A. Victoria Mixon, Editor
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  • By Victoria Mixon

    Dear Editor, Physical violence, sexuality and adult scenarios such as drinking and drugs seem to be filtering down into the younger genres. Must YA writers ride this wave to be successful?—K

    Dear K,

    NO.

    You do not need to push the limits of taboo to write good fiction, for YA or anyone else.

    However, there’s a reason these things are turning up. And they date back to a groundbreaking book published in 1970 called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume.

    Before Margaret, there were things you addressed in children’s books, and there were things you left to the discretion of the children’s parents. It was a real shock when Blume hauled a child’s relationship to religion out into the light and let it belong to the child rather than the parents. Readers—children and adults alike—responded powerfully.

    Ever since then, YA fiction has found a lucrative market in “taboo” subject matter. The idea is to talk to kids about the things that are actually important to them, around the false restrictions of their responsible adults. This is a function of the 1960s and our culture-wide revolt against hypocrisy and faking social “norms.” Blume’s book could not have been published ten years earlier.

    It all looks so healthy and honest and freeing from this angle.

    However, there are two dangers associated with this trend of exposing “taboos.”

    One is that adults don’t experience taboos the same way children do, so unless you’re as gifted and clear-sighted as Judy Blume you run the very real risk of insincerity, the very hypocrisy this exposure of taboo is intended to combat.

    The other is that the relationship between fantasy and reality is not at all as simple and clear-cut as many pundits would like to believe. Fantasy influences reality, just as reality influences fantasy. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. So while the publishers are asking themselves, “Are there enough readers in our YA audience who can relate to personal experiences of violence, drugs, and sex to justify the cost of publishing this?” the children are asking themselves, “If everyone else can relate to this, how can I adopt these experiences as if they were my own so no one will know what a Goody Two-Shoes I really am?”

    Our kids these days are exposed to an extraordinary level of violence, adult sex, and drugging in our popular media. Oh, my god. And studies show now that the human brain records witnessing even a facsimile of a traumatic event as experiencing it—this means in movies and fiction, as well as marketing. Any time the emotions associated with trauma are triggered, the brain records that in the part of the brain where memories of traumatic experiences are stored. In other words: we’re giving our kids real PTSD through their so-called “fantasy” life.

    How do you know which of your readers have suffered traumas and need help healing and which of them have not?

    You don’t. But any time you publish a book, you hope to sell it to as many readers as humanly possible. So the effort is certainly in the direction of bringing these traumas to teens who’ve never experienced them before. Hello, PTSD.

    You know what people suffering PTSD do? They obsessively re-visit facsimiles of their original trauma in an effort to work through the pain. They also obsessively visit that trauma on others—most notably innocents who aren’t yet acquainted with it—in an effort to validate what they’ve suffered, to make it “normal.”

    Welcome to the lucrative self-feeding YA market for taboo.

    Does this mean we should avoid fiction with potentially traumatic subject matter? Not at all. Honest and insightful examination of the wounds many teens suffer in secret is a big step toward helping them heal.

    But should we ride the bandwagon sensationalizing potentially traumatic subject matter for the sake sales? Encourage young writers to focus on trauma over content?

    Well, I don’t know, guys. How far are you willing to go in promoting a cycle of “normalizing” sensationalized teen violence, sex, and drugging—and traumatizing readers for whom these experiences aren’t normal—just to make a buck?

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    14 Comments

14 Responses to “Honestly or sensationally addressing YA taboos”

  1. Kathryn said on

    For me, this was your best advice, ever. I can’t imagine there is any market where authors and publishers have a greater responsiblity to their readers.

    You nailed it when you said: you run the very real risk of insincerity, the very hypocrisy this exposure of taboo is intended to combat.

    Luckily for these folks, in our society, the more money you make, the more correct you are about your choices. Tough luck for the kids though.

  2. Dear Victoria, We must be of one mind. Before even scrolling down to read your response I though of Judy Blume. Regarding Y.A. Lit or course thanks to her “Are You There God…” As an adult reader I thought she addressed discovery of a girl’s self on all fronts in the novel Summer Sisters in a way that startled me with freshness and yes, honesty.

  3. Victoria Mixon said on

    You know, it matters a lot to have witnessed the development of the YA genre over the past thirty years. What Blume did was a milestone in literature. She came into the Nancy Drew world and turned it into a reflection of a child’s real internal life. I don’t think writers of today can really grasp what a difference that was, if they weren’t there for it. haven’t read nearly as many of Blume’s books as I should have–I’ll have to get Summer Sisters.

    Kathryn, I know you & I have talked about this a lot regarding your own children’s fiction. What did I send you once—six pages on Mirren’s relationship to her father?

    There is a very real responsibility we all bear, writers and non-writers alike, for the care and nurturing of the young of our species. It’s a responsibility only too easy to shuck off these days whenever it looks like it might get in the way of being hip.

  4. I write younger YA. My stuff is not racy or edgy at all, and the peer feedback I’ve gotten is that I should call it “middle grade,” because without swearing or sex, YA readers won’t identify with it. Since the content isn’t appropriate for middle grade readers, I’m glad to see someone who knows what they’re talking about say that isn’t true.

  5. Stuff like this always makes me feel like an old fogey. I’m all for fiction helping to push the boundaries, to teach some of the hard lessons with a little more ease than learning them the painful ways. But still–there are some things I just don’t feel SHOULD be in books–especially for younger readers. Not because I think this generation of teenagers needs to be protected or cossetted from some of the taboos older readers didn’t face until later in life. As you say, they are faced with all of them pretty much all the time–tv, movies, books, newspapers, internet, stories from friends (God forbid). Just like today’s kindergardeners are miles ahead of where I was when I was 5, today’s teenagers are faced with a lot of life’s tough realities.

    But, do I think that their books should show the violence, show the language, the sex, the truly dark side of mankind? No. Talk about them, sure. Refer to them, yes. Admit the world can be a dark and frightening place and generally be realistic? Yes. This generation doesn’t want to be coddled, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve just a soupcon of protection, a breakwater that can stop some of the worst buffets of reality.

    Just before I started college, one of my older friends told me it was one of the best times of her life–she got to be an adult most of the time, when she wanted to be, but she also had the luxury of still being a kid once in a while, too, when she needed to blow off steam or just have some fun. She figured it was the last time in her life where both those things would be true, and told me to take full advantage while I could.

    That’s pretty much the way I feel about YA fiction these days. They’re adults, but they’re young ones–why shove the harsh truths in their faces?

    (Oh, and for my old-fogey status? I’m ancient by YA standards–43.)

  6. Victoria Mixon said on

    Layinda, aim for your star. Forget the nay-sayers. Nobody knows what’s going to sell, only that trends are started by people with the guts to go where no one else is going. “We are the makers of manners, Kate.”—Henry V

  7. Victoria Mixon said on

    _Deb, all the business you hear about this generation being so tough & savvy, so resistant to coddling, et cetera et cetera et cetera, ad nauseum? BULL.

    Children are children.

    Is anybody asking those five-year-olds, “Would you like to be tough as nails and media-style sex objects? Or would you rather be tender and confused and vulnerable and prone to shameless snuggling?” ? Good grief. I’ve worked with little kids for thirty years. They all come into this world with the same emotional equipment. It’s their caretakers who have changed.

    And you know what you can count on in the majority of the caretakers of American five-year-olds today? They were raised on televised violence, sex, & drugging. Yeah. PTSD. Revisit it on the innocent to validate your own experience and prove it’s “normal.” It’s a documented psychological phenomenon. Those of us who weren’t raised that way don’t necessarily have that compulsion.

    But what do we know? We’re old! (I didn’t listen to my ancient elders in their forties when I was in my twenties, either.)

    Not only that, but these young people who think they’re the last word in sophisticated exoskeleton are no different from young adults of any generation. I hear all the time about how they’re so adept at distinguishing between fantasy and reality because, you know, they have it in their blood, they grew up on media, they’re “in the know.” And yet they’re the generation of the obesity epidemic, of the anxiety disorder epidemic, of Columbine.

    I mean, really. We’re taking their word for what they’re all about?

    They’re YOUNG.

    As Mark Twain said, “When I was fifteen, my father was the stupidest man on earth. By the time I was twenty I couldn’t believe how much the old guy’d learned in just five years!”

    (I can hear my mother laughing from here. My grandmother’s having hysterics.)

  8. Victoria Mixon said on

    And now I’m cracking myself up playing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction for my 12-year-old.

  9. Kathryn said on

    You sent at least six pages reminding me that my character is a child, not an adult! 🙂 I stated to you when we first started editing that I wanted Mirren to be age appropriate and this is something you really helped me lock in place. My character is 12 for Pete’s sake .

    It’s very hard when a writer looks at what is getting published and wants to be there, on the shelf, with everyone else. It’s a desire that can breed conformity. I know when I was setting up my scenes, I had in mind certain YA books. I kept thinking, “This scene isn’t nearly as bad as (name deleted), so I should be just fine.” Shame on me.

    I know there are parents out there whose children are great readers but who have nothing but the classics to read at ages 12 and up because they’ve exhausted the clean children’s books and are just not interested in drunken, sexually active teenagers. This is a market I can write for in good conscience.

  10. Thanks for your encouraging response, Victoria, I feel like framing it.

    It is refreshing to find someone else who sees the Emperor’s New Clothes aspect of “kids today.” If you don’t mind, I am going to add you to my blog roll. 🙂

  11. Victoria Mixon said on

    Oh, gosh, yes, Layinda. Please, be my guest!

    Kathryn, I just got your long email about teens, and all I want to say is: The Mummy and The Return of the Mummy.

    What a fabulous house you run, Ms. Estrada.

  12. […] Mixon just blogged about this topic on June 15th, and it’s worth a […]

  13. Victoria-

    So thrilled to have found your blog, especially this post. As a YA writer of fairy tales, I do get some comments that my novels are “too clean”. You put into words much of what I’ve been thinking lately.

    Thank you so much!

    Debbie




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