Content in YA Literature
As an agent specializing in kidlit, I’m often asked what content is appropriate for young adult literature. The answer: anything and everything that speaks to the authentic teen experience. Really, nothing is out of bounds if given a sensitive and respectful treatment.
Many of my clients’ published works are dark, gritty, and edgy. From teen serial killers to polyamorous relationships, there are very few limits on content for young adult audiences. Common issues addressed include sexuality, addiction, abuse, neglect, bullying, racism, inequality, and mental illness, among many, many others. Young adult as an audience is ready for anything! However, based on the content, regional and cultural concerns may affect the viability of a project in a specific market. Territories around the world have different socio-political perspectives on issues (e.g. gender and equality), but North America is generally an inclusive and open market.
As noted in my earlier post on distinguishing between middle grade, young adult, and new adult audiences, young adult literature typically features a central love story. However, I would make the argument here that we’ve expanded the “love story” to include any immersive relationship both positive and/or negative, from supportive female friendships to darker characterizations of toxicity, codependency, infatuation, and obsession. The variety of relationships represented are as varied as readers themselves!
So while sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are all authentically represented, there has to be appropriate accompanying discussion around the issues, including clear consequences for characters’ choices. Ultimately, we want to encourage a spirit of curiosity and questioning, without glorification, exploitation, or authenticity just for the sake of it.
There are some basic guidelines to addressing issues in YA. For example, it would not be appropriate to have a new major issue-based event take place at the very end of a book, including death, suicide, overdose, etc., where there is insufficient remaining room for dialogue. However, many young adult books deal with difficult and dark content by making it the focus of the narrative or a thematic thread throughout. In my opinion, this content is essential to young readers in providing a safe space to explore dangerous or disturbing aspects of the real world.
In my career as an agent, I’ve always been drawn to tough, troubling, and boundary-pushing content. My mandate is to not only work with my clients to publish books that kids want to read, but also to ensure readers can see themselves represented, no matter how unique or complicated their personal circumstances. I’m particularly proud to have been involved with client Jo Treggiari’s latest The Grey Sisters (Penguin Teen), nominated for both a Governor General’s Award and an Arthur Ellis Award (paperback released September 2020). Working within the conventions of the thriller genre, Jo gives voice to disenfranchised and abused teens who live in insular or isolated communities, and speaks to the tragedy of teen death and profound grief. The content of the novel involves incredible violence and trauma from a plane crash to sexual assault, abduction to homicide, yet delivers a nuanced exploration of ideas of family, home, and safety, imparting a resounding message of hope and resilience.
The expression of the teen experience in young adult literature is an ongoing conversation. Feel free to get in touch with your questions about the content of your young adult work, and check out our First Look and Coaching and Consultations services!