If you’ve been on any book related blogs this week, you know it’s Banned Books Week, the ALA sponsored event that celebrates books and raises awareness of censorship.
Because this is a multi-genre blog, I’m not sure how much this topic comes up with the average writer. I’m sure the supernatural people and the hot romance authors get individuals who let them know what they find offensive in their books, but when you’re primary audience is under eighteen (at least theoretically), getting past the “gatekeepers” for kid’s reading material is a constant concern.
Call it gatekeeping, challenges, bans or censorship, grown ups are going to have their say about the access kids will have to your books.
Now, I’m not talking about parents deciding what their own kid is allowed to read. Not every book is right for every kid. I’m talking about people removing your books from the hands of their target audience based on some objectionable element or subject matter.
Let’s skip over the whole ‘censorship is bad’ discussion, and why removing books from libraries is a bad thing. Since this is a blog about writing, let’s talk about what this means to you, the writer.
There are no rules for what you can put in a YA book. Drugs, sex, alcohol, violence… It’s a myth that you can’t write about those things. It’s all about how you handle it and why it’s there.
In some books, the objectionable content serve as pits in the dungeon of the hero’s journey. From broken families and teen pregnancy to drugs, self-harm, sexual abuse and violence, these are realistic depictions for kids who may be dealing with these things in real life–or who may never be touched by them, but can learn from a fictional experience.
At the other end of the scale, you’ve got some very popular books (made into a very popular TV show) where there is a lot of drinking and sex with little or no consequence, for the purpose of a salacious storyline. There’s a certain realism in that, too. Drinking and sex are a part of a lot of kids lives… Or it’s not, and they are indulging the lifestyle vicariously. I would never want to date a vampire, but I admit it makes a good story.
I fall somewhere in the middle, like a lot of genre YA. There are references to drugs, alcohol, or sex, but it’s not what the story is about. In my case, the story is about the supernatural (which can also get you banned). For me, I just want to tell an adventurous, mysterious, romantic story. Well-written escapism.
But every time I have a reference to alcohol, or a sexy scene, or a curse word, I have to decide whether I want that to potentially keep my book out of a reader’s hands. Will it impact the story I want to tell? Will it water down the story if I take it out? Does it serve a purpose, or I’m I just being gratuitous to generate buzz.
Sometimes it’s a marketing decision. I took the f-bomb out of my first book, because I was going for a 12+ rating that would make it easier to get into middle schools. As it turned out, “Hell” in all my titles was a bigger problem than what was inside the book. Now, when the first two books (Prom Dates from Hell and Hell Week) are re-released next year in a compilation, they’re getting a new title.
But sometimes it’s artistic. On a panel recently in Austin, award-winning author Paolo Gacigalupi was saying that he tamed the language in Ship Breaker, despite the fact that there are some brutal things that happen in that post apocalyptic word. He had to decide why he wanted to be banned–for language, or for the important story he wanted to tell.
These, however, are all second draft decisions. When you write your book, your only concern should be the story you want to tell. In the end, you can worry all day about what people will object to in your books. I’ve discovered that there’s no getting around it. There are too many readers I the world to never offend anyone.
So as you’re writing–as you’re envisioning your unique story–write it the way you envision it. That way, no matter who objects to what, not matter what they say about you on the internet, you can always stand by what you wrote.