Do YA Authors Have A Responsibility To Their Audience?

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weneedA couple of days ago a friend of mine read my book that I am currently querying to agents. She said a lot of things about it, but there were a couple of things that really stuck with me, and I want to talk about them a little here. She mentioned that she thinks YA Authors need to remember their younger audience, and should be careful when they have their main characters do things that are potentially dangerous without having them suffer consequences.

I’m not sure how I feel about this right now, so I thought I’d write through a blog post and see what my opinion was at the end of this.

These are the big three she brought up:

  • Underage Drinking–Okay I get where she’s coming from. There’s a scene in my book where the high school students end up at a big party, and other than a moment where a boy gets caught in a compromising position with a chick who isn’t his girlfriend, there aren’t any real consequences. No one gets in trouble with their parents, no one goes to jail, there are no MIP’s distributed by cops or even so much as a stern warning. So, is this wrong? Am I promoting teenage drinking, or am I just telling it like it is? Well, I don’t know, exactly.
  • Texting While Driving–Okay, so she is concerned that my character sends a text while driving down the road and doesn’t get in a wreck, get pulled over, have any problems. I have to be honest… this never even dawned on me when I wrote it. I didn’t even THINK about the fact that it was a bad thing. I just wrote her sending a quick text and driving down the road. Now, when I really get to thinking about this, I think she’s right that I shouldn’t be promoting such a behavior, BUT–am I doing that by having my super villain main character do it? I don’t think so.
  • Bad Words in Front of Parents–This surprised me the most. I had parents that didn’t really give a rat’s patootie about what I said once I got old enough to think and make decisions on my own. That was just how it always was with me. So, I completely think that’s totally okay. Different strokes for different folks on this one, but I would like to know how other people’s parents react to that sort of thing.

Okay, I’ve been thinking about it over the course of this blog post, and I’m not so sure it’s my place to teach these kids appropriate behavior. That’s their parents job. I write stories, and in the end they’re considered FICTION for a reason. I don’t think kids will go out and drink beer or text while driving based on my book. That’s all there is to that. I think there are a lot of things a book ca do, and I am sure there are books that will do a great job of teaching things like ‘no sex before marriage’ and all that other good stuff… but I don’t think my supervillain series is the place for that to happen.

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  1. Late to this because I’m just back from vacation, but here are my thoughts:

    First, the texting while driving thing is a HUGE issue right now. They say that your driving impairment while texting is close to DOUBLE that of driving while drunk. States everywhere are putting really harsh laws on the books to punish drivers who are caught texting. (most include immediate jail time)

    But the fact is that people do it everyday without incident.

    We all do stupid, ridiculous, and really bad stuff every day with no consequence.

    I think people can write books about the consequences of a bad decision. But it’s a little didactic to expect all of our characters to always suffer consequences–especially when that’s not a representation of how real life works.

    Still… you should make sure that the behavior and reaction to behavior matches up with the character’s personality.

    If a character is a little flighty, then texting while driving should at least cause them to have a swerve or near miss.

    If she’s normally a “good girl” type, then the alcohol at a party should cause a reaction… and so should the swearing.

    Being true to character is more important than using a book to teach kids a lesson. We kind of gave up that didactic ideal in the Victorian era. And for good reason–it’s usually obnoxious.

  2. Okay – so I though I would share my two cents. First, I thing we do have a responsiblity as authors to be authentic – our characters need to have authentic feelings. And if there are conseqeunces for actions we need to depict that – in a way authentic to the story itself.

    In terms of the whole consequences for actions debate…I think there are always consequences – some we see immediately, and some we may never recognize. Every decision we make – every one – shapes an aspect of our personality. And yes, teens make silly mistakes of judgement regularly. It is my hope that they learn from them – either through their own experiences, the experience of those around them, or through stories and film they watch. As an author, it is my hope that my stories inspire kids and adults to think through their own choices and remain authentic to who they are – even when I am dealing with very edgy issues.

  3. I have to agree with Elana on this one. All our choices have consequences – but sometimes they’re not immediately apparent.

    In the literary world, agents and publishers want to see personal growth in characters. Without consequences, the characters won’t be able to grow and the story will fall flat.

    In real life, I would much rather be friends with those who have learned from their mistakes, rather than those who have “gotten away with things” all their lives. The latter group still have a lot of growing up to do!

    1. haha I guess I am of the latter crew, because I did a lot of stuff and didn’t get in trouble for it.

      I’m not saying actions should NEVER have consequences… they just shouldn’t be a requirement for every bad thing in the book–especially things that happen every day in normal teen life.

  4. This is a great topic and I have some strong feelings about this too. I read some of this conversation as it was happening on Twitter. My thoughts lie in what you said, Jamie.

    Ultimately, PARENTS are the ones who should be doing the parenting. Authors have a social responsibility, yes, I agree with that statement completely. But there is also a level of reality we have to accept. These things happen: texting while driving, underage drinking, premarital sex. It doesn’t matter if you include them in a book you’re writing or not. It is still going on.

    It is each parent’s responsibility to their own children to teach them, guide them and help them understand what consequences MAY result from their decisions and actions.

    I also think the genre you write in matters here also. If you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, you can change rules and make the world different. If you’re writing more contemporary YA stuff, it is almost unrealistic to leave out the drinking, texting, sex.

    There is so much to consider, but as a writer, I have to be honest to my characters’ and tell their stories.

    P.S. I think a great link to post on this would be Ellen Hopkins’ blog post about her invitation to the Oklahoma school being rescinded because of the content of one of her books. It is definitely worth a read.

  5. In my mind, the only responsibility you have to your readers is to entertain them.

    As a YA Author, I am not trying to teach teenagers right from wrong. These kids need to be learning their values and morals from their parents, not from you or me.

    I didn’t drink in high school (or ever for that matter), but I am not so naive as to think others didn’t. I had friends in high school who went to parties on the weekends and got drunk. If I were to write a book and base it on these experiences, I would not show the characters being punished for this. Because they weren’t. I think you are doing a great job of telling it realistically. Yes, there are consequences of drinking…perhaps these characters have horrible hangovers the next morning, but if showing the hangover does not propel your story, why show it?

    I didn’t have a cell phone in high school, but I will tell you that I do text while driving now. I try not to do it often, or when I am in traffic, but I do it sometimes. I know it distracts me slightly, but really I have never had a problem doing it. I also would not have thought twice about having a teenager text while driving in my book.

    I am trying to put myself back in teenager shoes. When I was a teen, if I read a book with the things you mentioned, I would not have thought much about it. They are part of the story. If I read the same thing with big consequences (unless the consequences seemed totally natural and helped push the story forward) I would feel like I was being preached to.

    Young Adults are smart and perceptive. They know when people are trying to preach to them; they know when they are being taught lessons. They are also stubborn and rebellious. Many teenagers, if they thought a novel was trying to preach at them, would put it down and not pick it up again.

    If we want to teach lessons, we should be writing self-help books, not novels. Let the parents teach; just keep writing what you want!
    .-= Rachel Bateman´s last blog ..10 Writing Tips =-.

    1. I think that’s a great point. We have a responsibility to our stories and our characters first!

  6. I’ll go with the easiest example first: cussing in front of the parents. This TOTALLY depends on the parents. My parents would have pitched a fit if I cussed in front of them. Hell, they still did it just a few years ago, and I’m 36. Parents of some of my friends in HS didn’t care at all. So, for me it depends on the characters, if it is appropriate to them, then you leave it.

    The other two instances aren’t so cut and dry for me. Texting while driving and underage drinking (actually to be fair ANY age drinking) can have very negative consequences. The “problem” is those things don’t always happen.

    In my opinion, you need to toe the line between reality and sending messages. Teenagers aren’t stupid, and most of them don’t want to be preached at in a novel regarding what they should and shouldn’t do. So why not make sure it’s realistic in that SOMETIMES there are consequences for SOME characters. Your main character might not get busted for drinking, but the best friend could.

    As for the texting while driving, there are ways around that if you want to “fix” it. Have them text at a stop light. Since you write superhero stuff, let them have the technology to send a text by voice. But that’s IF you want to change it.

    Do you have a responsibility to your audience? Sure, but you also have a responsibility to your story. And kids who are going to go out and do stupid things aren’t going to stop because your book sent them a message. Nor are kids who wouldn’t do those things going to say “oh, this must be safe because Jamie Harrington’s awesome book about superheroes said so.”

    One of your responsibilities to your audience is trusting them to have enough intelligence to know the difference between reality and fiction. (I’m sure I’ll get my share of grief since the teens in my novel sneak out most nights LOL)

  7. I guess I’m just different. I absolutely believe that every single choice someone makes has a consequence. Every single one. Sometimes they’re called rewards and sometimes they’re called punishments. And just because it doesn’t happen that very second, or the next day, or even the next year doesn’t mean it won’t have a consequence. I’ve seen case after case of people who make one little choice when they’re teenagers and they’re still struggling with things 15 years later. But that one little choice at age 17 “didn’t mean anything.” There were no consequences at the time. Just because you never get “caught” or never get in an accident after you’ve been drinking (or texting) doesn’t mean it CAN’T happen.

    I agree with what the others have said. You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. I want my stories to be more than stories. I want them to have depth. I want them to have social commentary. I want it to be more than just a story. I want it to be like real life. Sure, sometimes “nothing happens”, but sometimes–a lot of times–things do.

    Ultimately, you’re the author of your own story. The ones you write–and the one you’re living. It’s your choice what to do.
    .-= ElanaJ´s last blog ..The Responsibility of Authors =-.

    1. Now, I’m not sure that just because I don’t have a consequence for texting while driving that my story doesn’t have depth. (Maybe it doesn’t have depth for another reason–but not because of the texting.)

      I think that stories have to be real to the story… that’s what makes kiddos want to read.

  8. Well, as a parent, I would ask what would YOU want YOUR daughter to get out of your book when she’s reading it as a teenager?

    I was raised probably the opposite of you… I wasn’t allowed to go to dances and parties in high school, and if I said a bad word at all, let alone in front of my parents, I’d be grounded for a month! So your book would not have been something my parents would have let me read.

    Also, I don’t think that something “bad” has to happen or they have to get in trouble in the book. Just the way you depict a scene can give it a negative connotation instead of a positive one… if that’s what you want. The way the scenario is described would tell the reader if it’s bad or good, even if there’s no cops busting in the doors and hauling everyone to jail. :o)

    1. See, this is something I have been thinking about–how would I feel if MY kid read this? I think I’d be okay, because hopefully by then I’ve taught her HOW to act, etc.

      But, if I knew my child was the kind of person prone to doing those sorts of things in the first place–I would definitely think about it. 🙂

  9. I believe 100% that parents need to take full responsibility of their children and teach them right from wrong. The thing is I remember being a teenager and regardless of knowing what was right I still did the wrong stuff. It’s part of growing up.

    On the other hand as an author we do have a great opportunity to get kids attention which means we should be aware of that ability and try to say things that matter. If a story can teach kids a bigger lesson, great, but sometimes it can do the opposite if it isn’t a natural part of the story and kids will see right through it.

    Ultimately we have to decide for ourselves what sort of author we want to be. And whatever that ends up being (teaching morals, strictly entertainment, etc.) we as adults should be aware of what we write. Asking ourselves questions like, does a sex scene need to be so descriptive, or does it even need to be there at all?

    There are thousands of books out there on the shelves for teens to pick up, and they range from stories you’d never want your kids reading to ones you think are ideal. But thats for the parents to decide. As a parent of a toddler and a writer I realize what a huge responsibility I have before me because at the end of the day we have to make the choices we believe in and can live with.

    1. I think that’s a good point. Ultimately we as writers have to decide what kind of author we want to be. Either way can potentially lose readers, but both have a change to gain as well.

  10. I’ve kinda been watching this play out on the Twitters, and have to say that I don’t believe ALL actions have consequences. Especially for teens. There were plenty of things, risky things, things that I would NEVER do now that there were no consequences for. And thinking back, I don’t think it was necessarily the worst kids that were considered the “criminals”, it was just the ones who got caught. Once they were on the radar of police and teachers and parents it was impossible for them to shake the image, and most of them went down with it. Some did jail time. Some dropped out. Were they “worse” than the rest-the jocks and cheerleaders binge drinking after the big game? No. Maybe they would have been better off if they’d had no consequences (gotten away with it), and had been able to grow out of their wild phase without the stigma of being a bad egg. In real life, there aren’t always consequences to your actions.

    1. I agree with that. I’ve made bad choices in life, and not had consequences. I mean sure, maybe if we want to go with some sort of inter-gallactic stellar karma thing then maybe. But I think that’s part of being a teenager too… making bad choices and not always having them go completely wrong. If we all got in trouble every time we did something wrong when we were teenagers, we’d have a lot more people in a lot more trouble.

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