Sunday, January 13, 2013

Keeping it real...



Let me start by saying I don’t have kids—not the two-legged kind, anyway—so I’m by no means an expert on the subject of teenagers. I am, however, realistic. I have eyes and ears. I pay attention. I’m also not that far removed from my youth that I live in a rose-colored fantasy.

I wasn’t what you’d consider a wild child in my teen years, but I wasn’t an angel either. Judge if you must, but I snuck out and got in fights. I lied. I—get ready for it—drank alcohol. 

The majority of YA authors gloss over certain aspects of the normal teenage existence, and for some characters and stories, it works. For my books, that kind of hazy, filmy glimpse of the world wouldn’t fly. My characters would never tolerate anything less than the whole, gritty picture. I know there’s a big debate on whether sex should be included in young adult novels, and personally, I find the entire issue ridiculous. 

As a YA author, I want to connect with teenagers in a real way. I feel this includes respecting them enough to avoid fading to black when it comes to real issues. Guess what? Sex is a real issue for teens. We may not like it, but the truth is, sweeping it under the rug is irresponsible. 

About a month after Touch came out, I received an email from a family friend. The entire letter was an enraged tirade berating me for being so careless. Why? Because close to the end of my book, there’s a sex scene. Yes. A real honest-to-God sex scene.

It’s okay. You can gasp now.

The scene isn’t graphic or remotely pornographic by any definition, nor does it go on for pages and pages. It doesn’t scream of depravity, promote goat sex, or subliminally suggest going out and getting down and dirty with every Edward, Jacob, or Jace, but apparently the subject matter is offensive to some. This woman closed her email stating I should be ashamed of myself, and that her daughter would never be allowed to read or watch anything containing sex. The same daughter—fourteen years old as of a week ago, by the way—recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

Yeah. 

Scenarios like this are why I find the debate ridiculous. This woman tried to shelter her daughter, and what good did it do? The girl still ended up pregnant at fourteen. What are we trying to shield our children from? Reality? We’re turning sex into a dirty little secret. 

There are exceptions to the rule—there always are—but if you think teenagers never have sex, then I want whatever’s in your water. The truth is, they do have sex. In my opinion—and remember, that’s all this post is—I feel shielding teens from reality harms, rather than protects. We’re making it seem like having sex is something they need to hide, and by feeling that way, they won’t come to us for advice. And if they don’t come to us for advice, we can’t guide them. They’re going to make their own mistakes—and that’s a good thing. Growing up is all about making bad choices and learning from them. 

I’m not an advocate for gratuitous violence, sex, and drugs in books, but I do advocate reality. If it fits the character and isn’t thrown in simply for shock value, then I see nothing wrong with these “taboos”. The reality is, they’re a part of life. 

Equally disturbing as the handful of emails I’ve received about that one sex scene, are the ones I’ve gotten over simply the mention of drugs, alcohol, and cigarette smoking. Seriously? You don’t think teens are doing these things, either? 

While I write fiction, I do live in reality. And the reality of it is, teenagers do have sex. They drink. They experiment with drugs. They smoke. They make bad choices. They’re also smarter than most give them credit for.

16 comments:

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree that especially in contemporary fiction we shouldn't shy away from the issues kids deal with like sex, drugs, etc. They will relate more to our stories if they can connect to them. And if we're honest, we may have had experiences with these things too. I think it's all in the balance. Thanks for the great post.

Sara @ Forever 17 Books said...

I appreciate books that don't gloss over the sex that is so real in the teenage world. Teens want and need characters that they can relate to and feel real to them. As long as it isn't terribly graphic, there should be no problems. Thank you for this post!

Jeanz said...

Well said Jus! Lets face it the YA audience would settle for no less than realistic. To be perfectly honest as a mother of a teen, I would prefer her to read about realistic situations. I also think you write about them in a responsible way. Lets face it movies go into way much more detail and are visual and the teens watch them no matter what certificate they are given. Please lets not strt down the route of censorship or certification of books!

tradermare said...

I think your last paragraph says it all! Teens are drinking, smoking, having sex, doing things that as adults we don't want them to do, but we may have done these things as teens ourselves. Let's be realistic. Thank you for a great post on this topic.

Michele said...

Spot on Jus. As a mother of a 14 year old daughter myself, I'm realistic about teens. God knows I wasn't a model kid!

My daughter and I talk everyday. Really talk, not just "how are you doing in school" (although I have those conversations too) or me admonishing her to "don't do that"! all the time. We have real conversations about drugs, alcohol, and sex. Too many parents think that talking about it with their kids means you're saying it's ok to do those things. NO. It doesn't mean that at all. In fact, I make the argument that it's the opposite. Out of all her friends, my daughter is always considered the "responsible" one, the level headed one. Even so, I KNOW she's going to make some really stupid choices. It's just the way life is.

If she doesn't feel 100% comfortable coming to me and having honest discussions about what goes on around her, then I'm the one that failed HER. She is supposed to learn from me but if she's too worried about me getting mad at her for asking questions then I haven't done my job. She's only learned to avoid conflict. It's incredibly sad and infuriating at the same time that too many parents stick their head in the sand with these issues.

By the way, my daughter and I love reading YA and we both are really enjoying your Touch series! Can't wait for the next book! : )

Two Chicks On Books said...

Jus I adore you and AMEN!!!!!!

Mona said...

When I was a teen (many decades ago), we drank, smoked, and had sex. Drugs weren't that common yet, but were just starting to come into vogue.

As a parent, I knew what my kids were capable of and, sure enough, my oldest came home pregnant at 17. The other two made a trip to the doctor when puberty hit.

I have absolutely no doubt what kids are doing. Some things never change. :)

Kassiah said...

This has been something my friends and I have been discussing. You're totally right--kids are drinking and having sex and sometimes doing drugs. Portraying this realistically is so important. I hate that so many YA books have such DIRE consequences, that in my opinion are not realistic and cannot allow teenagers to think about the emotional consequences rather than "proving the adults wrong."

Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

i as a teenager when i'm reading YA i appreciate authors that don't gloss over things or dumb in down. we are certainly expose to suff like this way before you think , just as the tag states we are young adults that means soon were going to be adults , you can't shelter us forever how are we suppose to learn anything about the real world without actually be told? . give us a little credit we make mistakes and are still growing up but we are a lot more mature that we're perceived- and truth be told even as an adult people make mistakes and do thing that leaving them wondering "why?!" down the track , my point is just because we teenagers does not mean that we're totally naive to the reality of the world or it's problems .This debate about censorship or banning books that evolve sex, drugs, alcohol , violence , death or basically anything "real" in YA lit is ridiculous because we will just read it anyway if it's shelved as "adult" because we want to read things that are realistic and relate to us truly not some book thats pact full of sugary sweet lies , teenagers are discovering the world and themselves and one way or another they will become adults don't you think we should have a true understanding of the world because when that time comes their will be no sheltering us then.

Xandra James said...

I agree. There's a reason these books are called Young Adult - young people are trying to fit into the world, experimenting and making mistakes. They're also finding themselves.

Wearing those rose tinted glasses and getting all high and mighty about what comes down to real life, isn't going to educate kids nowadays.

Colette Ballard said...

Love this post, Jus!
I have a teenage daughter and we read many of the same YA books. It opens the door for discussion on a wide range of topics parents are often uncomfortable tackling with their teens. She also critiques my writing which covers some edgy topics--opens the discussion door even wider!

fionachapman said...

Great post - I totally agree. I don't understand why sex has to be such a taboo subject. It's not an issue when other mammals do it. The only difference is that humans are the only beings having sex for pleasure. Young adults should be made aware of how their bodies work yet also the consequences of being careless. Good for you in voicing your opinion.

Kurt Hampe said...

To me, parent denial is the same thing as saying, “Child, you are not self-aware or smart enough to notice, nor functional enough to cope.” And while most a parents would never say that out loud, their kid would still get the message and try to prove the parent wrong.

Rachel Firasek said...

Very well put. In fact, I deal with these issues daily with my teens, so...keep writing that fictional reality. Our kids need it!

Valeria Andrea said...

Finally; someone who thinks those 'debates' about sex/alcohol/etc are RIDICULOUS!!

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