Thursday, September 24, 2009

More about YA taboos

Lyda's post about YA taboos actually got me thinking about them enough to write a post of my own on the subject. (Try not to die of shock, guys....yes, I am a group blogging LOSER.)

I met Holly Black at WFC a few years back. She's a very successful middle grade and YA author; she wrote the Spiderwick chronicles for the younger kids and Tithe, Ironside, and Valiant for the older kids. She said, when I asked her, that the ONLY real taboo in YA is explicit sex; the characters can have sex, but they can't do it on the page. (Which is a little ironic given that one of my favorite books as a teenager was Jean Auel's "Valley of Jondalar's Enormous Yin Yang," but it's not as if those books were MARKETED as YA, they were just very popular with young adult audiences.)

(This actually brings up a whole other can of interesting worms, which are books that are not marked as YA -- far from it, in fact -- but which are clearly designed to be read on the sly by armies of teenage girls. Case in point: pretty much anything ever written by V.C. Andrews. Were those actually read by adults at all? I mean, even as a teenager I was bothered by the plot holes you could drive a truck through, though not bothered enough to quit reading until I'd read every book about that horrible family with the family tree that doesn't branch EVER.)

Anyway, getting back to my actual point:

When I was a teenager and reading YA, sex and drugs had to be handled in a very precise way, which is to say, if you did any of that stuff you had to suffer for it. If a character drank alcohol, she had to throw up. If she used drugs, she had to get addicted and one of her friends was probably going to die of an overdose before the end of the book. If a character had sex, at the very least she needed to have a huge pregnancy scare and her boyfriend needed to tell the whole school so that everyone thought she was a slutty slut slut.

Judy Bloom's book "Forever" was apparently written to violate the "sexually active girls must be punished" narrative rule -- her daughter told her she wished she could read a book in which the girl has sex, does so in a responsible and realistic way, enjoys it, and then doesn't spend the rest of her life with the boy but doesn't get punished for having had sex, either. So Judy Bloom wrote one. And voila: a book that's still on the "most frequently banned/challenged" list.

I'd say she pretty well kicked down the wall, though; teenagers in books are allowed to have sex now without disastrous results. (So why, you ask, is Forever still being banned but nobody notices all the other books where teenagers get to have sex without being punished for it? That's easy: because the people going around banning books don't actually read very much. Which is why they spent years and years and YEARS screaming about Harry Potter while Philip Pullman's books cruised merrily along under their radar.)

("Forever" actually came out when I was pretty young, but my library didn't add to the YA collection all that often, so I was mostly reading YA novels from a slightly earlier era.)

Anyway. I was going to say that I thought the biggest taboo in YA now is religion, but as I've been working on this blog post I thought of so many exceptions I'm now rethinking that. Philip Pullman was hugely successful; they even made a movie out of his books, despite all the God-is-an-evil-tyrant! stuff (which got removed from the movie scripts, IIRC). This is a taboo I've been struggling with a bit; I have been trying to decide whether I could rewrite my Ark of the Covenant novel as YA, and if so, would it be any more marketable. In the book, Jehovah, Jesus, and Hecate all show up as actual characters (and in one scene, sit down for coffee with the protagonist at the Seward Cafe, and squabble like quarreling cousins). I didn't worry about this at all when writing it the first time -- though who knows, maybe the reason it didn't sell was that it was just as potentially offensive to an adult readership as I'm now worrying it would be to teenagers.


Paul Lamb said...

Brian Keaney writes about what is acceptable/not acceptable in YA books on his blog. Here's the link:

Laura Bradley Rede said...

For a good example of religion taboos handled well in a YA book I'd recommend Pete Hautman's "Godless," which won the National Book Award. And for an example of how far you can push sex in a YA book if you handle it well, I'd recommend Nina Malkin's paranormal romance "Swoon." The sex is handled tastefully and not described explicitly but characters have oral sex *underwater* by chapter two, and at one point the teenage protag. is spanked to orgasm. This is not marketed as erotica-- this is mainstream YA for 16 and up. Goes to show how wide the range of acceptable is in YA now.