When one of my wonderful writer friends recently read the revised version of my YA novel-in-progress, she had a lot of insightful things to say. Most of her comments helped me problem-solve small places in the novel where something wasn’t quite working so that I can finish making the book as strong as it can be. But two of her marginal comments especially got me thinking, not just about my work-in-progress but about young adult literature more generally.
In one place, she circled a curse word and asked if it was the only place in the book where my main character swore (it wasn’t exactly, but it was stronger than words she’d used other times). And in another place, she noted that the main character never drinks throughout the novel, which might make her seem kind of young. My friend wasn’t suggesting that I should haphazardly throw in a handful of curse words and some teenage drinking; she was simply making an observation so that I could reflect on how I want the character and novel to come across. But it’s true that the absence of swearing and drinking might be conspicuous, especially for readers who read a lot of contemporary realistic YA and have developed certain expectations for the genre.
First I had to think about why I hadn’t included cursing and drinking. The cursing part was pretty simple. The main character in my novel is a fairly innocent 16-year-old, and curse words wouldn’t fit her voice, unless she was trying to impress someone by talking tougher. I toned down the one word that had stood out and moved on.
The teen drinking thing was a little more complicated. Because I teach middle school students, I am aware of how many 11-13 year olds read young adult novels instead of or in addition to middle grade books. While I believe that kids and teens generally do a great job of choosing books they’re ready for, I sometimes worry about how drinking (and drinking and driving) is normalized if there is alcohol in everything that adolescents watch and read. When teen alcohol use feels authentic to a character and is important to a character’s journey, I have no objections to it, but I don’t like the idea of having characters pound beers or swig cocktails for no particular reason.
I also didn’t drink when I was a teenager, so drinking doesn’t immediately come to mind as part of the universal teen experience for me. Although when I really think about it, the fact that I chose not to drink in high school really didn’t mean that alcohol wasn’t part of my teen life—I had some fear and discomfort around alcohol that impacted what I did and who I hung out with and would probably come into play if somebody were going to turn teen-me into a character in a YA novel.
After some reflection, I decided that I think it’s important that there are books out there that will appeal to middle school students who are advanced readers and ready to read about teenage experiences, but maybe not quite ready for all of the content in some YA books. I imagine my tween/teen self and some of my students reading my work, and that probably does influence which characters I choose to focus on and which stories I want to tell. But on the other hand, I can’t just say, “Well, I don’t want my main character to drink because I don’t want young readers to get the idea that everybody drinks in high school.” I need to be true to the characters I’ve created.
So I spent some time thinking about how the main character in my novel would feel about alcohol, and then I needed to determine whether there were any places in the story where she would be likely to have a drink. I knew she wouldn’t be a big drinker—she’s pretty cautious and likes to be in control—but I also knew that she would have drank a little bit at parties with her ex-boyfriend, because she wanted very badly to fit into his world, and she would probably test out drinking some of her dad’s alcohol at a certain point in the story (her dad’s job is actually related to alcohol) when she is annoyed with him and trying to become a more daring person. When I tried bringing her dad’s vodka into a particular scene, it added to the tension and awkwardness and felt like the right choice.
It was a helpful exercise for me to think consciously about the role that swearing and alcohol should or should not play in my YA novel, so I invite you to think about how drinking/swearing/sex/etc. come across in your own writing or in the books you’ve read. How do you decide whether or not to include these things, and have you been struck by books you’ve read that include gratuitous curse words or references to partying or that steer clear of these references entirely? Do you think about your intended audience as you write or wonder about the appropriate audience for books you read? And have you ever felt that your affection for and desire to protect young readers is at odds with your ability to tell or recommend a good story?