I’ve always obeyed the rules. As a child I told my parents when I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. But crossing the line—or several lines—is different. I’ve always been a boundary pusher. (Please note: The views shared in this article are entirely those of the author.)
Many of the boundaries in the Young Adult genre are there for a reason. Young Adults are, by definition, not yet adults. Experience and wisdom earned by years of life give adults a different perspective on what happens to them, while to young adults, most of the growing up and coming of age trials are present and raw.
When I was a junior in high school, I “really liked” my chemistry lab assistant, a cute senior guy whose best friend lived three houses from mine. I spent too much time walking my dog back and forth in from of my neighbor’s house when my lab assistant’s car was parked in front—just to get a glimpsed of him when he was leaving.
Was I ready for a sex scene in a book? Not a chance. Was I ready for reading about longing for a boyfriend? Absolutely. But society—and books—are different now.
Sex is one of the big lines in a YA. Books range from no mention of sex to active sex, depending on author and story. In our society, that covers the experience of high school students, even some junior high ones. If you’re writing about experiences this age group encounters, decisions about sexuality, whether or not to engage in sexual activities and “how far to go” are topics that some young adults need help with. Ask yourself why it’s important to break the rule you’re thinking of breaking. Be sure you have a good reason for doing so, because you will be questioned, and judged, for your decision.
Not that YA books are intended to replace family support and values, but for those young people looking for additional possible ideas of how to get through situations or make decisions or deal with the aftermath of a hasty action, sometimes, as an author, you have to make the decision to cross a line drawn by society, an agent, a publisher, or yourself.
Most of the old taboo subjects in YA are no longer out-of-bounds, they’re simply treated with the same consideration and thoughtfulness you’d give if you were talking to a young adult of that age. Shock value or detailed how to’s don’t usually serve a purpose in this genre.
Language can sometimes be a problem. But if you consider the backstory and motivation of your character, you can “get away with” whatever works within the context of the story. Kids have the vocabulary because they hear the vocabulary on television, in movies, social media, video games, their friends and family members. Don’t forget about your character’s arc throughout the story. Maybe at the beginning of the story he used his colorful vocabulary for shock value or to put people off, but by the end of the story, he’s learned the power of language.
Violence has its own set of lines to be crossed. Gratuitous violence, just like gratuitous sex, is rarely a hallmark of good writing. In YA horror, suspense and violence are part of the genre, though many authors tone down the gore for YA audiences.
Should you cross one of the lines? If it makes sense to your story, to your characters and their character arcs, go for it. If you’ve crossed a hard line, your agent or editor will let you know. If you don’t have an agent or editor yet, ask a trusted critique partner or you can pitch or query your story to an agent or editor. You’ll receive feedback that will be valuable.
Most important, read in the genre you write. If you are writing YA Romance, read YA romance. Read a lot of YA romance by different authors. Follow your favorite authors to keep up with the trends.
Good luck to you as you navigate through these tricky waters. Remember, it always helps to have a friend in your boat!