What is the purpose of YA fiction? What should and shouldn’t it do – and how? by Alexia Casale

ACcrompressedcropA British-American citizen of Italian heritage, Alexia is an editor, teacher and writing consultant. After studying psychology then educational technology at Cambridge, she moved to New York to work on a Tony-award-winning Broadway show before completing a PhD and teaching qualification. In between, she worked as a West End script-critic, box-office manager for a music festival and executive editor of a human rights journal. Alexia has always wanted a Dragon; luckily, she has her very own rib in a pot…

Her debut novel, The Bone Dragon, was published in 2013.

What is the purpose of YA fiction? What should and shouldn’t it do – and how?

These are surprisingly divisive questions, but there are two main categories of opinion that I’m interested in. Both see YA fiction (and literature in general) as an important part of learning about the world and growing up: a way to vicariously live other lives, experience things we otherwise wouldn’t, and live (at least for a few hours) with (or even inside) people we might otherwise never know. The groups diverge, however, over the issue of publishing ethics.

While ethics and morals are sometimes conflated, there’s an important distinction to be made. Ethics is primarily concerned with professional responsibilities: duties and principles about the right and wrong ways to behave in specific roles. In publishing, and in YA publishing in particular, there’s a big grey area between censorship and anything-goes. The big question is ‘Is part of being an ethical editor, publishing house, agent or writer a duty to protect young adults from “unsuitable” material or topics?’ It seems a simple enough question, but what does ‘protection’ entail? What is ‘unsuitable’?

Should books for young adults contain swear words? Should they contain sex? How about explicit sex? How about violence? How about sexual violence? Answering these questions means answering a far more fundamental set of inter-related ones. What is YA fiction for? What is it meant to do and not do? How is it allowed to do it?

Take the issue of sex. Legally speaking, if you’re under 14, you’re a child. Between 14 and 18 you’re officially a ‘young person’. At 18 you’re a full-fledged adult. And yet the age of consent for sex is 16. Moreover, statistics show that between a quarter and a third of teens start having sex before 16 and this rises to more than half when they reach 16. The majority are sexually active at 19.

So how does that match up with the YA category? Middle Grade is nominally for 8-12 year olds. Young adult, then, is for 12-18 year olds… But isn’t that a staggering big umbrella category? In what other period does your ability to make your own major life choices change so much? When else do your concerns and interests shift so significantly in such a short space of time? Given this, is it even possible to write a ‘YA’ book that speaks effectively to 12-18 year olds – even assuming that all 12-18 year olds mature in the same ways at the same time? And then there’s the issue that more than half of ‘YA’ books are bought by adults for themselves, and the percentage seems to be going up all the time.
So who are we writing for?

My favourite books have meant different things to me at different stages in my life…

mostly because I needed different things from them. But what does this mean for publishing and writing ethics? If a book is designed to speak to the needs of the third of 14-16 year olds having sex, plus the half of 16 year olds, what happens if it ‘falls into the hands’ of a 12 year old? Well, it mostly depends on the 12 year old. And isn’t this an issue with all books, films, video-games, etc. anyway? On the other hand, if something is shelved in a bookstore or a library as YA shouldn’t it be ‘safe’ for all readers who fall into that age category? But what do we mean by ‘safe’?

For me, a better question is

‘To what extent is a book likely to be damaging if it’s read by someone who isn’t ready for it?’

Or

‘How often do people pick up books about topics they’re not ready for and, if they find themselves reading such a book, how often do they plough ahead regardless?’

But the best question of all is

‘What are we worried about protecting young adults from and why?’

I believe books offer teenagers (and adults) a way to learn about issues like sex in the safest way possible. For a start, it’s fiction: it’s not real and anything upsetting can be dismissed as ‘didn’t happen’. More importantly, fiction gives teens a chance to experiment in their imaginations. What is sex like? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages? Of course it’s vicarious, but that’s the point: it’s a way of imaginatively experiencing things so that, hopefully, people can make more informed choices about whether they actually want to pursue those experiences in real life.

Books can also offer powerful ‘lessons’

(ideally implicit ones) about what is OK and not OK as far as sex goes. CJ Daugherty’s Night School Series has a scene in which one character gropes another violently and might be willing to do more only the assault is interrupted. The character who commits the assault is neither reported nor punished. But that doesn’t mean the book is suggesting this behaviour OK: instead CJ is offering readers an opportunity to say ‘No! That’s not right! He’s a skunk and he shouldn’t get away with that.’ How powerful that response is when it comes from within the reader: when the reader has summoned the appropriate outrage instead of just being told to feel it. And what might the memory of that outrage mean if the reader experiences a similar situation?

When you’re immersed in your own life, trying to figure things out as you go, reacting in the moment, it can be hard to know what to do: it’s much easier to see clearly when you’re looking at other people’s lives, but best if you can learn sad lessons from fictional ones rather than real ones. Because, while it is specious to argue that books for young adults can encompass sex (depending on how graphic it is) but sexual violence is not suitable, this doesn’t mean that sexual violence isn’t an incredible difficult and sensitive topic even for adult readers.
Nevertheless, fiction is still a far safer place to explore it than real life.

Of course books don’t just ‘warn’ readers about the bad things in life, they can also show positive examples: how to avoid pressuring your partner into sex, how to treat a sexual partner with respect even when you don’t yet know what you’re doing, what sorts of things might help you to make a positive decision about when to have sex.

All this begs the question

‘When should teens be reading about this? When is it suitable?’

Surely the most suitable time is before they’ve actually started having sex so they can take advantage of experiencing how things play out in fiction before they start doing them in real life… Unless you believe that reading about sex will make teenagers more likely to have it earlier. But compared with peer pressure, social expectations, alcohol and individual desires (including teenage hormones!), is reading about sex really likely to have a major impact on when they become sexually active?

And yet some people who fall into the ‘YA’ category may not be ready to read about these things. Concern to protect them is grounded in a laudable desire to be principled and ethical. But there are ethics and principles at stake on the other side of the argument too:

Is it ethical to ‘protect’ some teens by excluding topics and material from YA books at the expense of those who would benefit from it?

How do you balance those competing needs?

Some people have suggested age ratings as a solution. The problem with this, of course, is that one 12 year old is not the same as another. At the same time, I don’t have a problem with age ratings as broad guidelines: better to give people more information about whether something is more or less likely to be suitable for them than to withhold it.

That sums up my feeling about the debate as a whole: Let’s do our best both to help people make informed decisions about what they do and don’t read – and, via reading, about sex and other life choices.

At the same time, people quite fairly point out that YA is aimed at children (12-14 year olds), as well as young people (14-18), and children need to be protected because they’re not necessarily able to make informed choices. But how about the 14-18 year olds who are in a different legal category precisely because we do believe they do have the capacity to start making their own choices? Isn’t that the bigger bit of the YA category? And how about all the 12-14 year olds who are more mature than some of their 18 year old counterparts? Don’t all of these teenagers have a right to knowledge that could help them understand the world better so that they can make happier choices for themselves?

I don’t believe that a category intended to encompass all people aged 12-18 (plus the adults who make up the majority of readers anyway) can possibly be fit for purpose if our purpose is to establish ethical principles. But since we do have this wide category to work with, what is the best way forwards?

Personally, I’m in favour of people – and I use the word ‘people’ advisedly – having more information to work with in life. How can we expect teenagers to become adults if they’re not exposed to – nay, invited to – explore adult issues? Can you *be* an adult if you only start learning and reading about ‘adult stuff’ when you’re officially one already? How can people be expected to make adult choices when they’ve been ‘protected’ as teenagers from what adult consequences and problems look like in fiction? Isn’t fiction safer than the real world for learning about these things? Isn’t that one of fictions fundamental functions?

So what are we really trying to ‘protect’ the readers of YA fiction from? In a world where children are exposed to all sorts of things from a very young age (certainly before 12!) via the news, TV programmes and the internet, do we really think words on a page are the biggest danger in terms of premature loss of innocence? Aren’t they part of the solution, instead? A way for children to explore not-real versions of real issues so that they can mature: so that they can progress from informed 12-14 year old ‘children’, to 14-18 ‘young people’, to 18 year old ‘adults’ who have as much knowledge as possible to deal with life and make the best possible choices?

I think we should redirect the debate to explore how YA fiction should deal with sensitive issues. There’s a large grey area between censorship and ‘anything-goes’: a truly ethical stance involves delving into the nuances and complexities of the issues at stake. Teenagers need books about sensitive and difficult subjects as much as adults, but do they need to read about ‘all the gory details’? Come to that, do adults? (I expand on this in an article for BookTrust here

So how about my own fiction?

I am so lucky to have found a fantastic publisher (Faber & Faber) and wonderful editor (Rebecca Lee, longlisted with no less than three authors for the 2014 Branford Boase Award!) who fully supported the fact that The Bone Dragon deals with a range of difficult issues and challenging moral questions. Above all, I’m grateful that they were so open-minded about how I wanted to approach these things.

I didn’t want the book to be about moral messages: I wanted it to be about moral questions that, for the most part, I do not attempt to answer for the reader. But there is also a lot of darkness in the book beyond the moral complexities, and not every editor and publisher would have been willing to take this on. When publishers make decisions about challenging books, especially in the YA category, a lot rests on the writer’s ethical principles matching up with the editor and publishing house’s ones.

The darkness in The Bone Dragon is very dark indeed, but none of it is on the page. All of the most difficult things in the book need to be ‘read in’: they’re there, between the lines, but they remain between the lines. And so for readers who aren’t yet ready to tackle these things they may well remain invisible. But not every book can or should be written in this way: sometimes there’s a more delicate balance to be struck between speaking and silence, keeping things implicit and spelling them out explicitly.

The thing writers, editors and publishers shouldn’t do is ignore the fact that there are ethical issues at stake.

We should all think carefully about what we talk about and how we talk about it:

there should be principles behind our decisions.

But to arrive at these we need to be open-minded about balancing a positive desire to protect young readers with an appreciation of the dangers of denying them opportunities to learn when we know that this is one of the most complicated and confusing periods of life.

During our teens, most of us start making major life choices: we need as much knowledge and help to do so as we can get, and books have an important role to play in that.

Alexia Casale

The Bone Dragon

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Evie’s shattered ribs have been a secret for the last four years. Now she has found the strength to tell her adoptive parents, and the physical traces of her past are fixed – the only remaining signs a scar on her side and a fragment of bone taken home from the hospital, which her uncle Ben helps her to carve into a dragon as a sign of her strength.
Soon this ivory talisman begins to come to life at night, offering wisdom and encouragement in roaming dreams of smoke and moonlight that come to feel ever more real.
As Evie grows stronger there remains one problem her new parents can’t fix for her: a revenge that must be taken. And it seems that the Dragon is the one to take it.

This subtly unsettling novel is told from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old girl damaged by a past she can’t talk about, in a hypnotic narrative that, while giving increasing insight, also becomes increasingly unreliable.A blend of psychological thriller and fairytale, The Bone Dragon explores the fragile boundaries between real life and fantasy, and the darkest corners of the human mind.

The paperback is out now!

Check back tomorrow for a quickfire interview with Alexia. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “What is the purpose of YA fiction? What should and shouldn’t it do – and how? by Alexia Casale

  1. Pingback: Important Announcement! (& Book Bloggery Week-in-Review #48)

  2. Reblogged this on Reece Evhans and commented:
    A good post that discusses a difficult topic. As a YA author whose books have been called “a bit dark”, I appreciate this author’s treatment of the subject.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Highlights; The Slow-Reading Week Edition | A Daydreamer's Thoughts

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