Category: Writing Issues

Racism in Young Adult Fiction


This beautiful image is by jamieskinner00 and I found it on Flickr. For more photos by this artist, click the image.


Today, I’d like to look at racism in young adult fiction.  At least one or two books make the American Library Association’s most challenged list because they contain racial discrimination.  Personally, I think that this stand is counterproductive.  Often young adult fiction contains racism to illustrate the lesson that bigotry is ugly, as in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.  Sometimes, like Laura Ingalls’ LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRARIE, it’s represented in a historical way.  Whether it’s included to teach a lesson or just to keep a historical era authentic, I believe it’s a mistake to shield the young from images of racism.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a coming of age story about a girl named Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama in the 1960’s.  The climax of this book is a trial in which their father, Atticus, defends a black man against accusations that he raped a white woman.  THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the story of a boy who runs away from his abusive father.  As he flees, he meets up with a runaway slave named Jim who is trying to get to Ohio to buy his freedom. As Jim looks after Huck, Huck realizes that the black man isn’t property, despite what society tells him.  When Huck must make the choice between revealing Jim as a runaway slave, or helping him continue to Ohio and face the threat of hell for stealing another person’s property, he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

One of the leading objections to both of these books is the liberal use of the word “nigger”.  I hate this word.  In my opinion, there are only a couple of others that rank as hateful.  However, I believe that we, adults and young adults alike, need to have open, adult discussions about when using the word “nigger” is and isn’t appropriate.  When it’s used in a historical context to demonstrate how it was used to hurt and belittle, I believe it serves a worthy purpose.  If it’s used to shock and make writing edgy, it becomes the same as swearing in young adult.  Maybe even worse.

LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRAIRIE gets the racism nod, and has been challenged and banned in a few places because Pa Ingalls takes part in a black face minstrel show.  It’s presented as entertainment, the same as a spelling bee and a musical concert.  It’s worth mentioning that an earlier book in the series, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE has one black character who is a doctor.  This doctor saves the family from malaria.  So, in this context, I believe the minstrel show just illustrates the culture at the time (in the 1880’s in the Midwest).  While, yes, it is racist, it’s also an opportunity for how cultural awareness has changed in the last 130 years.

Here’s something that I found interesting:  all of the book challenges from racism that I found were racism around African-American culture.   It’s not like racism against other groups doesn’t exist in young adult literature.  There’s a nice little collection of Holocaust literature for young adults, including ANNE FRANK: DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL.  Holocaust literature is, by it’s very nature, about racism.  And while ANNE FRANK had been challenged, it was for sexual content and homosexual reference.  Also, while the LITTLE HOUSE series has the one example of racism against blacks, there are multiple examples of racism against Native Americans.  Ma Ingalls even says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” during their stay in Indian Territory.

So, I want to leave this discussion with the question: why wouldn’t we want to expose young adults to examples of racism?  Why does it seem that only representation of racism against African Americans is challenged?  I personally would have no trouble including racism in a book I wrote.  How about you?


Drug Use in Young Adult Fiction

This great photo from Vancouver, Washington was taken by Curtis Gregory Perry. For more photos by this artist, click on the photo!

Alright, this one is tough for me.  As an adult, I’m not interested in books about addition and drug abuse–not in young adult fiction and not in adult fiction.  I know that there is a whole plethora of teen-themed books that take on the question of drug abuse.  GO ASK ALICE by (intriguingly enough) Anonymous is a cautionary tale about drug addiction published in 1971.  More recently, Ellen Hopkins wrote CRANK (2004), an odd little book of poetry about one girl’s addiction to crystal meth.

Because drug addiction and the culture around dealing and taking drugs is so bleak, these stories are usually more than just drug addiction stories.  ALICE and CRANK each contain sex and rape, ALICE contains homosexuality, and CRANK takes on the topic of teen pregnancy.  Clearly, these authors were choosing to tell stories, which, in their opinion needed to descend into the dark places of human emotion.  I’m sure they’re powerful.

Here’s what’s interesting to me: as a teen I would have eaten these books up.  I was raised in a happy home with pretty mainstream friends and fairly wholesome interests, so reading about darkness and pain was the only way I got a look at that side of life.  In that sense, I’m grateful there were these dark books about gritty, hopeless lives.  When I grew up and actually saw real people in this kind of pain,  I wasn’t so shocked.  On the other hand, now that I am an adult, I fully understand a parent’s desire to shield their child from this tone and these topics.

However, drug addiction doesn’t have to be the topic of a young adult book for it to be controversial.  THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky was challenged because the book doesn’t always present drug use in a negative light.  Charlie, the protagonist, smokes marijuana and takes LSD.  Marijuana he likes, but LSD he doesn’t.  There isn’t ever any threat of addiction and there aren’t any real negative repercussions to the drug use.  It’s a realistic look at drug experimentation.

Or what about THE HUNGER GAMES series? The brilliant thing about this series is that the characters have emotional fallout for having killed other characters.  The adult champions of The Hunger Games drink or take drugs or abuse themselves in some way.  Even Katniss becomes addicted to morphling, a fictional drug with very realistic addiction and withdrawal.  I loved the drug use in this book.  People who have gone through such a traumatic experience would be at high risk to self-medicate.  It’s painfully realistic to the characters.

Since I don’t, and I’m guessing that most of us don’t, intend to write a book about drug addiction or drug experimentation, maybe we should look at drug use in more practical terms.  Would you write a young adult character that smokes?  I did and then I thought the better of it.  What if it got published and some kid admired her enough to try cigarettes?  So, even though the swearing and some mild violence stayed in, the smoking came out.

What about teen drinking?  It’s true that many teens drink before they reach a legal age to do it.  There’s drinking in GOSSIP GIRLS, EVERMORE, and SPEAK (probably among a million others).  I had an easy out with my last book: the characters were vampires and, therefore, couldn’t drink alcohol.  My main character, a girl who lived with them didn’t have any access to alcohol.  Easy.  Problem solved.  But even if it was possible, I would have a very, very (very, very) hard time including teen drinking in a book I wrote.

So, there you have it.  I would be willing to put a sex scene in a young adult book; I commonly have swearing; violence and even death may find its way into a book I write.  But I’d have to dig pretty deep before I included a scene with drug use.  I’d think about it a long time before I ever even had a character that smoked.

What about you?  Would you be interested in writing a book about drug addiction?  Would you let a major character experiment with drugs?  How about the lesser drugs?  Smoking?  Drinking?  Would you draw any lines for a book you wrote?  And how do you feel about the topic if you’re a parent?

Sex and Teens


This romantic scene is complements of pedrosimoes7 and I found it on flickr. Click the picture for more of his inspired art!


The next topic that I wanted to tackle in my blog is sex in young adult fiction.  This is a tough one.  Personally, I think I would rather see a teen read realistic depictions of sex than realistic depictions of violence.  However, I am quite clearly in the minority.  The number one reason books are challenged?  You got it.  Sexual content.

As a writer, it grows even more complicated.  Sure, we want to be responsible.  But we also want to be honest.  Sex is a big part of every teen’s life, whether they’re chaste or not.  That’s why kids wear purity rings and take purity vows…because they’re thinking about sex.  Attraction from the opposite sex is also where far too many teens find their self-worth.  It would be unrealistic to never create a character who is motivated by these same things.

The big taboo young adult book when I was growing up was FOREVER by Judy Blume. It’s been a heavy target for book challenges, landing at number eight of the most challenged books of all time.  Ms. Blume said that she wrote this book in 1975 because her daughter asked her to write a book where two nice kids have responsible sex without any terrible, ruinous consequences.  FOREVER was the result.

In more modern young an adult, sex is a bigger player.  TWILIGHT by Stephanie Meyer, HOUSE OF NIGHT by P.C. Cast, and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER are all books where sex, implicit or explicit plays a significant role in the plot.  Not coincidentally, they are all challenged books as well.  On the other hand books like WINGS by Aprilynne pike, NEED by Carrie Jones, and EVERMORE by Alyson Noel are young adult books with strong romantic elements but with a very innocent main female character.  And while this does solve the problem sex being part of the plot, something about the asexual quality of the female characters was troublesome.

So, here’s what an amateur writer thinks about sex in young adult books.  Take it for what it’s worth and remember it’s free. 🙂

I think that the most important thing to do when writing young adult is to be honest.  I know….big, fat cliché, right?  Wrong!  Every character, like every person, has motivation: lack of support at home, an overpowering older sibling, abuse, religion, crippling shyness, etc.  Each and every one of these life-shaping circumstances is going to alter the way a character looks at sex.  They will be looking to get different things out of a sexual encounter.  If sex is represented honestly as part of a character arc, it won’t be gratuitous.  I keep working hard to not sanitize or simplify my writing.  Kids are smart and as a rule, I don’t think they like to be BSed.

Alternately, you can always make your character too busy to think about sex.  That’s what I did in my last book.  Of course, it didn’t get published, so that might be some advice to ignore.

So, what do you think?  Do you include sex scenes in your young adult books?  Do you imply that sex has happened?  Or do you try to avoid the whole issue by making your character above all that mushy stuff?

P.S. (12:00 PM)There must be something in the air!  One of my favorite agent-type blogs features a post on sex in YA today!  So, for a professional take on the topic check out Mary Kole’s blog.


This gorgeous photo is by LaurenV and I found it on Flickr. I wonder what they're saying! For more photos by this artist, click on the picture.



I’m sorry.  I know I promised my next installment in adult themes in young adult literature today.  It was going to be about sex in kid’s literature but I was out late last night and didn’t get to the promised essay.  I will resume this series on Wednesday.

Instead of writing on my blog (bad Kate!) I was at an amusement park enjoying an after hours Halloween Scare night!  It just happened to be a buy-one-get-one-free night for the local college kids, so I spent last night surrounded by the 18-22 year old crowd.  Needless to say, I was listening in on many conversations while I waited in line.

The phrase du jour?  Epic Fail.  When the girl in front of me at the ticket line realized that she had forgotten her cell phone her response was, “I know.  I’m an epic fail.”  When a guy leaped off of a bench, he noted, “Awww, Dude.  That was an epic fail.”  Two notes on that one: “dude” is still being used (????) and I’m not sure what would have constituted an epic success in that situation.

Also, there is a certain subgroup of young adult that speaks every sentence like it’s a question.  I’m going to approximate a conversation I listened in on.

Do you know Ella?  She that girl with the long blond hair that looks kind of funny but she’s super nice?  She one of my suite mates?  We went to Satan House?  She.  Totally.  Freaked.  Out.  Like, not just scared but crying.  We tried to get her out but there wasn’t any way to get out?  I felt really bad.

I immediately liked the girl who was telling the story.  She was very sympathetic, talked super fast, and so earnest it made me want to smile.  Of course all proper names have been changed to protect the innocent.  So, the fast-talking, earnest questioner may have to find a place in one of my manuscripts.

So, what young adult slang have you noticed lately?  Do you have a child that uses some phrase that catches your ear?  Or do you like to make up young adult phrases in your writing hoping one will catch on?






How Adult Are They Really?

This is photoshop magic created by SashaW and dispplayed on Flickr. For more powerful, beautiful images by this artist, click the photograph.

In my last blog, I wondered how people felt about swearing in Young Adult books.  I was thinking this might be the start of an interesting discussion.  Language isn’t the only “adult” behavior that makes its way into adolescent literature.  Death and violence, sex, drug use, racism, and homosexuality are some of the most common themes in books that are challenged and banned.

I thought this might make an interesting series.  Today, I would like to cover the theme of death and violence in young adult literature.

When I construct a plot, one of the first things I try to consider is the stakes.  What will happen if my protagonist fails at whatever she is trying to do?  Will she end orphaned?  Alone?  At military school?  Injured?  Dead?  It has to be something significant, otherwise why would the reader care?  And death certainly is significant.  In fact, so many great stories have a climactic battle scene (HARRY POTTER, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STAR WARS, for example) which is really just opportunity for mass death and violence.

Death is a fairly common theme.  I’m not just talking about older Young Adult, either.  Consider CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White.  Like I mention on my “Favorite Young Adult Books” page, CHARLOTTE’S WEB is one of my favorite books.  By the time I was six, I had already worn out a copy.  This is a book crammed with death.  Wilber the pig is about to be killed on the first page.  Through the whole book the sword of Damocles hangs over his head.  Probably the two saving graces of this book are there actually isn’t any violence at all and that the creature facing death is an animal.

On the other hand, violence, with or without death, is a fairly common reason for book challenges.  HARRY POTTER is one book series challenged for the violence.  While the violence is often cartoonish and healing magically achieved, death is very serious and never reversible.  And in the case of these books, a brilliant marketing ploy.  Who will live?  Who will die?  Once Ms. Rowling killed Cedric Diggory, nobody was safe.  The last book was a veritable bloodbath.  There is one saving grace to the deaths in these books: death is almost never accompanied by violence.  It was a magical spell, the killing curse, which did most of the damage.  The killing curse appeared painless and didn’t leave a mark.

Contrast that with THE HUNGER GAMES, a new favorite of mine.  There’s violence and there’s death.  There’s death by violence.  The main thread of the book is children killing children.  It’s not just minor characters, either.  They are shot with arrows, impaled with lances, poisoned, infected, beaten to death, and eaten by genetically mutated animals.  Theoretically, this book would be for the mid-teen and up crowd but I’m sure younger readers have given this a try, too.  Personally, as much as I enjoyed this series, I might be a little leery to try this book out on a twelve year old.

And then, finally, there’s THE BOOK THIEF.  I’m not entirely sure that this book really belongs on the Young Adult shelf at all.  The New York Times calls it a book “perched on the cusp between grown-up and young-adult fiction”.  This where I make the argument that a teen protagonist doesn’t necessarily make a young adult book.  This is a book about racism and war and literature.  There is explicit, realistic violence.  Death narrates the tale, if that tells you anything about the death toll.  These are adult themes told in an adult way and for the average reader, I think it may be more college level.

But, then again, I’m not a parent.  What do YOU think?  Where do you draw the line with violence in young adult literature?  Is it different from where you draw the line in movies or books?  Let me know what you think.