Where is the Moral Line in YA Fiction?

Since I wrote Wycaan Master with my (then) 11-year-old son, I assumed that our story fitted the Young Adult genre. It is a coming-of-age novel, so I never gave it much thought. There is no clear sex or profanity, though race is a big issue in the first book.

Since I have become absorbed in the fantasy genre, I have begun to wonder where the line is drawn. As I continue to write the second and third books in the series, intimacy has developed between characters, sometimes direct and at other times implied. There has been plenty of violence and references to overindulgence in alcohol. Colleagues at my writers group have questioned whether I should be including these themes.

As I began to research this, I found a number of excellent sources regarding YA fiction in general. Heather Dunlevy-Scheerer has written an interesting article about the historical development of YA literature.

She lays out several characteristics that she took from someone called Niday (I couldn’t find a clear reference).

(1) a teenage (or young adult) protagonist

(2) first-person perspective

(3) adult characters in the background

(4) a limited number of characters

(5) a compressed time span and familiar setting

(6) current slang

(7) detailed descriptions of appearance and dress

(8) positive resolution

(9) few, if any, subplots

(10) an approximate length of 125 to 250 pages.

From a brief skimming of the Internet, it seems that the common thread in YA fiction is an adolescent, rather than an adult or child, protagonist. However, the subject matter and story lines of leading YA literature are relevant to the challenges of youth, and more edgier novels include themes such as identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, money issues, race, familial struggles, and bullying.

April Dawn Wells suggests seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.

There are a number of YA novels currently in print that are on the edgier sides, dealing with peer pressure, drugs, gangs, crime, violence, sexuality, incest, oral sex, and female/male rape.

The obvious criticism of these novels is that they encourage destructive or immoral behavior or at least bring them into the adolescent’s mind at too early an age. Countering this is the fact that teens will be better equipped to deal with real-life difficult situations and social issues because they have role models in the protagonists they have followed.

Where is the line drawn in amount and nature of such issues between appropriateness and inappropriateness in young-adult fiction? How can we keep literature as a relevant medium when the exposure of TV, computer games and Internet is almost not monitored and easily accessible? None of these mediums, in my opinion, can offer the depth of thought and emotion that a good book provides.

Now more than ever, YA literature needs to stay relevant. Maybe the adults (including parents of teens like myself) have to accept that we might be more uncomfortable with this than our children.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

4 comments on “Where is the Moral Line in YA Fiction?

  1. Anita M. King says:

    By the time I was 12 or 13, I hardly knew anyone who wasn’t dealing with at least one of the “edgier” themes you’ve mentioned here. Most were dealing with several, and I, in spite of being a fairly sheltered kid, had more than half a dozen of the issues from that list on my personal plate. I would have loved to have more books with protagonists my age who faced and learned how to handle those things in a healthy way. Frankly, I don’t see the point in trying to shelter kids from issues in fiction that many of them are already dealing with in real life. The question lies not in whether it’s okay to include those themes but rather in how to address them in a way that will help kids instead of hurting them.

  2. I am high school English teacher. What teens are dealing with now shocks me; the information they have and their lack of understanding of said information. Books that show real life situations give them comfort. In the 10 years I’ve taught I’ve seen kids “OD” on drugs, alcohol, go through pregnancies, abortions, race riots, shot, killed, beat beyond reason by friends or family, cut themselves, etc…there is not topic off limits with today’s youth. And just so you do know, many of them survive, in spite of themselves.

    • elveswriter says:

      Thank you, Cresta, that was very powerful. I wonder if there is a difference between what we write for older teens – is high school the cut-off point, for example?
      Just to add – I think middle and high school teachers are just amazing. I feel truly blessed with those who have been teaching my middle school son and have a fried who teaches h/s in San Jose. I am full of admiration for you all and your dedication.
      Thank you,

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