Taboo Topics in YA Literature

Explicit sex. Drug-use. Severe violence. These are the top three taboo subjects, in my opinion, which many YA enthusiasts prefer not to see in what is perceived to be a ‘light hearted’ genre for older children and adults. In essence, these can be considered taboo subjects by many YA lit lovers; however, there are YA consumers that are more tolerant of serious and ‘real life’ subject matter in the YA genre. Let’s demystify the explicit sex taboo in YA literature first.

Many YA readers believe that explicit sex should not be included in YA lit and if it is included then the inclusion of such a subject renders the book adult literature. The nature of the sex is important. For instance, my debut novel Sweetest Taboo does not include overly graphic sex scenes but does include one or two instances where a sexual encounter is described tastefully. Nevertheless, some YA readers feel that the type of sex, in this case sex between a student and a teacher, will dictate the genre of the book. I, however, disagree. My experience with YA literature extends back to the mid-80s when I began devouring the VC Andrews Flower in the Attic series. I was perhaps 13 at the time and reading what was then considered YA literature, a series of books that included sex between a brother and sister. The scenes were not overly graphic, but as a 13 year old I was definitely aware of what was being described in the book. I firmly believe that if sex is treated realistically and tastefully in a book that is YA classified (i.e. a book that is written from the perspective and voice of a young adult/teen), then explicit sex should cease to be considered a taboo topic in YA lit.

As for drug-use and severe violence, many believe these should not be included in YA lit and if included, again, the book ceases to exist in the YA genre and should be classified as adult fiction. As I’ve argued in several other posts, young adults (primarily those 14 and older) are exposed to many of these taboo topics in their day-to-day lives. Young adults are faced with many unpleasant situations in their lives. Teens may have friends with drug-abuse problems, or they know someone that was depressed and attempted suicide, maybe they have friends who have been molested, raped, or physically abused by relatives or boyfriends. Sheltering young adults from literature that contains mature subject matter is not doing them a service, but rather these young adults miss out on the opportunity to learn about how others address these difficult issues in their lives, how they cope, how they seek help and how they overcome obstacles. Life is not always as pleasant as we would like and by providing young adults with realistic literary content, teens venture beyond vampires and fairy tales to learn how to cope with life’s trials and tribulations, and also learn from the mistakes characters make throughout any given story. In Sweetest Taboo we learn where Isabel went astray, we see the exact choices she made that sent her down a very dangerous path. In She’s Come Undone, we learn to recognize the signs of eating disorders and the importance of self-worth. There are so many rich lessons to be learned in our young literary journeys, why limit the opportunities of self-discovery by labeling mature content as taboo?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “Taboo Topics in YA Literature

  1. An excellent and thought provoking post. Oddly I was pondering the other end if YA, namely the transition from MG to YA. In my own naivety I think of YA like a 15 cert film: some sex OK, but overly descriptive and excessive perhaps not. Drugs, no issue- we do teenagers a disservice by shying away. Some strong language fine, but not full Goodfellas. And violence- sure, but it’s tricky to know what qualifies as excessive and horrific. In a film, we’d know (brain splatter, sexual violence, torture, detailed anatomical gore) but in a book it’s a difficult call.
    Perhaps the issue may be the need to classify and catogerise books. I have no solutions, simply a personal gut feeling what I’d let my 13 yr old nephew read or not.

    • I like the parallels you draw between the content of films and books, and the idea of a rating system for books. Rating books would definitely be trickier than rating films simply because off the vast volumes of books that are published per year. One thing that seems useful is when authors accurately summarize their books in Amazon/GoodReads and other bookish platforms, but I have found that many authors/publishers don’t always capture the essence and ‘rating’ or content warning of a book in their synopsis’. Thanks for your interesting thoughts!

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