When Should You Censor Your YA Novel? by Jack Heath
Most people under the age of 20 wish to be treated as adults. The difference between teens and pre-teens is that teens can tell when they’re being treated like children.
For this reason, no concept is too adult for a young adult book. Murder, suicide, rape, drugs, euthanasia – I read about all of these before my sixteenth birthday, and enjoyed doing so. I felt like I was being shown the world as it was, rather than as it should be, which is what pre-teen fiction does. (As a side note, this is why classic fairy tales, with their passive heroines and sensible monarchies are problematic, but that’s a topic for another article.)
Your readers will want to be treated like adults, but your customers are not your readers. Your customers are your readers’ parents, who will want their children to be treated like children. This creates an unfortunate paradox. If you write a book that parents will buy, your readers will hate it; but if you write a book your readers will like, they’ll never get the chance!
The secret, as in so many areas of life, is balance. You shouldn’t scatter adult themes throughout your book for their own sakes, but nor should you pull your punches. Leave what is essential to the story and take out what is not.
If you want to err on the side of caution, but you’re not sure which side that is, I recommend writing fiction which is too adult rather than too childish. Your publisher can help you reign it in if necessary (whereas they are unlikely to assist you in pushing the envelope). Be wary of dependence, however. My newest teen book, Dead Man Running, includes a scene in which the main character tears the head off a corpse as uses it to beat a man to death. I felt certain that my publisher would ask me to remove this, but they did not. Now the book is published, leaving me to wonder whether or not I went too far.
English teachers and librarians are here to help. They buy lots of books, and they do it based on quality rather than perceived appropriateness. (Although sometimes they can be hamstrung by parents in horrifying ways; a teacher librarian at a private school recently told me she was forbidden to purchase anything with the merest hint of homosexuality in it.)
There is some good news. Things are getting better. Parents now feel more threatened by video games and the internet than by controversial books. Someday soon you will be able to write whatever your readers will enjoy – their parents will simply be happy that they are reading.
Jack Heath author site: www.jackheath.com.au