Fair game or a theme too far?

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By G.J. Reilly-B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

As a writer, this week is perhaps one of the most important in my calendar, so, when indieBRAG and Layered Pages announced that they were looking for posts, I jumped at the chance. It’s funny how teen readers get just one week. I love the fact that teens get a week at all, but as a novelist who writes with young adults in mind, part of my job is to encourage teens to read as often as they can.

It was teaching that led me to write for that age group. Many of my characters have been influenced by the people I’ve taught over the years. Indeed, some of the themes I’ve tried to explore in the Book of Jerrick series have come from snippets of conversations that I’ve overheard in the corridors, or in the classroom.

inquestorBefore we go on, I’d like to emphasise something that all writers should know – ‘Young Adult’ is NOT a genre, it’s an age bracket which, although popular with older readers, is written with teens in mind. Young adult readers enjoy exactly the same ‘genres’ of books as everyone else (and many of the same themes too). That’s not to say that we should be as graphic in our descriptions of death or love, but it certainly doesn’t mean that we should avoid them altogether. Thankfully, many contemporary young adult authors have realised that they don’t need to sanitise their work. It is okay to talk about cancer, or suicide, provided those difficult themes are treated appropriately.

Other aspiring authors I’ve spoken with have mentioned avoiding YA like the plague. Whenever I’ve asked them about it, they mostly say it’s because they feel writing for young adults is a minefield of taboos. I remember planning the Book of Jerrick series and a conversation with a good friend; it started with the words ‘It must be really boring to write for young adults’. When I asked why she thought that, she replied: ‘Because there’s so much that you can’t write about’. She then asked if I was planning to kill any of my characters. Of course, my answer horrified her. She was convinced that it being a series for young adults, there couldn’t be any death or violence whatsoever – until I pointed out titles like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner and even Harry Potter, which all deal with violence and death in their own way. Interested in what other opinions my friend might have, I asked about love. Her first response was: ‘What kind?’

Love is a risky business when writing for young adults. Does anyone remember the arguments over the undressed scene in the movie version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? I say undressed because there was nothing inappropriate on view and ‘nude’ would suggest an awful lot more. With such a wide age range to cover – roughly 13 to 18 – one might well expect the odd kiss or a cuddle, again, provided it doesn’t stray into the inappropriate. But people have other kinds of loving relationships too, don’t they? Let’s look at one of my favourites – Tolkien’s Hobbits, Frodo and Sam. Their friendship is practically legendary. Everyone who’s ever read the books or seen the movies knows it and, in my opinion, it definitely falls under the heading of ‘love’.

There is a scene in Inquisitor when Michael and his best friend fall out. I’ve tried to make it obvious that the argument affects both characters in much the same way. In fact, I would say that Michael struggles to cope with the loss of his best friend, and we see him break down on Tamara’s shoulder. At first, we might not think it’s a big deal; he is only 12 years old after all and it’s alright for him to be upset about losing a friend. But what if I want to put him in a different situation involving a classmate?  Is it okay to talk about that first, awkward moment when a teen character realises that they have feelings for someone else? Of course it is. But you wouldn’t believe some people’s reactions to it, the most common being: ‘Aren’t they a bit young?’

piper_altI’m in a fairly privileged position as an author of young adult books, in that I can ask my audience directly what they like to read and, more importantly, why. You might be surprised to read that both young male and young female readers alike enjoy stories with emotional content. After all, our teen years are some of the most emotionally conflicting we will ever experience. If you’re a teen and you’re reading this, it probably won’t be much of a surprise to you at all. In short, if you don’t think anyone under the age of 16 is capable of having a crush, or even being in love, then you haven’t witnessed St. Valentine’s Day at a school!

Young adult doesn’t come with the subtitle ‘avoid everything’. Neither does it mean that several hundred pages of gore and torture are acceptable. However, and let’s be honest, many readers in the mid young adult age-group are already reading books by George R.R. Martin and Stephen King. Heck, there are enough relationship issues in Stephenie Meyer’s books to keep Forks High’s educational psychologist busy for a lifetime, but teens are still reading them. Why? – Because those books are challenging, excite the imagination and don’t talk down to the reader.

Before anyone rushes away to post an irate comment, I most certainly agree that YA books should have boundaries and that YA authors should write responsibly. I also believe that continuous profanity or profane language out of context is pointless, no matter what the age of the audience.

I also find it interesting that we can write about teenage pregnancy as a theme, it doesn’t mean that we need to be graphic when writing about how it happened. Remember those YA readers who are reading George R.R. Martin, Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer (other authors are available)? Trust me; those readers already know how it happened. But let’s be clear about one thing: as a writer, I am not the reader’s parent, guardian or guidance counsellor. Teaching morality is not necessarily part of the job, but in YA literature, a moral aspect does help strengthen the story.

There are very few themes that I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching for a young adult audience. Can we talk about the Holocaust or 9/11? How about drugs or terminal illness? Of course we can. These are things that affect everyone, of any age. Don’t take my word for it, go and find the best selling books for YA readers and see for yourself. If you’re still not convinced, ask a reader. In my experience, young adults who read love to talk about their favourite books, but don’t be surprised if they give it to you straight, they don’t pull any punches, or sugar coat it the way an older reader might, which is what makes them such a great audience to write for!

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About Author:

By day, G. J. Reilly is a teacher of (mostly) ICT and Computing in the South Wales valleys, where he lives with his long-suffering wife and 2.4 cats.

He has an eclectic selection of hobbies, from playing a number of musical instruments with varying degrees of competence to learning the art of contact juggling and teaching sword-based martial arts. Having gained his degree, he spent ten years working in industry, before deciding to change career and head into education.

With an interest in high fantasy, contemporary fantasy and science fiction from a young age, it comes as no surprise that his first work falls into the young adult contemporary fantasy genre.

Check out these other great posts with G.J. Reilly!

B.R.A.G. Interview

 A Writer’s Life Part I

 Self-Publishing: An Author’s Experience

The comments, advice and opinions expressed here are those of authors whose books have been honored with a B.R.A.G. Medallion. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the owners, management, or employees of indieBRAG, LLC.

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