. The truth is that being a kid can be, and often is, just as dangerous and profane as being an adult. I’m thankful for the chance to tell the sort of story I wanted to read when I was fourteen.

I hope to do so again.

[1] I bought so many of those. Wow. And now I have not a single one. It’s amazing. I wish I could remember what they were called–little ceramic animal figurines available in Britain during the 80s.
[2] Please also check out Loveisrespect.org.