I’m seeing this discussion on the YA Twitter feeds this morning and want to put in my 2 cents. But I hate typing on my phone and it’s a long rant so here I am on my blog instead.
The discussion is about how YA books are skewing too old/mature currently. This means that the content tends to be aimed at 17-19 year olds instead of 14 year olds. Middle Grade fiction tends to be aimed at 8-13 year olds, with younger MG aimed at 8-10 and older MG aimed at 10-13. The biggest difference there is age of protagonist and reading grade level.
YA is supposed to cover 14-19ish and NA (New Adult), in my opinion covers 17+. Again, difference should be age of protagonists (YA has 14-21 year old characters while NA tends to have 19-35 year old protagonists). There’s also a difference of theme with YA covering first crushes, first dates, first kisses, first jobs, high school drama, identity seeking, trust issues, and developing independence (and however these translate into fantasy settings). NA deals with college or post-college, first steps towards a career, first serious relationship, coping with increased financial and personal independence, paying bills, and adulting (and however these translate into fantasy settings).
There are several problems with this.
- Age does not directly correlate to reading level.
- Grade level does not directly correlate to reading level.
- Age alone does not determine the content maturity level kids and teens are ready for.
- Which means that grade/reading level does not at all correlate to content maturity level.
There are 12 year olds who were bored to death with Babysitter’s Club (which features 12-15 year old characters in the lead roles) and there are 12 year olds who loved them. I worked with 14 year olds who were reading at an adult level and 17 year olds who were reading at a grade 8 level. That 17 year old doesn’t want to read about little kids going on dorky adventures – they want to read about their peers doing relevant things but they need the words on the page to be easier. (We had specially written books called Hi-lo. High interest, low reading level. … oh, right – I worked as an educational assistant for about 3 years).
As a reader, I was reading Stephen King at 12. And Poe. And Agatha Christie. I was reading Laurel K Hamilton before I was 18. (I watched Clive Barker’s Hellraiser at 15).
As a writer I’m acutely aware that there are teens with a high reading level who don’t necessarily want graphic content so I write clean books that will appeal to 12 year olds with a high reading level, 14-18 year olds with a standard or high reading level, and adults looking for quick fun reads. I also write MG sci-fi that will appeal to 9-10 year olds with an advanced reading level, 11-12 year olds with an average reading level, and 13-15 year olds looking for easier reads that are still exciting. I do that by blending reading level (grade level) with higher or lower content maturity levels.
While a lot of this debate deals with content maturity levels (like 8 year olds reading about periods or 12 year olds reading about college life) and whether or not content of a certain level will even interest kids of certain ages (FYI, majority of teens/kids want to read about their peers so 1 year younger to 5 years older than the target reader), a big part of the discussion centers on graphic content. Sex to be exact.
Are the characters having sex at all even if it’s not shown “on screen”? If the answer is yes, it is no longer MG fiction but clearly YA.
Are the characters having sex that is shown “on screen”? That skews it in the adult mind to older teen fiction.
To be clear, there are differing levels of graphic depiction. You can write a sex scene that centers on emotions, on the awe and wonder, the newness, the excitement, the raw nerves, the awkwardness, the buzz afterwards, or the regret, or the shame, or whatever suits your story. You can write a sex scene where you never talk about what the penis is doing at all. And you can write a sex scene that sounds like the “Audio captioning for the visually impaired” track for a porno, with great physical details of their bodies, their actions, their emotions, their physical feelings, the sweat, the passion … (I ghost wrote erotic fiction for a while). There’s a big difference in how authors can handle it.
Personally, I’m okay with sex being a part of stories for younger teens. I’m not okay with 18+ porno style depictions of sex being a part of stories for younger teens. And I’m not okay with anything for younger teens that shows abusive relationships, gas lighting, or irresponsible sexual behaviours in a positive light. But that may be me as a parent speaking.
I’m working on a new teen contemporary drama, and it involves a teen pregnancy. Several of the major characters are navigating dating and sex as part of their story arcs. Some of them are in dangerous, red-flag relationships. And it’s up to me to decide how graphic or prevalent these scenes and arcs will be. And it’s up to me as an indie to market my book to an appropriate age group.
Honestly, I think YA books were previously marketed to an older audience than they should have been (meaning, books for 12 year olds were being pushed on 14 year olds). I think our current YA content and marketing is more accurate, especially considering things like the #metoo movement, climate change, a global pandemic, gun violence in schools, and teen pregnancy. Our teens are living in complicated times – they need fiction that reflects that, not fiction that reflects a rosy Leave it to Beaver world. (They need good role models and happy endings, of course, but they need characters they can relate to as well).
What we expose our children to is always a razor’s edge balancing act. We cannot overshelter them or censor them but at the same time we must guide them, educate them, prepare them, and protect them.
We’re not going to get it right overnight.