Young Adult to Adult, the difference is?

As a writer I have ideas about how violence and sex applies in my work. When I was working on the Camelot 2050 Trilogy I will admit I wasn’t too sure whether I was writing a book for adults or young adults. I simply follower the story and wrote what came to mind. When it came to uploading the stories I had to age bracket them and I decided (after some discussion with my editor) that I could include them in the Young Adult bracket, but why? I can admit I might have been tempted to ‘coddle’ the YA audience and market my series as adult but my eyes were opened after reading some recent YA books. The main different between YS and Adult fiction is that the protagonists are young people themselves and the PoV is intended to be relatable to a younger audience but, what other differences are there?

I’ve mentioned before books are not governed by the same age restrictions as films, television programs and music. As such there is no limitation on what books can be bought by an individual of any age except that imposed by the point of sale vendor (the cashier at the bookshop). So what really separates YA books from Adult books?

The thing that immediately leaps to mind is sex, would/should a book intended for young adults include detailed scenes of a sexual nature? I would argue ‘Yes’, I mean, how are rapidly maturing teens to learn about the emotional side of relationships/sex? The other options are the Sex Ed/Life Experience classes at school (and in my term those where more clinical/factual than anything else) or by the frankly dubious (in terms of encouraging healthy emotional relationships) medium of porn. The fact is that there are hundreds books available in the YA bracket that deal with budding physical relationships and the inherent ups and downs so, moving on…

Sexual Violence/Abuse, these you might think are off the cards for YA novels but, again that’s not true. Young people who suffer sexual assault can’t always speak out at the time about it for fear of their abuser but there are examples in the genre written by survivors of such abuse about their experiences. While it’s horrendous that such abuse takes place it’s at least some comfort to know that these books exist so that those suffering might find some solace in reading the experiences of others to give them some idea of how to escape their own situation and to assure them that there is life after the horror. It’s essential in the case of abuse in YA novels (at least in my opinion) that the writer knows what they’re writing about, that the subject isn’t trivialised or employed as a simple emotional hook.

Violence. How violent is too violent? I must say I got a surprise when I read the first book in the Skulduggery Pleasant series, a story about a teenage girl who gets caught up in a world of magic and mystery with an animate skeleton detective as her guide. While it avoided any sexual content the violence was, in places, pretty hardcore. Not overly graphic but not exactly shied away from. There are violent YA books, as many or more as there are YA books with sexual content and, if the violence isn’t close and personal there are examples of broader, more horrific acts that have achieved quite a deal of acclaim. The Hunger Games is a story about a young person forced to fight other young people in a glorified gladiatorial competition for the entertainment of a fascist regime, The Maze Runner is a group of young people held at the centre of a horrific scientific experiment and Enders Game is about children being trained to enact genocide against an alien race, whether it’s actually a YA novel is the source of some debate but the film is a 12 in the UK. Again the important aspect of writing this material for adolescents is not to ignore the weight of the subject, not to glorify the violence but acknowledge the emotional impact and aftereffects of violent acts.

Swearing is an odd duck isn’t it? We’ve long had the dichotomy that portraying sex, as a physical act of love or consent, will immediately get a film an 18 rating where-as displaying acts of  gratuitous, visceral violence will get you a 15 in most cases… as long as you avoid the swears. Sexual swearwords will bump a films rating up as sure as showing a full frontal pair of breasts but is that the same in books? Well, no. Because they’re not classified in the same way, short of reading the entire book yourself how are you going to know if a book contains swearing? Swearing is pervasive throughout society so it’s hard to keep young people from experiencing it, in fact it’s the prohibition of bad language that makes it so attractive to the young. Cursing and swearing are likely to appear in some YA books at some level but, unlike sex or violence it’s unlikely you’ll get a forewarning in the blurb. As to the matter of whether YA books *should* have swearing in them, is it appropriate to the situation? They’ll experience it in real life so way swaddle them away from it in literature? It’s a decision for parents to make at the end of the day and might seem trivial but, held up alongside sex and violence it’s the easiest one to employ in acts of casual cruelty so the issue still carries at least some weight for consideration.

Of course there are myriad other heavy subjects that YA novels touch upon, parental separation, bullying, depression, suicide and it’s important that they do. These books normalise such feelings and help those going through them understand that there *is* a way through them. The main difference between YA and Adult fiction that I can find is that YA authors go to lengths to explore these issues for an audience with limited or less life-experience whilst adult books tend to skip the emotional details, assuming that the audience understands. You don’t have to shy away from difficult subjects to write YA fiction but you should be responsible in how you approach it because you are influencing the opinions of a young audience and they will carry those opinions on with them until challenged.

Just as a final note, in looking at YA fiction for this blog one book has kept coming up and has been presented as a thoughtful piece covering many difficult subjects. Stay a Little Longer by Bali Rai might be a helpful piece for those struggling with approaching some of the heavy themes discussed in this blog.

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