Taboos in Young Adult Literature

So recently, article writers have been misunderstanding the difference between Young Adult and New Adult and spreading the moral panic that since 50 Shades of Grey, there are now sexy erotic books being written for 12 year olds.

Riiiiiiiiight.

I do love Young Adult (YA) Literature (or YAL). Mostly the paranormal types (zom-com-roms) of course. I’m interested in the idea of censorship around children’s/YA books. I’m not a fan, personally. There always seems to be some panic, whether it’s because the work is too realistic or too fantastical. Should there be disclaimer labels on books, so parents know what their kids are reading? Should parents be trying to control what their kids are reading anyway?

This is just a collection of comments, I’m not a psychologist and I haven’t read every single YA book ever. Most books I have were written in nineties or 2000’s, and most are paranormal romances. So some of what I say – or all of it – can be disputed with a certain text (in reading about these taboos, I’ve found mentions of much older texts that do include these topics!). The point of this is not to say that these topics are never discussed in YA lit. It’s a springboard for ideas.

Religion – is hardly an issue in most books I can think of. There are particular Christian YA books, but these are not mainstream. Beliefs are mentioned, maybe a heaven or hell here, some Wicca-influences there. Sometimes the paranormal is combined with Christian mythology (think Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz). Is religion a turn off? Is it that beliefs vary so much, it would be hard to create a book that focuses on religion without isolating someone? Another alternative is to have a made-up religion specifically for the text.

Incurable Illness – While death is not so much a taboo, it happens a lot in paranormal YA (Car crashes are an instant orphan-fixer), what I think may be more taboo is lingering illnesses or disabilities.  There is, however, a sub-genre that deals with this in great detail. I haven’t read any before, but here’s an article on it. Cart uses the example of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and how it influenced novels, but society (the US) was reluctant to deal with it in ‘the real world’ by providing sexual education at school. 

Self-harm – of course this is controversial, there is belief among some circles that teens will copy the behaviour, or even “catch” depression. It’s a very dark topic, but one that is more and more in the media and in teens lives. Rates of suicide and depression in young adults are terrible.

Abuse/Violence – this one is tough and triggering, but a comment I tend to see a lot (and relate to myself) is that in reading it, the victim feels that they are not alone. This is also written by Chris Crutcher, young adult author and a therapist working with child-abuse victims “I believe stories can help. Stories can help teenagers look at their feelings, or come to emotional resolution, from a safe distance. If, as an author, I can make an emotional connection with my reader, I have already started him or her to heal… I am not alone is powerful medicine”(Quoted in Cart).

Sex – the obvious one! Are peers worse with pressuring kids about sex? Is TV a bad influence? With the sorts of books I’ve read, sex is not completely unknown, but the characters are careful. Again, with the ones I read, young love is eternal, it is destined (Oh so much destiny and fate in pararom!), so there’s not much question around whether it is right. There are questions around how explicit to make it as well, there are a lot of fade-to-blacks. Cart writes “Not to include sex in books for young adults is to agree to a de facto conspiracy of silence, to imply to young readers that sex is so awful that we cannot even write about it”

Homosexuality – is pretty much limited to the best dude friend who the main girl goes shopping with and talks to about everything – all the stereotypes! – and I can’t think of any book I’ve read where a homosexual character is the main hero/ine. Cart describes that homophobia is so bad in society, that not only do most homosexual characters die violently, but the books with the ones who don’t die are censored. Although this book is over 15 years old, this is still this deep division in society that is impossible to ignore. (UPDATE: My friend told me to look up Will Grayson, Will Grayson and David Levithan)

Diversity – Even as recently as 2009, race is still put to the sides. One of the best YA books I own, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, was the center for a storm of controversy where, despite the clearly defined black character with very short, nappy hair, the publisher decided to put a white girl with long hair on the cover (which was later changed). Apart from a few instances, most main characters in the books I’ve read have been white. Their close, but minor, friends are allowed to be different. A separate ‘marker’ of difference could be body shape – heroines are much more likely to be described as lanky, tall, thin, although they can have a friend who is fat or curvy -(and if described as curvy, that friend is more sexually experimental or outspoken).

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One of the things I hate most about criticism of YA is that it is “dumb” or “lesser” than adult fiction and less complex. Or even worse, accuse it of being formulaic (let’s ignore the constant cover designs of the back of a girl in a long dress in a forest – that’s the publishers deal). Or that it is cheap crap and, of course, it’s not “real literature”. Pretty much all of these criticisms have been applied to other genres or styles, romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror.  All the good stuff!

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Related Reading

  • ADDED: A recent article on banning and censoring YA
  • For the above article, these tweets were written:
    The Book Club @thebookclubabc: How adult is TOO adult for ‘Young Adult’ fiction??
     @capheinated: @thebookclubabc “Too adult” is usually just shorthand for “we really can’t be bothered discussing difficult things with young people”.
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5 thoughts on “Taboos in Young Adult Literature”

  1. I like this very much! Just one quibble, though: ‘I can’t think of any book I’ve read where a homosexual character is the main hero/ine’–there’s Karen, who is the protagonist of Daniel Waters’s powerful and moving Passing Strange (the third novel in the Generation Dead trilogy–hope this isn’t a spoiler!)

    1. That is true, but I don’t think the book places a lot of emphasis on her sexuality. Her sexuality is mentioned only in flashbacks until the end – and not revealed until maybe halfway through the book -, really, and her identity as a zombie takes first priority. After I wrote this, I thought surely I must be wrong! Where’s the gay paranormal romances? And the only one my twitter list could come up with was Ash by Malinda Lo. I would be hugely happy to be corrected on this though!

  2. I want to write a YA novel, and the first thing to do is find something “taboo” to write about. The books I’ve read so far surely relates to this.

    I also don’t see why sex is not allowed when chopping peoples heads off and dancing in the pumping rain IS allowed. (maybe a bit exaggerated)

    1. I guess it’s about the fear of teenage pregnancy and the push for abstinence over safe sex. It’s about the first time and it’s about the risk. There is a view in YA scholarship that sex is made into a moral lesson, that it always has consequences. Most books I can think of where there has been a sex scene, it has been glossed over, fade-to-black, and there’s been a ramping up of the danger following the scene (although I also mostly read paranormal, so danger is very natural there!).

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