Honestly or sensationally addressing YA taboos

Dear Editor, Physical violence, sexuality and adult scenarios such as drinking and drugs seem to be filtering down into the younger genres. Must YA writers ride this wave to be successful?—K

Dear K,


You do not need to push the limits of taboo to write good fiction, for YA or anyone else.

However, there’s a reason these things are turning up. And they date back to a groundbreaking book published in 1970 called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume.

Before Margaret, there were things you addressed in children’s books, and there were things you left to the discretion of the children’s parents. It was a real shock when Blume hauled a child’s relationship to religion out into the light and let it belong to the child rather than the parents. Readers—children and adults alike—responded powerfully.

Ever since then, YA fiction has found a lucrative market in “taboo” subject matter. The idea is to talk to kids about the things that are actually important to them, around the false restrictions of their responsible adults. This is a function of the 1960s and our culture-wide revolt against hypocrisy and faking social “norms.” Blume’s book could not have been published ten years earlier.

It all looks so healthy and honest and freeing from this angle.

However, there are two dangers associated with this trend of exposing “taboos.”

One is that adults don’t experience taboos the same way children do, so unless you’re as gifted and clear-sighted as Judy Blume you run the very real risk of insincerity, the very hypocrisy this exposure of taboo is intended to combat.

The other is that the relationship between fantasy and reality is not at all as simple and clear-cut as many pundits would like to believe. Fantasy influences reality, just as reality influences fantasy. It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. So while the publishers are asking themselves, “Are there enough readers in our YA audience who can relate to personal experiences of violence, drugs, and sex to justify the cost of publishing this?” the children are asking themselves, “If everyone else can relate to this, how can I adopt these experiences as if they were my own so no one will know what a Goody Two-Shoes I really am?”

Our kids these days are exposed to an extraordinary level of violence, adult sex, and drugging in our popular media. Oh, my god. And studies show now that the human brain records witnessing even a facsimile of a traumatic event as experiencing it—this means in movies and fiction, as well as marketing. Any time the emotions associated with trauma are triggered, the brain records that in the part of the brain where memories of traumatic experiences are stored. In other words: we’re giving our kids real PTSD through their so-called “fantasy” life.

How do you know which of your readers have suffered traumas and need help healing and which of them have not?

You don’t. But any time you publish a book, you hope to sell it to as many readers as humanly possible. So the effort is certainly in the direction of bringing these traumas to teens who’ve never experienced them before. Hello, PTSD.

You know what people suffering PTSD do? They obsessively re-visit facsimiles of their original trauma in an effort to work through the pain. They also obsessively visit that trauma on others—most notably innocents who aren’t yet acquainted with it—in an effort to validate what they’ve suffered, to make it “normal.”

Welcome to the lucrative self-feeding YA market for taboo.

Does this mean we should avoid fiction with potentially traumatic subject matter? Not at all. Honest and insightful examination of the wounds many teens suffer in secret is a big step toward helping them heal.

But should we ride the bandwagon sensationalizing potentially traumatic subject matter for the sake sales? Encourage young writers to focus on trauma over content?

Well, I don’t know, guys. How far are you willing to go in promoting a cycle of “normalizing” sensationalized teen violence, sex, and drugging—and traumatizing readers for whom these experiences aren’t normal—just to make a buck?