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Published in Children's Writer/Newsletter of Writing and Publishing Trends June 2004

Controversial Fiction for Young Adults:

Telling it Like it is

by Mark Haverstock

Times change, but the hot-button issues for today’s young adults aren’t really so different now than they were for their parents--sex, drugs, music, and peer relationships. What’s changed more than the issues themselves is how they are treated in the print media, including young adult fiction.

Modern YA fiction has gone through significant changes since the days of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951. Today’s popular representation of young adults and their view of life has grown more daring and rebellious since these early days, manifesting itself in titles such as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and Alex Flinn’s Breathing Underwater.Editors constantly reexamine the YA novel, but most are willing to take a chance on stories with more controversial and gritty subjects–provided they’re well written and not gratuitous, and say something important.

 In the Eye of the Beholder

What comprises controversial fiction has as many answers as there are people–and special interest groups. We’ll consider controversial fiction as material that might be challenged as "inappropriate" reading material for young adults. In a 2001 study in published by Dr. Ann Curry, Associate Professor at School of Library, University of British Columbia, YA fiction titles were typically challenged for one of eleven reasons.

Profanity led the list of reasons cited most for challenges of the 220 books in the survey. "Complaints focused most on characters uttering ‘traditional’ swear words . . .," says Curry. Seven books in this category, however, including Judy Blume’s It’s Not the End of the World, were cited for breaking the Third Commandment–taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Second on the list was sexual activity. This typically included heterosexual activity, homosexuality, sodomy, incest, and discussions of AIDS. But an author’s description of consensual groping or actual/implied intercourse, as in Blume’s Forever, was the most common complaint.

Rounding out the list in order of the number of challenges were the following:

-Religion and witchcraft

-Violence and horror

-Rebellion, especially against parents and authority figures

-Racism and sexism

-Substance use and abuse

-Suicide and death

-Criminal activity

-Crude behavior

-Depressing or negative stories

 Pushing the Envelope

Contemporary YA fiction has a considerable edge as compared to fiction written for young people even a decade ago. The public has generally become more tolerant about controversial topics because they’re discussed more publically than ever before in the mainstream media, thanks to Oprah and the six o’clock news.

"We’re in a really interesting time for YA fiction because edgy is in right now, so editors are a lot more open to pushing the envelope than they were even five years ago," says Lara Zeises, author of Bringing Up the Bones. "Nowadays, your characters can have sex and they can even talk about sex as long as they use euphemisms--but you can’t actually show them having sex because that’s what causes the controversy."

Zeises writes for teens just like she’d write for adults. She doesn’t like to alter story content or language just because they’re young. "I write the story I want to write and send it to my editor. Sure, her heart may stop beating for a few seconds when she reads through," she says. "Later, we talk and strike that balance that she feels comfortable with and I also feel comfortable with–that’s often the difficult part." Zeises advises authors to write the story they need or want to write. "If it’s a good story, regardless of content, it will eventually find a home and it will eventually find an audience."

Author Alex Flinn likes to write about things that she finds interesting and finds a need for. "I had done volunteer work with domestic violence victims, so that’s what provided me inspiration for my book, Breathing Underwater," she explains. "I knew that was an important topic because there were so many incidents of domestic violence among adults and dating violence among teenagers. I was surprised to find that when I was writing Breathing Underwater there were no books about dating violence. At the time, I really don’t think of it as groundbreaking–but obviously every writer wants a topic where there aren’t 50 other books in print. Who wants to write something redundant?" But Flynn created an interesting twist: Rather than writing from the viewpoint of the female victim, she presents the story from the guy’s viewpoint.

How far do you go as an author without crossing the line? "In my books, I portray the world as I see it–it’s not a matter of how far I go. I don’t make a decision based on that," says Flinn. "But I think that a book needs to have something of value in it–that’s more important than how much violence or profanity it has. Of course, you try not to be didactic, but I do want my readers to take something away from my books and leave knowing something they didn’t know beforehand."

Flinn says that she’s gotten some flak over her book Breaking Point because of profanity–an issue that recently came to light when she was asked to visit a school in Arkansas that was reading her book until it was unsuccessfully challenged. Part of the problem was that teachers had issues with reading the book aloud. "Really, there are authors that use more profanity. I don’t use a word unless there is no other word that would work," she explains. "It’s not just adults. There are teens that are offended by these words too. They are a minority, but they do exist. I certainly want to be able to reach an audience and not offend people."

Controversial topics don’t have to be a hard sell. "When I was writing Blue is for Nightmares, everyone kept telling me how it was going to be a hard sell to editors because anything ‘witchy,’ they said, is considered controversial," says author Laurie Stolarz. "They reminded me how lots of ‘witchy’ titles get banned. I did meet a bit of resistance, but mostly because editors suggested that Blue wasn’t literary enough." Stolarz learned that mysteries, overall, are a hard sell to hardback editors. In her experience, Stolarz found that many hardback editors want character-driven fiction over plot-driven work. "So, was it a problem that my main character is a practicing wiccan–the real kind, not the Charmed or Sabrina kind?" she says. "As it turned out, the genre was the biggest obstacle for me."

Authors such as Stolarz are also realizing they need to take different approaches to selling a YA novel containing controversial topics or language. Besides making novels character driven, one of the most obvious–and successful methods–is to target submissions to the appropriate publishers. "I’m currently trying to sell and edgy manuscript for older young adults and am therefore sending it to the YA editors who are the most willing to work with edgy, crossover material."

Editors Keep Open Minds

There is very little edgy material YA editors won’t consider. "Kids already come across so many charged scenarios in life, and no subjects are considered taboo for our books if they're handled appropriately," says Jodi Kreitzman, Editor, Delacorte Press. "When our authors come to us with stories that have provocative themes, we do not censor them or turn them away. We just make sure they've carefully explored the topic in a way that feels responsible and true to the characters and story (i.e., not for shock value or to push an agenda)." And then, of course, they stand behind these authors and the book if controversy arises post-publication. Authors such as Lara Zeiss got their first break by entering Delacorte Press’s Contest for a First Young Adult Novel.

Elise Howard, Vice President and Publishing Director at HarperCollins agrees. "I don’t think that there’s anything that’s out of bounds. For us, whether it’s a controversial topic or a topic that’s not controversial, it’s all about interest in storytelling and the quality of the writing," she says. "If a book works, there’s no particular subject that we wouldn’t at least consider publishing about."

Audience is another consideration. "I have to think–is there a reader for this book, is there a teen to whom I would recommend this book, who I think would be enriched by this book and also would love this book, enjoy it, and tell others about it?" says Howard. "Is it a book that would make business sense for us to publish?"

When it comes to the inevitable struggle between editors and bean counters, it is a constant balancing act. "There are writers on our list who we know are not going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of their work," says Howard. "But we feel it’s really important to support them, and it’s really important that their work be accessible to an audience. At the same time, we work to make sure that the audience for all our writers is as big and broad as it deserves to be."

Editors and publishers also need to be pragmatic. They can’t pretend that every book they print will appeal to everybody or sell tens of thousands of copies. "I think one of the pitfalls of publishing for teens is that we tend to think about them as a monolith," says Howard. "We realize that the teen readership contains a variety of reading tastes and desires. When we’re talking about really difficult, really troubling stories for teens–the ones that are often referred to as edgy stories–it’s important to remember that by definition the edge can’t be gigantically populated."

Living on the Edge

How close editors will go to the edge, especially with language, depends on whether the controversial content is important to the story and the development of the character. "If you’ve got a kid that’s grown up on the streets, he’s not going to speak like a kid that’s grown up in Scarsdale. They’re going to use a different kind of language," says Antonia Markiet, Executive Editor for HarperCollins. "Language should serve the purpose of defining the character and expressing the situation. So if that salty language is germane to the character, if that is the true expression of the character, then you have to go with it." But with all good writing, you need to use it economically and where it best serves its purpose and doesn’t detract from the story itself.

Writers should not self-censor, according to Markiet. She agrees with Flinn in telling it like it is to young adult audiences. "I believe it is extremely important to publish a book that speaks to the lives, concerns and realities kids face–they have to make choices and decisions," she says. "To make believe these things don’t exist is sticking your head in the sand. My job is to put out the best possible books I can that are not gratuitous, that absolutely deal with the lives that kids are leading, with the problems they’re facing, with the concerns they worry about, and make them available to all young adults."

Markiet understands parent concerns and how they may want some of her books taken off the shelves. "My feeling is I need to do my job and parents need to do theirs," she says. "It’s one thing if parents decide they don’t want their child to read a book, but they can’t say you can’t publish it so not other child can read it. That’s the danger"


Magazines also deal with controversial fiction topics, but many tend to be more selective about the subject matter and content.

"Literary quality is first and foremost in what we’re looking for and as we enter our sixth year of publication, we’re still very much in need of high quality young adult literature," says Tracy Schoenle, Associate Editor."We’ve had a number of stories in which characters battle cancer or come to terms with their homosexuality, but we’ve tried to steer clear of topics such as abortion, rape, and suicide, and we don’t depict graphic violence and print little offensive language." For Cicada, Schoenle looks for tasteful treatment of topics—literary rather than sensational material.

Cicada doesn’t talk down to their readers or try to sugarcoat issues but, there is a certain degree of sanitization in a Cicada manuscript. "We recently accepted an excellent manuscript but asked the author if we could excise the more violent elements in editing," says Schoenle. In another example, "Special Effects" by Steve Vance (March/April 2002), they toned down references to violence in this suspense/horror story that takes a look at early film and Jack the Ripper.

Cicada also keeps the language fairly clean, but allows for occasional rough language for characterization. "We try, above all, to preserve the author’s voice, which means that we allow for some language, if it’s in keeping with the character’s voice and tone of the manuscript," says Schoenle. "In general, though, racial slurs are unacceptable, as is very strong language and graphically violent and graphically sexual material."

Issues are less the concern for Cicada than characters. Homosexuality, for example, would not be a focus so much as a character who might just happen to be gay. "One story that deals especially beautifully with a girl coming to terms with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s orientation and new female partner is ‘Portraits’ by Haemi Balgassi (September/October 2000)," says Schoenle. Another, Tish Farrell’s "Who Killed Constable Chilele . . .?" (September/October 2001) presents a realistic look at the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Even magazines in the religious market don’t back away from controversial topics, as long as they are handled in a way consistent with their editorial purpose. "We’re not CosmoGIRL or Seventeen–ours is a magazine that sticks to traditional Christian values rather than secular ones," says Chris Lutes, Editor of Campus Life. "If you’re talking about sex, abstinence is the rule that we live by at Campus Life. It’s not that we shy away from covering any of these topics in fiction or real-life stories, but we are very careful to make sure that we tow the moral line when it comes to traditional Christian values." Lutes cites a story that appeared in March/April 2003 titled "Every Guy’s Struggle" which dealt with lust and masturbation. These and all their stories are presented from a solidly Christian perspective.

Reality Check

Do you have an edgy story or novel in you? "I wouldn’t advise authors to try controversial topics for the purpose of doing edgy stories because you think subject matter is salable or timely," says Markiet. She says the best books come from authors having something to say about things that mattered to them when they were young–or what matters to them now. "I can’t tell you how to find that; it comes from within," she says.

Other ideas may come from day-to-day life. You see an event on the news or read a newspaper article and an idea is born. The idea for Alex Flinn’s new book, Nothing to Lose, came to her as she was reading a newspaper statistic.

"Possibly a magazine article or a statistic shocks you so much that it goes right to the core," says Markiet. "You start thinking about a kid that could have become one of these statistics and that statistic becomes a book."


Sidebar– Relevant Reading

Author Shelly Stoehr suggests that the most serious controversial issue for contemporary young adults may no be the edgy novel, but whether they are reading at all. It’s important to get relevant and well-written novels into the hands of young readers. "Now, more than ever, there are so many distractions," she says. "There are movies, TV, computers, video games, videos to rent, the Internet . . . and the list goes on. We need to worry less about the inevitable sex, drugs and rock and roll, and more about whether young adults are reading. Once they are reading, and choosing to read because they like it, the other issues become easier to address and conquer."


Sidebar– Constructive Controversy

Are there positive outcomes to young adults reading controversial fiction?

Special interest groups, whether they lean to the political right or left, believe reading is a means of role modeling and behavior modification. "Neither wants children and adolescents to encounter books, textbooks, or videos that challenge their vision of what was or what might be, or that depict a reality contrary to that vision," explains Diane Ravich, author of The Language Police. Those who want to withhold "controversial" materials often do so fearing that allowing a child to read stories about rebellion, sorcery, or a drug-addiction will surely prompt the child to experiment.

In contrast, many psychologists, educators, and librarians believe that controversial fiction should be available–stories appropriate to the reader’s age and experience. "It is a much safer place than real life in which to develop wisdom about unsettling and possibly dangerous activities," says Curry. "Children and young adults are often looking for images of themselves, images as they are at that moment, struggling with parent conflicts, problem acne, feeling of rejection, and raging hormones, and images of what they might become. Literature affords the distance to examine one’s self in a way not otherwise possible."

Dr. Gary Salvner, Professor of English at Youngstown State University and former president of ALAN agrees that books can be a safe harbor to deal with teen angst. "Not that all books have to be problem novels–ones that recreate certain personal or social problems," he says. "But there’s no question that young people will allow themselves to work through a problem intellectually and emotionally in the context of a book in a way that they don’t have any other recourse to do personally or publically."

Young adults also need to be informed. According to Curry, "Older children and teenagers, like adults, need a wide range of information in order to make the best decisions possible in the minefield areas cited in this study–sexuality, acceptable language, religion, drug/alcohol use, and interaction with authority," she says. A young adult librarian from the Seattle area once told Curry that in all her years of working with troubled teenagers, she never came across any who had gotten into trouble because they knew too much information–it was always because they had too little.