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.

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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).

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