Up until a few months ago, I was posting chapters of my book on an online writers' group website. (I didn't "quit" the site; I just finished posting for that book.) The feedback was always helpful, and I'm sure my book is better now for the constructive criticism I received there. Most of the time, I felt the reviewers' suggestions were valid. Occasionally, I thought, "Hm. Well, thanks. But that's not what I wanted to do there."
One comment, however, got me thinking a lot about what it means to be a young adult today, because that's what I write: young adult (urban fantasy). In this particular chapter, one of my characters swears twice, and I'm not even talking vulgar language. This character has been abused and is struggling to remain strong, to not let what happened to her destroy the essence of who she is. The reviewer, after addressing the specifics of the chapter, said she next wanted to talk to me as a mother to an author. She said (quite politely) she objected to my language and, as a parent, would never purchase my book because she wouldn't want her children reading it. I emailed her a thank you for her comments and said that although I understood her objection, and as a mother myself, I, too, worry about what my kids read, I felt I had to remain true to the character.
A couple of weeks ago, I finally read a book I've been excited about since before it was published: "Cracked Up to Be" by Courtney Summers. There are enough reviews on Amazon and elsewhere for me to not need to give a full review here. But I will say that I loved this book. I loved its realism, its refusal to give us a cliched happy ending, its acknowledgment of how painful the teen years really can be. Yet it's not just about being a teen. It's also about choices and judgments and how awful not being who we should be can be and about how awful being exactly who we think we should be can be. And it's full of "inappropriate" language, language--and themes--I'm sure would prevent many parents from buying it for their children. Yet it's getting rave reviews everywhere and, last I heard, was already in its third printing. So it's being read, regardless of who is doing the buying.
I'll admit right here that I graduated from high school more than 20 years ago. And the biggest trials I faced back then were the feelings that I didn't belong anywhere and that no matter how true I tried to be to who I thought I was and should be, I would end up with more than a handful of people who didn't like me at all and never would. I was opinionated and often self-righteous, but I was also insecure and self-conscious. But on a day-to-day basis, I have to say life was pretty simple. Drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy . . . none of these were issues I had to personally deal with. I went to school, I spoke my mind, I did my homework, I spent time with "good" friends and a "good" boyfriend my parents never needed to worry about, and I graduated and moved onto college. In other words, I got out of there virtually scar-free.
There's a brand-new website out there called teentoteentalk.com. The tagline reads, "advice, support and fresh voices from teens who understand what it's like to be you." Its purpose is to provide a safe (read: anonymous and highly "policed") place where teens can voice their concerns, their problems, or even just their confessions and have other teens offer advice, consolation, or just a listening ear. One of my nieces says it's what kids need today, because so often, they have nowhere else to turn: not to parents or to counselors or even to friends.
I have four children, the oldest of which is 12. The biggest problem he's come to me with is help on an essay assignment he can't figure out how to end right. I know I'm SO close to him having bigger problems, bigger challenges, bigger seemingly unresolvable issues that make him feel like he's alone. And I know I'll say more than once, "I'm so sorry. I wish you didn't have to deal with this."
And one of the reasons I'll wish that is because I didn't have to deal with it. Kids today face more serious questions than, "What if he doesn't like me?" "Will they laugh at my outfit?" "What happens if I don't get into that college?" Sure, kids 20 years ago also dealt with problems regarding abuse and abandonment and alcoholism, but even the strictest parent today must admit those problems are more widespread now. And how do we answer the really hard questions?
I don't know if my book, swear words and all, will help with those answers. I don't know if Courtney Summers' book--or Sara Zarr's or C. K. Kelly Martin's or Sarah Dessen's--will or have. But I do know that stripping today's stories of the reality of what today is won't help anyone.