Monday, December 8, 2014

On Writing Ethical YA

Yesterday I was doing some subtips on Twitter, talking about an issue in YA that's important to me, and a number of people said they'd love to see a blog post on the issue, so here it is.

I love talking about issues that affect YA (and other categories, too, of course, but my main stomping ground is YA). I've been so thrilled to see the discussions about diversity, equality, complexity, sex, language, and all these other issues surfacing and getting more and more traffic. They're hugely important ideas and I'm always game to hear a new and challenging perspective on any of those issues.

But it's also a ton of information, and it can make your head spin. I'm hearing a lot of authors, published and unpublished, myself included, asking questions like these:

How dark can YA be?
Can I show sex on the page? How much detail can/should there be?
Can I have YA without sex at all, even off the page?
How many times can I use the F-bomb? What kind of language should I avoid?
Can I have a guy save a girl from something, or will that be seen as sexist?
Can I have an all-white cast?
What about having a minority as a supporting character? Is that offensive or cliche?
Is it okay to have my story be a happily-ever-after? What about happy-for-now?
Can I show a virginity loss scene where it's really not that big of a deal? What about a teen MC who is committed to waiting for sex?
Safe sex-- does it have to be deliberately shown? Can I have unsafe sex scenes without consequences?
What if my main character isn't actually very nice? Does s/he have to be likeable?
Does the romance have to be a healthy one? If not, do I need consequences for the unhealthy relationship?
Do the characters have to be better off at the end than they are in the beginning?
What's my responsibility to my teen readers? What about my adult readers?

These are valid questions, because books do have an influence on how we see ourselves and the world. Story is influential.

However. However. The YA author's responsibility isn't to model how we wish life was or what life ought to be.

(Execution matters, and how you put those elements together matters, and ethically irresponsible YA definitely does exist. That's not what I'm discussing here, because so much depends on the individual element and your own moral convictions and I am not at all equipped to walk anyone through that kind of massive discussion/minefield.)

 I see YA authors having two responsibilities to their readers:

1) To be authentic.
Good story shows life authentically. You aren't responsible to show anything more than that. Unsafe sex, manipulative romances, swearing, jerk MCs, happy-for-now relationships, and characters who just don't make good decisions are all parts of real life. Readers, particularly teens, need to see it happening and see characters dealing or not dealing with it. Turning these elements into parables isn't authentic and it doesn't reflect real life. YA writers aren't responsible to always show girl power and non-sexist relationships with respectful boys and a perfectly diverse and wholly representative cast where everyone is treated equally, and everyone has sensitive, caring, emotional sex.

Real life is so much messier than that. The discussion around these issues isn't meant to force YA into that box. The discussion, in fact, is often so much more about the authors than it is about what elements are or are not in the stories. Execution-- how we build those elements into the story-- is much more the issue. Necessary outcomes and false limitations take the authenticity out of the story.

Do you want to write a book with detailed sex on the page? You can. Do you want to write a really sweary YA with a not-so-nice girl MC? Do it. Want to write a crash-and-burn toxic romance? Please do, because I want to read it. Execution is important, but that's true of every story element. (And no, not every story will be for every publisher, but that's a whole other discussion.) You do not have to have your characters end up making the responsible, ethical decision, because life doesn't work like that. It's not authentic, and we're helping no one and doing story a disservice when we do.

YA can be sweetheart HEAs. It can be destructive romance. It can be sweary or not. It can have detailed sex or no sex at all. Some choices may lose you some readers, but those choices will gain you other readers, too. YA is not a collection of limitations. As soon as we start saying what we can and can't write in young adult fiction, we limit the kinds of stories that can be told. The YA author's responsibility is to be authentic to teen life for the culture and character he or she chose. Nothing more or less.

2) To be part of a whole, and fill in the gaps. YA authors' responsibility to their readers extends beyond the content of their individual books, because we're part of a whole. We need to be aware of what the body of YA is showing readers. Is the glut of YA saying that only sexy bad boys are worthy of being main characters, and every other guy isn't worthy of romance? Are we showing that story-worthy things pretty much only happen to straight white people? Are we showing that we aren't particularly concerned about having characters available for every kind of reader to identify with, so they can see themselves and their experiences represented?

YA writers need to read widely and constantly, so we know what's out there and we can see the gaps. And then we need to fill in those gaps, in a way that authentically crosses paths with our individual passions, story types, and style. We need to make sure we don't have imbalances in the kinds of stories readers can find. To write stories for everyone. To be representative and authentic.

To do that, we need diversity of story. Safe and unsafe sex. Happily-ever-afters and happy-for-nows and tragedies. Likeable and "unlikeable" main characters. Positive and destructive endings. All kinds of personalities and expression styles. Characters who can and can't make good choices. If the body of YA as a whole is showing something non-representative, if we're missing stories and people, we need to change that.

If you're showing real life and helping fill in the gaps, you're doing just fine, and I want to read your book.

In case you want to see the tweets from yesterday about this, here's the Storify link.

Give a shout-out to the authors and books you love that are doing a great job of being representative and authentic in the comments, so our readers can find them!


Kate Brauning is the author of HOW WE FALL, a YA contemporary suspense. She grew up in rural Missouri and fell in love with young adult books in college. She’s now an editor with Entangled Publishing and pursues her lifelong dream of telling stories she’d want to read. Visit her online at or on Twitter at @KateBrauning.


  1. Excellent post. I must argue though, I get the "you can't do this in YA" response fairly often. In ALL stages of the sub process. The current WIP I'm querying gets this with frightening consistency, so much that I'm starting to think it's better to self-pub this particular book.
    At first it used to piss me off to no end. Then I realized they probably like my characters and stories just fine, but they don't want to deal with the flak they'll get for having "ethically irresponsible" (as you put it so well) material in their books. Such as some backward middle-of-nowhere schools banning it and "concerned parents" who think their precious angels never heard the F word before writing angry letters.
    Personally, I'm a big fan of the ethically irresponsible, because I think it's important for real life to be reflected in YA novels. Sooner or later the young and bookish WILL have to confront it, so may as well be sooner.
    Besides, there are always other publishing avenues for stories deemed too edgy.

    1. Oh, yeah, people definitely say it. Marketing concerns can be an issue.

  2. I love this. All of it. That is all.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jolene! Thanks for reading!

  3. Great post, great points. I can't help thinking about my daughter, 12 yrs old, who could be reading YA but still prefers middle grade because so much YA is too dark for her! I love a good twisted plot myself, but she doesn't. My point being: we need ALL kinds of stories. Dark and light.

    1. I totally agree. All kinds of stories, all kinds of readers.

  4. Hello, first time visitor to your blog. I agree that when there are "mandates" to what someone can or can't do when they write in a certain genre, you're limiting literary and intellectual content and hence, you're also limiting and manipulating dialogue on certain topics.

    When an author tells a story in such a way where it seems like they're careful not to offend, where they're showing how an ideal world should be, and how an ideal protagonist would handle a problem in the most ideal manner, I might feel like I'm being patronized as a reader. It's a choice to tell a story that way, and I sometimes read books like that....and sometimes, I don't. What I find problematic is when any person or group insists this has to be the only way to tell a story.