Outside the Lines, Literally by Patty Blount
When I was just starting out, I got told a whole bunch of DON'TS like:
- Don't show sex in your young adult novels -- librarians in bible belt states won't stock them.
- Don't use profanity in your young adult novels -- Walmart won't sell them.
- Don't show marginalized characters in your novels -- they're not your stories to tell.
- Don't show violence in your novels -- parents will be worried you'll give their children ideas.
- Don't show tough situations in your novels -- parents will obsess over their children's lost innocence
Here's the truth: the more people tell me I shouldn't do something, the more I want to do that something.
Here's another truth: I think lines should be crossed.
Here's a story for you... my youngest son, Chris, was about 17 years old the first time he spoke a bad word in front of me. I'd heard both of my sons say some horrible words when they believed they were alone in the house and chastised them for their language. This particular day, he'd gotten his class ring stuck on his finger and while he tried to wrestle it off, muttered a "f*ck."
Then, his entire body clenched.
His eyes popped wide when they swung to me and met my own.
A thousand apologies tumbled from his lips as he started to back away.
I had a choice in that moment. I could have chosen to be a strict disciplinarian or I could have chosen to understand that there are times when frustration and anger need to be released.
I let it go. I knew he was out of patience, knew he was losing control of his temper. No one else was around. It was just us.
There was no harm done.
We got the ring off his finger and had a gut-busting belly laugh over everyone's reactions to his slip-up.
He's 24 now and that remains a defining moment in our relationship.
Here's what it DOES not mean. One f*ck does not mean he's a bad kid, a terrible human being, a godless monster. One f*ck does not mean he's a thug, a gang-member, or a law-breaker.
This, right here, is my problem with the lines people insist we don't cross. If we write sex, hands flail that we're teaching kids that sex is okay. (Newsflash: it IS!) If we write profanity, the hands flail that we're encouraging bad language. If we write violence, we're teaching kids to fight. And heaven forbid we write about issues like abortion, suicide, or drug use.
Does anyone remember when thinking outside the box became popular? It's become a catchphrase now, but it seemed like you couldn't turn around without hearing that in a job interview, on a TV commercial, or on sitcoms. Everybody wanted to be the person who arrived at some novel solution to a common problem. There's even a highly-celebrated scene in Apollo 13 when NASA engineers had to design a new filter using a bunch of non-related parts already on board the lunar module. Well, novel thinking and devising new solutions to common problems are only possible when we challenge our thinking!
How can we expect to raise children capable of thinking outside the box if we keep insisting they stay in their lanes?
What better way to safely cross lines than inside books? I am personally affronted when I heard about books being banned. Angie Thomas's THE HATE U GIVE is brilliant and should be required reading for white people across the nation. Laurie Halse Anderson's SHOUT was recently banned. My own SOME BOYS and SEND were kicked off a local school's reading list because yes, I used the word f*ck in them. I had one mid-west librarian send me a strongly worded message that started with "What were you thinking?"
I was thinking that pretending issues like drug abuse, gangs, teen pregnancy, bullying, and suicide DON'T actually exist does a disservice to my readers. I was thinking that writing about such issues in thoughtful ways that show the risks, show the healing, show the growth from those who lived through them, are all teachable moments.
But you have to sway a bit out of your lane to grasp them.