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How far is too far in YA?

In the past couple of weeks I’ve come up against a couple of dilemmas as a writer/reader.

I’m almost finished the first draft of my first YA novel with the working title Community. Set in a small, isolated town, the book’s main theme is the use and abuse of authority. Triggered by the unexplained disappearance and reappearance of his friend Vienne, Toby starts to play a computer game replicating the town in order to work out what happened to Vienne. There is a love triangle, involving Vienne, Toby and a new entrant to the town, Mac. Vienne’s interest in Mac is self-serving. Toby and Mac’s feelings towards one another appear to be genuine.

As the characters and their relationships developed, I began to wonder how much intimacy was too much in a YA novel (I’m writing in euphemisms because I don’t want a specific word to trigger a flood of spam in the comments). My gut instinct was that as long as it was in keeping with the characters, not gratuitous and not deliberately explicit, it would be okay. Many of the books I read as a teen mumble-mumble years ago included intimacy in this manner and I got the gist of what was going on, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was.

My first dilemma: How far should the relationship go?

I researched viewpoints ranging from ‘putting any of it in only encourages it’ to ‘teenagers are doing it so it should be included’ to ‘not all teenagers are doing it’.

I’ve heard many publishers and editors stressed the importance of not making books for teenagers too ‘edgy’, unless negative behaviours tend to draw negative consequences. Schools, for example, are reluctant to include controversial books on their teaching lists because of the fear of parent backlash, a view supported in the blog Deliciously Fictive which includes the perspectives of teenaged readers, parents and those working in the industry.

Sarah Alderson (update: blog no longer exists) notes that none of her YA characters have done anything beyond kiss – because every time they try it gets left on the cutting room floor.

Amber Skye Forbes, who says her book When Stars Die includes positive and negative consequences, notes “There is a difference in the teen protagonist actually regretting it for whatever reason – and it better be a good, justifiable reason – and the author deliberately wanting teen readers to know the negative consequences.”

It all reinforced my initial thought: write what’s true to the characters and the situation.

The next dilemma was how to write it.

A cover image of Friday Brown

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield does it well – the title character witnesses a physical (although not intimate – more an example of power than love) situation between two people. It’s implied, and not explicit, as are most of the ‘negative’ topics in the book, which include prostitution and drug use. It’s written in a way that older readers will understand it immediately, and younger readers will get the gist.

YA author Christa Desir lists several books that she believes are realistic and empowering, including Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and If I Stay by Gayle Forman.

But one book on that list that stood out: Hushed by Kelley York. I couldn’t put it down. The book opens with protagonist Archer committing murder – and it’s not the first time. But, at its centre, the story is about Archer’s actions as a response to his friendship with Vivian and a traumatic event in their past; Archer’s emerging relationship with Evan; the difference between love, possession and obligation; manipulation; and what people will do to protect the people they love. And it has an extremely well-written scene with Archer and Evan in the shower, which demonstrates the state of their relationship and Archer’s state of mind. The writing was engaging, and the violence and physicality was contained firmly within the realm of the story.

Third dilemma: Noticing similarities in what I’m writing to an existing book.

A cover image of Hushed

I’d written much of Community before I read Hushed, but the similarities had me second-guessing my plot. The main female character in Community is Vienne, and in Hushed is Vivian. Toby/Archer feel obligated to protect Vienne/Vivian based on a recent/past event. Vienne/Vivian try to use Toby/Archer. Both stories have a romantic relationship between two guys. Both have a shower scene. Both protagonists have absent mothers. There are also other similarities that I won’t write because I’ll give the game away for both books.

So... slight panic over a major string of coincidences. But thematically and stylistically they’re chalk and cheese. Hushed is much darker, and if I can get to the point where I’m writing with the same impact as York, I’ll be ecstatic.

Fourth dilemma: It’s been pointed out to me that I’m writing a same-sex relationship between two guys when I’m a hetero married woman.

I see writing as a form of acting, but instead of on the stage it’s on the page. I’m not a master ceramicist, I don’t run an inner-city cafe, I don’t renovate old buildings, I’m not a architecture professor at university, a school teacher, the parent of a teenager (yet!) or a cranky old busybody (yet!) – but all these characters are also in the story.

From the outset I’ve approached the interactions between Mac and Toby as a relationship between two people, just as the other relationships in the book.

A quote on the front cover of Hushed grated on me: “How exciting that we live in a time when gay teen protagonists can be just as screwed up as straight ones”. However, when reading the book I found it refreshing, empowering and liberating that York had treated the relationship between her two male protagonists the same way I am: they are two people, coming together, facing obstacles unique to their situation.

So after a couple of weeks of writerly soul-searching, which I’ve put down to a moment of two of doubt, I’m sticking to my original plan: I’m writing a level of intimacy that’s true to the characters and their situation. It doesn’t feel right not to.

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the topic!

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