Kids are smart. Often, smarter than we might like.
And that means they know when you’re talking down to them.
With the internet present in everyone’s pockets thanks to smartphones, kids today have access to a whole world of content that wasn’t available just a few decades ago, when ideas and stories were filtered through dozens of gatekeepers like publishers, editors, librarians, booksellers, and, of course, parents before reaching a kid.
Now, those same kids can just hop online and be instantly taken to any kind of content they want.
Sure, parental software controls and just plain good parenting can prevent a lot of problems with this scenario, but the fact remains: Kids are smart. Kids are savvy. And kids are going to get the kind of content they want to read.
So shouldn’t we just give it to them?
Instead of censoring what we write for young people, shouldn’t we just write what they actually want to read, just like with any market?
That’s a tricky question. It’s natural to want to protect kids from the worst parts of life—from death and violence and abuse, and even from the complications that come from relationships and sexuality.
But kids are going to learn about these anyway, so shouldn’t they come up in the kinds of books that help them adjust to the realities of life? Scrubbing all the complications out of life would just make fiction boring—and then kids are going to go elsewhere.
The children’s literature industry is full of debates, including how to define children’s literature, kidlit, middle grade, and YA fiction. But one of the biggest debates is about what’s okay to include in books for younger readers, and especially in middle grade and YA books. Where do you draw the line between “relatable” and “inappropriate”?
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments and how you can deal with them in your work.
Swearing and Profanity
There are discussions all over the internet about whether it’s appropriate to include swearing or profanity in books for younger readers.
Now, this doesn’t apply to early-reader and children’s books—I doubt anyone is arguing that the Poky Little Puppy should be swearing up a storm.
But what about mild curse words like “damn” in a book meant for an 11-year-old middle grade reader? Or stronger profanity in a YA book meant for an older teen?
Kids hear swearing all the time—on TV, in movies, at the mall, and possibly even at home and school. They’ve already been exposed to it and, if we’re being honest…those kids can probably swear better than their parents can.
YA author Beth Ann Bauman says she included swearing in her books for a reason: it’s how kids talk. She says that if you want to encourage kids to read, “You have to reflect kids’ world in the truest way you can.” And that often means using the kind of language young people really use…obscenities and all.
But just because kids are exposed to swearing regularly—and even swear themselves—doesn’t mean it’s okay, according to opponents.
Literature is often held to a higher standard than “lesser” forms of media, like TV and movies. It’s a throwback to the days when books were cherished, valuable possessions because they were expensive and hard to come by. It also reflects a certain snooty judgment about mass-market entertainment: if everyone can enjoy it, it must be less valuable or important.
Which isn’t true—movies and TV shows can be art forms just like books can. All of them can tell a great story, and all of them can teach us about ourselves and our world.
According to that argument, books shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than TV when it comes to swearing in the course of a story that a younger person might encounter.
And don’t forget that classic literature for younger readers has used swearing, too—Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye had quite the potty mouth!
How to Use It
So what’s okay?
Well, peppering your book with an entire George Carlin routine probably isn’t going to go over very well—even if it’s aimed at adults. Even gritty thrillers don’t necessarily have to be liberally slathered with obscenities in order to make an impact: pick up a Lee Child novel and pay attention to how he uses language. There’s virtually no swearing, but plenty of action and thrills!
Interestingly, a 2012 study found that of 40 YA books that made the New York Times bestseller list in 2008, 88% contained swearing—far more than most video games. And the characters doing the swearing were often rich, attractive, and popular. It’s definitely food for thought!
Let’s face it: teens swear. It’s a way of subtly defying authority and asserting your thoughts and independence without huge consequences. So swearing tends to be one of a young person’s first rebellions…and younger characters who don’t swear at all may seem stilted or unrealistic to the teens who are reading.
When it comes to obscenities in your novels, choose your battles.
If something really, really important is happening to the protagonist in your YA book, then it’s probably okay to slip in a curse word to show just how shocking or upsetting the situation is. If the character’s just eating a bagel? Consider leaving it out.
Alternatively, if you really want to have some swearing in your story but you’re worried that it’ll get your book banned by librarians or booksellers—or parents!—then get creative.
Make up your own swear words and toss those around in the book. Think of Battlestar Galactica’s “frakking toasters.” Heck, maybe you’ll even end up becoming the next slang meme!
Drugs and Alcohol
Part of pushing your boundaries as a teen often involves doing things that are forbidden. In many cases, that means smoking, drinking, or trying out drugs of some kind.
About 20% of youths between ages 12 and 20 in the United States report having had alcohol in the past year. That means that most teens know someone who drinks. Same with smoking pot: anywhere from 6–20% of teens have at least tried pot, depending on your sources.
And then there’s prescription pain meds, cocaine, heroin, or even just cigarettes—there’s all kinds of substances that can be used in real life, and therefore that might appear in a novel.
How to Use It
It’s entirely possible to leave all alcohol and drug use out of a novel you’re writing for younger audiences—many, many middle grade and YA books don’t include any substance use at all.
If your particular plot and characters call for it, though, be sure to show the consequences of substance use. Because there will be consequences somewhere down the line, and part of creating a realistic book involves admitting that.
Sadly, violence is a fact of life in our world.
We all hope that our children will never experience violence personally, but we have to admit that it’s out there, and that people deal with it every day.
Beyond that, violence makes for compelling action in a novel: there has to be some sort of threat or challenge for the protagonist to deal with, and the threat of violence is a classic.
Where would we be without a host of YA characters risking injury or death to save their families, friends, or worlds? Scary, violent situations come up in many beloved books for younger readers, including Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Divergent, and more.
But there’s differences between depictions of violence. There’s the kind of BIFF! POW! action you see in old comic books versus the danger and pain portrayed in Lord of the Rings, and then there’s the kind of gratuitous torture and horror seen in media like the Saw movies.
These are all very different approaches, and some might be more appropriate for certain audiences than others.
How to Use It
The type of violence you use in your book will depend on your comfort level, the needs of the plot, and the audience you’re targeting.
A book for younger middle grade readers probably shouldn’t have anything too explicit—you’re not going to want to give kids nightmares with Game of Thrones-style torture and dismemberment.
At the same time, not everything has to be conducted “off camera” and left up to the imagination. You might briefly mention a character being injured in a battle or, in a contemporary setting, that the protagonist’s best friend showed up with a black eye from being abused or bullied.
The important thing in middle grade novels is to show the consequences of violence, and to demonstrate alternatives to violence…not to give lavish descriptions of bloody acts.
Because YA books are meant for an older audience, you can often include more details about the violence—these readers may be more mature and more able to process what you’re throwing at them without either becoming desensitized or terrified.
Still, use your good judgment: if you’re writing a series of brutal, super-bloody scenes, are you really writing a YA book? Or is it an adult horror novel that happens to have a younger character or two thrown in?
That’s fine, but you’ll want to adjust your marketing—a blood-soaked torture thriller with one or two teenagers in it should potentially be aimed at an adult audience, rather than a youth one.
Targeting your marketing that way will help avoid angry parents who thought their kid was going to be reading something rather different, and will also help you home in better on the people who are actually craving what you write.
The topic that upsets the most people in middle grade and YA books is, without a doubt, sex.
There’s a common perception that kids need to be sheltered from the concept of sex long after they’ve learned to swear and been exposed to depictions of violence. Often, parents who have no problem with their kids seeing superheroes beat each other up freak out when romance goes from kissing to something more.
This leaves authors in a sticky situation. Exploring romance—and sex—are part of growing up, and they’re natural topics for including in books for readers who are in the process of growing up.
But parents (and other gatekeepers) often don’t want their kids to see frank discussions of sex and sexuality.
What’s an author to do?
How to Use It
First and foremost, remember who your audience is. If you’re trying to serve tweens or teens, remember that. Their parents’ opinions matter, but it’s the kids’ thoughts that really count.
Even if teens aren’t having sex every minute of the day like some pop media might have us believe, you can bet they’re thinking about it—hormones run high during the teen years, and sex and romance are on most kids’ minds.
Plus, around two-thirds of people lose their virginity in their teens, making this a topic of interest to YA writers who want to explore subjects that matter to younger readers.
If no one at all in your middle grade or YA book is thinking about romance, kissing, dating, or sex…then you may have forgotten what it’s like to be a teen. And that won’t make for a book that teens can identify with!
Laura Harris, the Penguin Group Australia director of Books for Children and Young Adults, says that including sex in books for younger readers is like writing anything else—you have to decide if it’s actually important to the plot: “If sex is true to the characters, you need to have it there; you shouldn’t avoid it.”
So go ahead and write about all those tricky situations that come up when you’re first starting to get interested in dating and everything that goes along with it.
Just be sensitive to how you’re portraying romance and sex. A novel for 12-year-olds probably shouldn’t include the kind of graphic sexuality that comes up in 50 Shades of Grey…even thought that book can technically be considered a new adult novel.
Take scenes “off camera,” allowing them to fade to black instead of following each step of the process and describing someone’s “throbbing member.”
This is one situation when “show, don’t tell” doesn’t really apply—instead of showing kids having sex, which can be really uncomfortable and maybe even push some legal boundaries, focus on what leads up to the act and what the consequences are. Let the actual act happen in the reader’s imagination only. Less is more!
Are kissing, touching, and other acts that fall short of actual sex okay to portray?
Same response: be sensitive to how you’re showing what. Few people would object to showing young characters kissing and holding hands, but explicit descriptions of what was called “heavy petting” back in the Fifties might be too much for some.
And remember, these suggestions go for all relationships you might want to portray—straight, gay, questioning, gender-nonconforming, or alien-human (if that’s your thing).
Parents vs. Kids
Notice that in most of these cases, it’s adults who are objecting to explicit content, “edgy” writing, or other terms for including the realities of swearing, violence, and sex in books meant for younger readers.
Those younger readers? They don’t really care. They just want a good story—and they want it to be something they can relate to.
Keep that in mind when you’re writing—although parents can kick up a fuss about what’s “appropriate” for younger readers, it’s those younger readers who are your real audience when you’re writing middle grade or YA fiction.
One compromise that’s been suggested to help balance the desires of parents to protect their children and the desires of children to push their boundaries is to create a rating system for middle grade and YA fiction.
This would allow parents—and librarians and booksellers, who have an even harder job balancing what young readers want with what parents want for them—to see at a glance the kind of content that might be in a book.
Think of the movie rating system: you might not want your 8-year-old watching an R-rated movie, but you might consider allowing them to check out something that’s PG-13 if it’s rated that way for swearing and unrealistic violence, not for an on-camera sex scene.
But book censorship is a delicate subject, and many authors and librarians think that rating systems come close to censorship. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, suggests that mandatory ratings systems might brush up against First Amendment rights to free speech, not to mention pushing young readers away from some books, rather than encouraging them to read whatever appeals to them.
All this means it’s not likely that we’ll ever see a formal, mandatory book rating system like we have for movies.
How to Use It
If you’re concerned about complaints from parents or others about potentially edgy content in your middle grade or YA books, though, consider adding a rating or disclaimer of your own.
It doesn’t have to be a label on the cover—a note in the online description or on the back of the book will do nicely.
Parents will probably appreciate the heads-up, and kids might actually be more eager to read your book after finding out that it’s got blood, guts, and swearing going on!
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is, there is no hard and fast rule for what’s appropriate for younger readers.
Every person is different, and that goes for youths as well as adults. Everyone’s tolerance for swearing, violence, sex, and more is different—and parents will probably disagree with their kids about what’s acceptable.
You’ll need to figure out what you’re personally comfortable with. Some writers who target adult audiences don’t like to include any swearing, sex, or other edgy content—they write what’s called clean fiction.
That’s great! There’s a huge audience for this kind of work, and people across all ages and demographics enjoy it.
If you like to walk on the darker side of things, or even if you just think swearing is fun, then go right ahead.
But be mindful of how you write, why you’re including edgy or explicit content and if you might be going overboard. No matter what age range you’re writing for, edgy content should never take over from a well-developed plot and characters—it should enhance the story you’re telling, not distract from it.
Keep in mind that while most stories with very young protagonists are middle grade or YA fiction, not all of them are. It’s possible that you’re actually writing an adult-category novel that has a teen character, rather than a novel meant for young teens.
Market it that way—rather than selling it as a YA book and risking the wrath of angry parents, market it to adults. If teens really want to read it, they’ll find it.
If you’re targeting younger readers, consider adding a rating or warning to your work if you often include situations that might make parents uncomfortable.
Mostly, though, just be aware of your audience. That’s always the best policy.
How do you deal with edgy topics in your writing?
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For more on writing fiction, check out these articles:
- Found Dialogue: Using the Art of Eavesdropping for Better Fiction
- 8 Reasons You Should Be Writing Short Stories
- What Every Fiction Author Should Know About Writing and Publishing