Friday, March 22, 2013

In response to the question of how much A should go in YA

I just read an article on Ionia Martin's blog called "Too much A in YA?"

Ionia asked how much adult content is appropriate for YA books.

In the comments for Ionia's article, there was a comment by Travels With Mary linking to the following article "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood" by Sherman Alexie. In brief the article talks about how Sherman Alexie's personal account of his harsh childhood touched the hearts of young children facing similar struggles.

Mary's comments and Sherman Alexie's article reminded me of the following event from my own life:

I was attending a party 6 or 7 years ago. I met a young African American man who had grown up in South Central Los Angeles. He told me he wanted to be a writer. We talked for a long time about all manner of topics, but I encouraged him to follow his passion for storytelling. At one point, I related an anecdote to him about how a few years prior, I had witnessed my good friend's two young kids (ages 3.5 and 5) watching the animated film "The Land Before Time." In the movie, there is a scene wherein the toddler dinosaurs must enter a dark cave. Outside, there is a lightning storm. I remember my friend's children being terrified of the darkness and ominous quality of the scene. It was all about the basic childhood fear of the dark and the unknown, but that was it. No villains. Just the darkness. My friend's two children were literally holding couch pillows up to their faces, at eleven in the morning no less, and peeking nervously at the TV screen as the toddler dinosaurs crept into the cave. As I told this story to the young African American man at the party, I could tell he found it bizarre. When I finished, he said to me: "When I was five, we worried about being shot dead on our front lawn."

I had been trying to make the point to this young African-American man about how easily children are frightened. I was speaking from the context of my personal experiences, which were drastically different than his.

When I think about what the general populace considers to be YA, I realize that the restrictions  bounding YA are based largely on market forces. Yes, books like Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" will find a very passionate core audience. But this audience is probably smaller than the "mainstream" market.

So, in answer to Ionia's question about how much A to put in YA, I would say it depends on two things:

1. The story you want to sell.
2. The story you want to tell.

The more controversial your YA manuscript, the smaller the market. If selling your story widely is your primary goal, then yes, you must be careful about using the "appropriate" degree of adult content.

But if your primary goal is to tell an important story, no matter how "adult" it may seem to the general public, then tell YOUR story the way YOU need to.


  1. Love what you said in response to this question. My nieces and nephews are starting to grow into YA readers and I'm facing this controversial question too as an Aunt. I'd like to recommend some officially YA books to them, but I'm not sure if they are too ADULT for them or for their parents' restrictions. Thanks for bringing it up and making me think about it.

  2. Thanks Melissa. If anything, I'm sure you can peruse Amazon reviews and find out quickly if a given book treads into territory you would not want your nieces and nephews reading. The interesting thing to me is that one parent's YA treasure is another parent's YA trash.