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Many of the most popular YA novels are pretty brutal, rape and murder are a common ingredient. Many show teenagers having sex. But how far can you go, before you cross the line into adult fiction, simply by being too detailed or too extreme?

I'm writing a novel about a young woman who gets drawn into a terrorist network and commits some atrocious acts before she turns from this path. I attempted to describe what she does in a way that makes the reader experience some of the distress the protagonists feels witnessing her own deeds. I feel this is integral to the development of the character and the direction of the plot. It may not be, but this question does not aim at what is necessary, but what is allowable. Do I leave YA fiction with this?

  • Does your definition of YA means: for young adults or about young adults? "About" would not mean implicitly that the main audience are young adults also. – John Smithers Dec 1 '13 at 22:55
  • Related, not quite a duplicate but might answer the question: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2240/… – Lauren Ipsum Dec 1 '13 at 23:02
  • @JohnSmithers for young readers – user5645 Dec 2 '13 at 9:12
  • I'm going to write an actual answer, but I just wanted to say that I really want to read this story. – Seanny123 Dec 2 '13 at 12:43
  • @Seanny123 You'll have to learn German for that. – user5645 Dec 4 '13 at 20:09
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My sense (as a reader, not someone who's published a YA novel) is that you kind of want to liken it to a PG-13 movie. If it's too graphic for a 13-year-old to be watching in a movie theatre, it's probably too graphic to be published in the YA category.

However:

1) as John Smithers points out, that doesn't mean your protagonist can't still be a teenager. It just means you may have to change the marketing or publishing niche.

2) you can go into great detail about her emotions and thoughts without going into great deal about the acts. The atrocities can happen off-camera, as it were, and that would make the text still suitable for the YA market.

  • A sensible comment. Still, watching a person getting slaughtered on screen and reading about it in a book don't quite have the same effects on most readers. Or another example: You can write: "She kissed his penis", in a YA book, but showing that in a movie would probably get you an adult rating. – user5645 Dec 9 '13 at 8:17
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    @what Mercy, you can write "she kissed his penis" in a YA book? I guess I'm out of touch with what's considered "YA" these days. I'd consider that too graphic. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 9 '13 at 11:14
  • I guess you are, lol. We are not talking teen literature here, but young adult. Here's a quote from a short story in a YA erotic anthology: "I caressed her breasts. Feel her warm wet cunt on my legs. She bends forward and licks on and under my glans a bit. I almost explode. ... Then she sits on my dick and rubs her pussy against it." But I admit this is a German book. Highly praised in the media. I guess you won't find this in the US ;-) – user5645 Dec 9 '13 at 14:22
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    @what Holy CATS! That would be rated mature (over 21) in the U.S. And "teen" is what "young adult" means in the U.S., so far as I know. I can't imagine an advisory board approving that language for teenagers here. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 9 '13 at 19:06
  • Isn't porn 18+? What 21+ are you writing about? And I definitely can't think of something more graphic than porn. It'd be comical if such a book (that cannot be considered YA for these things) would be written by a 15 yo. I would like to see the reaction of an advisory board. – rus9384 Nov 9 '18 at 7:24
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I think it could be useful to look at some examples of things that are YA-friendly, and some that are not. Lord of the Rings is in practically every public school's library. It includes people having fingers being bitten off, people being stung by giant spiders, people shot full of arrows, people being burned to death, and countless people being stabbed or chopped to pieces. The descriptions are generally short and not graphic, barring some of the battle scenes. No torture is shown, it's only even mentioned a couple times and then just as a thing that might happen if the protagonists fail. Compare this with a Song of Ice and Fire. In that you get graphic descriptions of torture, and countless people, many of them innocent, killed in horrific ways. Obviously you'll never find a Song of Ice and Fire in a school library.

As for sex, look at Harry Potter. The most that happens and is described is some kissing. Anything more is just alluded to or inferred. Again, the Harry Potter series is in every middle school library. Compare this with Stephen King's IT. In IT, there's a graphic, borderline-erotica underage orgy. IT is, unsurprisingly, not found in school libraries.

  • I don't think Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings for a teenage audience, and he most definitely didn't write it with any kind of market in mind. While it was begun as a sequel to the Hobbit, which was a children's book, Tolkien mostly wrote the Lord of the Rings to satisfy his own interests (in philology, religion, etc.) and for his first reader, his adult son Christopher (who was serving in the Royal Air Force at the time). – user29032 Apr 7 '18 at 10:24
  • @Cloudchaser Tolkien didn't write the Lord of the Rings for a YA audience, but it is read by and considered appropriate for a YA audience. – Galastel Apr 7 '18 at 10:41
  • Song of Ice and Fire was definitely in our middleschool library. My best friend really enjoyed the series so far ~10yrs ago. Still remember the conversation we had about them on the bus (and still haven't read them) ;) – mkbk Apr 7 '18 at 14:26
  • Jean M Auel's clan of the cave bear series is available in some high school libraries. That has some pretty detailed sex scenes in it! ....to be fair, it's not marketed as YA 😂 – EveryBitHelps Apr 9 '18 at 14:25
  • I think some of these situations are because whoever is stocking the library haven't read the books they're buying for it. – Ryan_L Apr 10 '18 at 15:43
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In Québec, we have Patrick Senecal who writes YA books (or the French Canadian cultural equivalent, «romans jeunesses»), and eh is known for his gory and disturbing stories. I think it's an author's decision whether or not to be graphic, and a reader's choice whether or not to read books with very graphic and or disturbing description.

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Let me give you an answer from a different perspective: not what Young Adults are reading, not what appears in modern YA fiction, but what I was reading as a teenager (12-16), and how it made me feel.

I was not reading YA fiction at all. I felt it was too simplistic, written down to some audience, not offering me enough food for thought. What I was reading were 18-19th century classics (Victor Hugo, Jane Austen), as well as 50s-70s fantasy and science fiction (Tolkien, Le Guin, Zelazny, Asimov, Clarke). In regards to your question, all this literature has a thing in common: while sex and violence happen, they are not explicit. Sex in particular, is more often alluded to than shown at all.

Reading the Iliad at 15, I was rather disturbed by the vivid descriptions of guts spilling onto the sand, and dying warriors screaming in pain. I didn't drop the Iliad because of this, it offered enough to compensate me, but I was disturbed.
My first encounter with explicit sex in literature was in Mists of Avalon, when I was 16. It was, moreover, sex from a female POV, thus closer to me. It was very much a shock. Not that I didn't know where babies come from, but it had been, up until then, something private, not really talked about. And as far as my personal experience went, I haven't so much as kissed a boy by then.
Before you think I was an exception in being sheltered, our history teacher in 9th grade showed us 1984 in class, and we all found the sex scene rather too much, detracting from our ability to discuss the more important ideas of the film.

So, to sum up, if your descriptions of violence are too explicit, too gory and shocking, you risk alienating your target audience, or at least distracting them from what you're trying to say. However, the issue is more with how explicit it is, then with what is actually happening.

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Book categories are largely a matter of marketing. At one time, for example, fantasy was considered largely a children's category in the US, but not in the UK. This led to books that were considered adult books in the UK, such as the Golden Compass trilogy, being marketed to teens and children in the US. So the question of what is considered "YA" is really a question of what publishers think a YA audience will buy.

My general sense from having done a (relatively shallow) survey of current mainstream YA, is that it tends to be edgier than in the past, with curse words, and frank discussions of sexuality and violence being more the rule than the exception. This suggests that's what the YA buying public wants today. Of course, that might also mean there is an under-served market for less transgressive work.

My question for you would be what makes your book YA in your mind? Is that the audience you picture for it? Just having a young protagonist doesn't necessarily make your ideal audience of a similar age. I wouldn't personally want my writing marketed to teens if it was overly explicit. On the other hand, many books that are not really YA are pushed into that category, because it's one of the better performing book-buying categories.

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