YA Wednesday: Stephanie Guerra on Edgy YA Fiction
Featured Summer Reading author Stephanie Guerra's debut YA novel, Torn, is the story of two unlikely friends: Ruby, a wild child who thumbs her nose at high-school norms and runs with an older, faster, crowd; and Stella, the classic good girl who secretly wants to be something else. Torn has teenage drug use, a relationship with a much older man, and more of the darker, grittier choices that often come into play during the formulative teen years. Some of us love that kind of realism in our YA fiction and others may think it goes too far. Do you think there's a line that shouldn't be crossed in teen books? See what Guerra has to say on the subject in her exclusive guest post below and you can check out her recommended summer reads for great realistic YA fiction, teen classics, and more, here.
When I was writing Torn, I knew I was crossing some lines. I’d get into a good work flow and then find myself writing something about teens swigging liquor and I’d pause and wonder, Am I using my powers for evil?
Then the reviews started coming out and the most frequent comments were “extremely realistic,” “strong voice” and “edgy.” Many readers loved the book for these reasons, and said it captures exactly what high school is (or was) like for them. But some readers objected to the substance use in the book, and others felt that a teen’s affair with a forty-year-old man is crossing a line.
So what is too edgy in YA fiction? And how, as a generally law-abiding person who is also a parent, am I okay with writing the messy content in Torn? As an author of realistic fiction, my first fidelity is to realism. And try as I might, I can’t picture adolescence except as an insane ocean of choices about drugs, sex, beliefs, and morals.
Admittedly, my own adolescence was edgy. I spent those years in the drug-soaked culture of Santa Cruz and then the booze-soaked culture of Vegas. I, and everyone I knew, was confronted with an array of choices about substances and sex. And so Torn was written with the assumption that teens will have opportunities to experiment, and ultimately, they will have to choose what they’re willing to try and do.
That said, there is an artistic line in what I’m willing to depict, and it’s called “glamorization.” I wouldn’t even stick a toenail over that line. I’ve read a YA book (naming no names) that was like an ad for heroin. It was framed as a cautionary tale, but the descriptions of being high were so enticing that I found myself wondering what I’d missed. So I skip elaborate sensory detail when I’m dealing with something I want to acknowledge but not necessarily promote. Sometimes the event enters the story in the past tense or as a discussion between characters, offering a degree of separation from the immediate experience.
But I avoid didacticism, too. That’s always been a risk in books for young people, and it’s a murderer of good fiction. Therefore, not all of my characters who use drugs will wind up on the street or dead. And I may mention alcohol as part of a scene without proceeding to any lesson. Likewise sex. My characters don’t always make good choices; otherwise there would be no story. But they do grow.
But to the question: is there a line? Or has YA blurred boundaries with adult fiction so greatly that nothing is off-limits? When I think of books like Doing It, Tricks, Smack, Tyrell, and more, I’m tempted to say no line exists except that which parents establish.
Ultimately, I believe that the question of whether any given book is appropriate depends on the audience. For instance, in my research on building literacy with incarcerated teens (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, February 2012), I found that street literature (an edgy genre dealing with life in urban ghettos) reflects these students’ life experiences and can help them build literacy, examine their choices, and consider options for the future. Would I give the same books to a sheltered thirteen-year-old from the rural Midwest? No.
To offer another example, by the age of twenty, approximately one in five women has been sexually assaulted. Books like Speak, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune, Scars and Thirteen Reasons Why let assault victims know they’re not alone in their experiences and emotions. They offer a safe literary landscape for teens to discuss painful issues without owning them as personal. Some offer coping strategies. But would I teach Kambia Elaine to a tenth grade English class? No.
So we—the teachers and parents—are to whatever extent we care to try, the gatekeepers for books, as for other media. YA is not a rating like PG. Choices of literature must be based on knowledge of the audience, and the only way to evaluate a book is to read it oneself. Doing so models literacy, establishes a context for conversation, and may be a good launching point for discovering what a teen believes and feels about larger topics. But most of all, paying attention to a teen’s literature is an act of love and connection around the fascinating world of books.