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Does edgy YA fiction go too far?

Essay by Fiction Editor Julie McGuire

Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Witches, warlocks, and vampires. Cults of veiled women, and a society of Odd Fish. Do the edgy offerings for today’s young adults go too far? That depends on who you ask.

Bethany Griffin writes young adult fiction with an eye towards reluctant readers. What gets their attention? “Awesome dialogue that sounds real, that includes words that they say and hear regularly. And yes this includes the basest profanity you can imagine. Have you heard kids talking? I don’t mean to glorify it, but I do reflect reality. It’s crazy, but sometimes some interesting ’bad words’ are enough to convince a kid that a book is different and keep them reading.”

In Slate Magazine, Ann Hulbert presents the other side: “The cohort of parents...worry that YA literature...exposes a vulnerable young audience to moral decadence...” She continues, “...the content can indeed be pretty lurid—from fraught sexuality and awful divorces to child abuse.”

And what exactly is young adult fiction? That, too, depends on who you ask. There are ongoing debates among writers about what constitutes this immensely popular genre. Some believe any story with a young adult protagonist must be YA. Others disagree and insist that it’s the content, not the protagonist’s age that drives the designation. Wikipedia, the oh-so-helpful source that my teens aren’t allowed to cite in term papers, says, “The vast majority of YA stories portray an adolescent as the protagonist, rather than an adult or a child. The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character...The settings of YA stories are limited only by the imagination and skill of the author.”

It is difficult to ignore the proliferation of fiction geared toward young adults. A friend joked that she was going to change her novel’s main character to a teenager so that she could take advantage of the huge marketing frenzy aimed at teen readers. I’ve often wished I’d written Twilight, Stephenie Meyers’ wildly popular YA series. Vampires, werewolves, chastity, divorce, eternal love—people eat it up.

Peruse the YA section in a bookstore and you’ll see that almost no topic is off-limits. You’ll find books on sex, suicide, anorexia, homosexuality, divorce, mental illness, relationships, drug use, pregnancy, abuse, rape, and much more. As much as some parents may want to deny it, these are issues that face many young adults as they teeter awkwardly between childhood and adulthood.

Not one to straddle a fence, I fall solidly in the camp of letting children explore the world, even if it means they sometimes confront things that make them uncomfortable. I don’t believe that my sons (14 and 12) are going to want to be juvenile delinquents just because they might choose to read Adam Rapp’s controversial The Buffalo Tree, which The School Library Journal describes this way: “The brutal world of a juvenile detention center is the setting for this compelling story of survival and redemption, re-created through a thirteen-year-old’s inventive use of language.”

I know my kids are exposed to some pretty “inventive” language, and they know people who might end up in juvenile detention. When they start swearing, ditching school, flunking classes, getting in fights, and robbing a convenience store, then alarm bells will go off and I’ll know I’ve got some troubled teens. In the meantime, the fact that my sons—straight-A students—might want to read something “provocative” doesn’t bother me. Seeing them pick up a book and reading warms my heart. They can read all the controversial books they want with my blessings if they’ll turn off the PlayStation 3 more often.

My all-time favorite book—one I reread again and again—is Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson’s marvelous exploration of a boy’s grief and anger following a tragic accident. I know parents want to protect their children from adult situations; sometimes, however, real life happens and the protected child is ill-equipped to deal with it. Bridge to Terabithia helped me process my own grief after my 8-year-old cousin Michael drowned. Bridge to Terabithia has been banned again and again for its use of profanity, and for its frank discussion of death, a topic considered by some to be inappropriate for children. I say hogwash! My own boys didn’t like the book, but at least they were allowed to read it.

I’m not a fan of folks who condemn or condone something they know nothing about. So I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction. I’ve been put off by some—sorry, not crazy about reading about mean girls in boarding schools, and the nice girl falling for the gangsta and having lots of sex isn’t my thing, either. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved exploring YA. There are some great books out there. Here are my top ten, in no particular order:

1. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: a moving, sympathetic look at a teen outcast whose inability to speak about being the victim of rape has far-reaching consequences.
2. The Order of Odd Fish by James Kennedy: the bizarre, quirky, mischievous story of ordinary thirteen-year old Jo, whose life takes a strange turn and lands her in Eldritch City, a fantasy land with cockroaches as butlers, and cults of veiled women.
3. Boost by Katherine Mackel: an engaging, authentic portrayal of two sisters—one a skinny, awkward basketball player, the other a too-plump cheerleader—who go to great lengths to boost their games.
4. Paper Towns by John Green: for my full-length review of this phenomenal book (I’ve since read everything by Green), visit
5. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: if you haven’t read Gaiman, I’d suggest heading to the library or bookstore. He’s fantastic, and writes both for adults and teens. The Graveyard Book tells the story of Bod, an orphaned child adopted by the unearthly inhabitants of the neighborhood graveyard.
6. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: this book pushes the edge. It’s the frightening story of a post-apocalyptic North America divided into 12 districts, and a TV-reality show that has two people from each district vying for a life of leisure. Not winning is deadly. This is one that will keep you thinking, and watching your back to see who is following you.
7. The Way He Lived by Emily Wing Smith: Joel Epsen dies of thirst on a Boy Scout hiking trip. Or was it suicide? The six people closest to Joel try to make sense of Joel’s death in very different ways.
8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: The semi-autobiographical diary of a 14-year old Spokane Indian struggling to find his identity. Told in words and pencil-drawn sketches, this book has a positive message that is absorbed rather than hammered over the head. This novel also blurs the lines between YA and contemporary fiction. My 70-year old dad loved it.
9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: just when you thought nothing more could be written about the holocaust, along comes Zusak with his heart-wrenching and surprisingly beautiful story of a German girl who steals books, and who befriends the Jew hiding in her parents’ basement.
10. The 39 Clues by Rick Riordan: when I learned about Riordan’s book, I had to wonder just what lengths a publisher would go to market a book—online interactive website, trading cards or “clues” to play along—and then I read it. I played the online game, I collected the cards, and I used my clues to help find a mysterious fortune.

Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Witches, warlocks, and vampires. Cults of veiled women, and a society of Odd Fish. Do the edgy offerings for today’s young adults go too far over the edge? Not for this avid reader and mother of two teenage boys.

Julie McGuire, fiction editor of The Internet Review of Books, is a paralegal. Her personal essays and poems have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and several small periodicals. She and her family live in Virginia.

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This month’s reviews
anna letitia barbauld | big boy rules | brief reviews | british women poets and the writing community | called out of darkness | ceremonial violence | essay | fool | havana nocturne and havana before castro | lessons in disaster | nothing to fear | still i risee | the disappearance | the history of now | the hunt for planet x | the kindly ones | the tyranny of dead ideas | the vagrants | uncharitable | warlord

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