In other words: we're talking about S-E-X.
I usually write fairly sweet stuff, relatively speaking, especially in my YA novels. To the extent I can.
But I tell the story that needs to be told. If it means I cross a line, so be it.
In one of my not-yet-published manuscripts, the heroine’s best friend suffers a brutal death (off the page) at age 12. The rest of the book is set five years later, and that death affects every single aspect of the heroine’s life. Because of course it would. In another of my manuscripts, a girl trying desperately to be popular goes way too far (and farther than she wants) with the most popular guy in school. That book is about figuring out who you are, what you want, and what you’re willing (or not willing) to do.
I cross lines in those books, but I think it’s vital to the story that I do so.
(At this point I simply have to give a shout-out to Laurie Halse Anderson for her novel Speak. Does it cross lines? Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite YA novels.)
My only published YA fiction so far is my four-book Bennet Sisters series, which involves a modern collision with Pride and Prejudice. Since Jane Austen tended to avoid references to sex in her novels (even when dealing with characters like Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham), I think it’d be strange if I veered too far from that “sweet” path in writing about a modern Bennet family. Just my opinion, of course!
But that’s the key: my book, my opinion, my rules.
I once had a Q&A session at a reader event with an audience ranging from age 10 (a girl who’d already read two books in the Bennet Sisters series) to older adults. A couple of adults asked about “the line.” Why did I have ANY references to sexuality in the books? For that matter, why did I have ANY swearing or off-color language?
My answer: Because it’s true to the characters and the story.
|Gidget, the sweetest character EVER, was thinking about sex. You know she was.|
I’m writing fiction, but I want it to be relatable. Real. Normal. Girls in their teens are thinking about sex, even ones who haven’t yet experienced their first date, their first kiss, their first anything. If they have close sisters or girlfriends, they’re probably talking about it, too.
And that’s a good thing.
I was surprisingly shy in my teens, except on a tennis or basketball court or athletic field. (I got over that in a big way in law school.) If I wanted information, I sure didn’t ask my mom or dad. Instead, I often got it from books. As the seventh kid in my family, I still vividly remember the “mature” novels I found lying around the house when I was 10 or 12. I read them all. Sometimes uncomfortably, but I read them.
A favorite mantra of mine: all information is good. (Yes, even the crap we all find on the internet.) In a perfect world, sure, teenagers will have “the talk” (or, better, a bunch of talks) with parents or other trusted adults. But books don’t ask questions or pry or make you squirm or feel embarrassed. Books are a safe space. Teens need that.
If you’re a parent trying to monitor what your teenager is reading, good idea. But I’d suggest you also think back to the books you read in your teens, keep an open mind, and simply talk to your teenagers about what they’re reading.
And chill. No matter what they read, teenagers usually turn out just fine.
Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at marystrand.com.