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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.

Isn't this a beautiful photograph? It's by D Sharon Pruitt at Pink Sherbet Photography. Click the photo for more of her work.

OK, before I even get started, I’m sorry Mom.

This post is inspired by two fantastic posts and an even better discussion on literary agent Mary Kole’s blog (here and here).  On the blog, Mary made the argument that, like all other words in a manuscript, swearing is a choice.  If it fits the character and the situation, she won’t bat an eye at a few four-letter choices.

The flip side of this argument was the teachers/librarians/parents who are trying to protect the children they care for.  They argued that every time a swear word is chosen, there is another word, just as appropriate, that could have been used.  Children should be filling their heads with good, constructive stories, which necessarily does not include swearing.

I understand both sides of this argument. Honestly, I do.  I happen to fall on the pro-swearing side of this argument.  In my last manuscript, my main character was a tough little thing whose parents kept her on a short leash.  The only defiance that she could indulge in was bad language.  She didn’t drip the F-bomb but a very frustrated adult character did.

I stand by this choice.  I think that self-censorship is really distracting in a book or on television.  When a writer makes up a swear word, I think it puts the emphasis on the word, rather than the situation. (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica.  Neither Frack nor Frak are real swears, no matter how much feeling you put behind it.)  Only slightly better is when the characters swear in another language.  In Firefly (also television) Joss Whedon made the decision to have the characters swear in Chinese.  I understand that these are television shows and subject to different standards.  However, even in the HOUSE OF NIGHT series, the main character makes a little speech about how much she dislikes swearing, limiting her four-letter vocabulary to “hell”.  This, from a book where the sexual overtones are so blatant, even I gave up the series after book three!

The only option that remains is to create characters that would not swear.  My main character in my next book is one such character.  Don’t breathe easy, though.  Her friend is a malcontent with a number of “colorful metaphors” in her repertoire.  I just can’t seem to leave it out.  When I was a teen, I swore (Sorry again Mom).  Almost all of my friends did too.  The ones that didn’t were hardly shocked at our language.

The reason I’m writing this blog is because I never realized that there was a whole segment of the population who might not let their kids read my book (should it ever get published) based on the language alone. It makes me question each swear word I use now.  My target audience is the fifteen years up crowd.  Kids of that age (and their parents) should be able to handle a little adult language, right?

So, I’ll pass this one on to you.  What do you think?  Would you allow your child to read a book with a moderate amount of swearing?  Is it harder for you to swallow than a moderate amount of sex or a moderate amount of violence?  What if you’re a writer?  Do you avoid swearing in our books because of potential audience objection?

Writing Indulgences

Let me just say YUM! This delicious photo is by Rob Qld and I found it on Flickr. Click the picture for more of this artists' work.

Writing is hard.  We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it because there are a million other less frustrating things that we could be doing with our time.  Have you ever thought about taking up knitting?  Learning another language?  Mastering a new instrument?  I’ve thought of doing all of these things but what holds me back is the amount of time it would take from my writing. In fact, I delayed starting this blog for months because I didn’t want it to take away from my other writing.

Besides the effort and sacrifice it takes, it’s a severely underappreciated endeavor.  People who don’t write think that there’s nothing more to it than sitting down in front of the computer for a few hours and spewing out literary genius.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people bemoan the fact that they didn’t think of an idea like HARRY POTTER themselves.  I want to ask them, “What if you had?  Do you have the literary talent to execute a good idea?”  I’m not sure I do yet and I’ve been actually studying writing for years now.

So, given the fact that we sacrifice our time to write, pull our hair out trying to find that perfect word, and endure the misconception that writing is all easy-peasy, I’m a firm believer that you simply have to reward yourself for a job well done.  I have a few favorite writing indulgences:

1. The vacation day from work.  Yup, I’ve been known to do it.  I fit writing in where ever I can: lunch hour, evenings, and weekends.  Sometimes I still get up early to write.  Every once in a while I’ll get to a part of my story that I’m looking forward to writing.  I don’t want to write it in fragments during my spare time, so I’ll indulge myself in a vacation day.  I’ll get up like I’m going to work but instead go to a coffee shop or restaurant where I can write all day.  It almost always leaves me in a great mood.

2. Writing gizmos. I never in my life thought I would admit this, but I’m a bit of a technology whore.  I love computers and phones and readers and MP3 players.  At the suggestion of my writing buddy, I tried a little Jornada for writing on my way to work.  Later, I indulged in a little HP Mini that I call Emily.  Even though I’ve had her more than a year, she’s still a lot of fun and I’ve never been sorry I got her.

3. Food. I try never to reward myself with food anymore.  Lately, my personal reward for making it through stuff at work or a good week of dieting is nail polish.  However, I’ll make exceptions when I finish a work in progress.  Sometimes I’ll indulge in one of those four-dollar coffees that are more dessert than coffee.  Mmmm.

4. Time off to read a new book. As you can probably tell from this blog, I don’t read much when I’m in the middle of a project.  My time is very limited.  Besides, I’ve been known to unconsciously steal phrases from books that I like if I read them while I’m writing.  When I finish a project and send it off to my beta reader, I take the time to read a book or two before I do my first edits.  Honestly, reading someone else’s writing is the only thing that will take my mind off of my own.

How do you reward yourself for being a good writer?  Do you have any special rituals for when you finish a new book?  Or, for you is writing its own reward?

Banned Book Week

This literary bonfire is provided by pcorreia and I found in on Flickr. For more photos by this artist, click on the picture!

Happy Banned Book Week!

If you know me, you know that I’m an opinionated person.  I am very strongly opposed to censorship.  I have problems with book banning  and suppression of free speech in any form, including the written word.  New books that make the Banned Book list fly to the top of my reading list because I know there’s a good chance that my ideas will be challenged, my beliefs will be questioned, and my morals will be tested.  If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, these edgy books help us wade into the pool of self-examination.

In 2009, over 450 books were challenged, meaning that someone, somewhere had a problem with the content of a book and has appealed to have it removed from a school or public library.  If you would like to find out more about Banned Book Week, have a look at the American Library Association website.

I wanted to mention a few of the current members of the 2010 Banned Books List and I hope you will add one or more of these to your weekend reading.

  • I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou.  This book was challenged in 2009 by the Newman-Crows Landing, California School District on the grounds that the content was inappropriate for children and the white school teachers were not equipped to teach about African American culture.
  • TWISTED by Laurie Halse Anderson.  You’ll remember that I blogged about SPEAK, by the same author.  This book was challenged in Montgomery County, Kentucky for inappropriate content and not being intellectually challenging enough for a college prep classes.
  • THE HOUSE OF NIGHT SERIES by P.C. and Kristin Cast.  This book series was banned from the Henderson Junior High School in the Stephenville, Texas Independent School District.  This isn’t just one book; this is a series of books.  An incomplete series.  So they’ve actually banned books that have yet to be written.
  • ANNE FRANK: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank.  This book was challenged by Culpeper County, Va. Public school in 2010.  The school district decided not to assign this book due to sexual and homosexual content.  After much national attention, the school district decided to teach the book at a higher grade level.
  • TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  This is one of my favorite books.  It was challenged in 2009 by St. Edmund Campion Secondary School classrooms in Brampton, Ontario, Canada for the language.
  • THE MERRIAM-WEBSTER COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY.  Was challenged in the Menifee, California Union School District in 2010 because one student came across the term “oral sex” in the dictionary.  The School district is now considering a permanent ban.
  • THE TWILIGHT SERIES by Stephanie Meyers.  This series was banned in 2009 in Australia because the books are too racy.  Students were asked to leave their personal copies at home, too.

For the full list of the 2010 banned books, look here.  You can also get a list of the most frequently challenged books.

If you’ve read one of the banned books on the list, tell me about it!  How do you feel about Banned Book Week?  And how would you feel if a book you wrote showed up on this list?

What’s Your Point of View?

I'm the sixth person from the left--Just Kidding. This fabulous image is by James Cridland and I found it on Flickr. Click the image for more of his work.

First of all: Do not adjust your computer.  I was playing with the blog’s appearance.  Let me know how you like the new look!

Now, down to business: They say that every part of the book you write is a choice.  Each word choice sets the tone.  The setting helps to create a mood.  Even the title draws a reader in.  So how do you go about choosing what point of view to use?

My choices are narrowed down to two.  I don’t write in the second person, where the reader is considered the main character in a book.  Good examples of this are those CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE books.  And in this case it serves a purpose.  The reader makes decisions in each book and decides where the story is going to go.  Second person is a logical choice.  I also don’t use the omniscient point of view.  I would like to say that I don’t use it because I don’t like the distance it creates between the reader and the characters.  The reality is that it’s hard for me to achieve without being confusing.  You can be in anyone’s head at any time.  Masters, like Charles Dickens can make it work in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, but I, unfortunately, haven’t figured it out yet.

This leaves the first and third person limited points of view.  I’ve dabbled in both.

The first book that I wrote, the one that still sits lonely in a drawer (and on my hard drive) was written in the third person.  I had the hardest time with this manuscript.  It didn’t seem to have any voice.  The narration was flat.  I tried playing with point of view shifts.  That made it worse and I couldn’t figure out why.

In my second manuscript, the one that got a little bit of play with agents was written in the first person.  The first several drafts of the first chapter were written in the third person.  I just couldn’t make it work.  It was the same problem: no voice, no flair, too flat.  So, after a whole bunch of frustration, I started writing from the point of view of my main character, Eve.

It wasn’t supposed to be more than a writing exercise but I got writing magic.

The voice popped.  I knew it the second I started putting Eve’s words on the page.  It was worth foregoing point of view shifts (I don’t really like it when the first person point of view shifts, even though Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers have done it in highly successful books) to get the rock-solid voice.  Plus, when I look back on it, it made logical sense.  The story was Eve’s; it really shouldn’t leave her point of view.

For six months after I finished this manuscript, the successful first person point of view ruined me.  I had trouble writing any other way and I had serious trouble leaving Eve’s voice behind.  I was beginning to wonder if I had any other voice in me.  Therefore, recently (as in, this month), I decided to try third person again.

Ta-dah !

I found a third person voice.  It’s completely different from the Eve-voice and again makes sense for the story I’m trying to tell.  This story is darker.  It’s creepy.  I want there to be a level of uncertainty about whether or not my main character will make it to the end of the book.  If the voice holds up through the end of the book, I’ll call it more writing magic.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

So, how about you?  What type of point of view do you favor?  Have you tried more than one?  Do you have any tips or hints for people struggling with choosing a point of view or making a specific one work?

Writing at Your Worst

This isn't me, but it COULD be most days. This photo is by makelessnoise and I found it on Flickr!

Like I mentioned in my bio, I was an English and biology double major in college.  There was one upper level English class that formed the basis for my writing critique style.  It was an Analytical Poetry class.  I don’t mind admitting that this class kicked my butt. The professor was this Insane Poet Lady who cried over poems that were virtually incomprehensible to me.  She also wrote, and has since published, a collection of her own poems, many of which I also thought were total gibberish.

One interesting thing about this class was that it was three hours long.  Six o’clock until nine o’clock one night a week.  By the third hour, brain exhaustion took over.  Gibberish started to have at least a little bit of meaning and some of the oddest stuff just flew out of my mouth.  The professor said that she loved teaching three hour classes for just that reason.

Recently, I remembered the madness of the three hour poetry class and it led me to question the time of day that I work on my book.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I liked to get up early and write in the morning before I go to work.  It’s my freshest time and I feel like I’m giving my best to my writing.  But then I thought, maybe a little exhaustion would change the way my writing sounds and feels.  Maybe, if I was punchy it would give my writing a little more punch.

So, I gave it a try.

Wow.  Just wow.  I was a little stuck in my manuscript and trying to put off working on it until I had a bit of energy.  I gave up on that idea.  I purposely sat down in front of my computer at the end of an extra long work day when I was sleep deprived and just let myself write.  The next morning, after correcting the spelling errors, abysmal grammar, and a couple of really funny logical errors, I realized that I liked what I had written.  It was more honest and raw.  There was less self-censorship.  It had a completely different feel.

So I offer this as a writing challenge.  Try writing when you’re at your worst–particularly if you’re at a bumpy place in your work in progress.  See if it doesn’t open up some subconscious well of creativity you didn’t even know you had.  And let me know how it works for you!

P.S.  I will always love Insane Poet Lady because she introduced me to Mark Strand.  I’m pretty picky about my poetry but this stuff is just strange enough to be interesting.


It’s not Friday, is it?  Crud!  I thought it was Thursday, which is lovely for my work week but not so awesome for my blog.  Sorry about that!  Have a great weekend and I’ll be back on Monday.