Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Ethics of Writing for Children / Young Adults

I'm in the middle of writing a break-up scene for a teen / young adult novel.  The stakes for the characters are very high - both in life and love - and there's a great deal of anger and tension on both sides of the conflict.

I've paused to write a blog post because I caught myself about to write a paragraph which would, in effect, have the heroine assaulting the hero.  In my mind it was her frustration and hurt being communicated in a way that she knew wouldn't actually hurt him, but would vent some of her anger.  He's a big boy, he can take it.  I was fine with it - until I remembered a conversation we had on the blog a couple of months ago.

In this post on what I dubbed "The Stephenie Meyer Effect", while discussing some of the technical writing issues, the ethical aspects of the love-story in the Twilight Saga were raised.  While I didn't agree with all of the comments, they gave me significant food for thought.  Now, in my own writing, I find the issues front and centre.

Some readers of the Twilight Saga see a passionate, fantastical love story between a human girl and a vampire man.  Others see an obssessive, unhealthy and at times illegal fixation of a mature man on a young girl. 

Depending on the reader's interpretation, the actions taken by the 'hero' in Twilight (Edward - the 100 year old Vampire who looks like a seventeen-year-old boy) could be read as unerringly protective and chivalrous, or frighteningly controlling and power-hungry.

Some people find the character's behaviour abhorrent and a terribly dangerous example for young people, others see chivalry and romantic sacrifice.

Who is right?  Both?  Neither?  And what, if anything, should an author do about it?

At what point do we, as writers, become responsible for how our stories affect or shape the minds of our audience?  I am guessing that writers of adult fiction would be mostly free of stricture, as the audience would be considered to be in a position to determine for themselves not only what  they will read, but also have enough life experience behind them to choose what they take away from a story.

But young minds?  Can we really believe we aren't at least a small part of forming desires, expectations, even boundaries for young readers?

Is it irresponsible for me to depict a heroine physically expressing her hurt and anger when a young reader might romanticize the scene and later emulate it?  Am I responsible if a young woman took similar action - perhaps in the company of a young man without the moral fortitude and physical restraint of my hero?   

My writerly heart is heavy.  I am a mother myself.  I write for teens.  I have no desire to be a negative influence on anyone - quite the opposite.  Neither do I want to pretend that human relationships and conflicts aren't fraught with danger for both sides.

Where should I draw the line?

What do you think?  My authorial ears are wide open.


  1. Authors are story tellers. Not preachers or saviors or messiahs. Our only obligation to our reader is to tell them the best story we can. As I tell my readers, all morals are accidental. I'm reading the memoir about growing up gay in the 1950's. In the first chapter I read about him at age fifteen having sex with a twelve year old boy. The twelve year old boy initiated it. Children and teenagers live in a dark world we adults like to pretend doesn't exist. We do a disservice to our readers by treating them like children to be coddled or controlled instead of treating them like readers who wish merely to be entertained.

  2. I hear what you're saying Tiffany. I'm on the swing with this one though - one minute I agree wholeheartedly, the next I think maybe teens lives wouldn't be so dark if we did a little more protecting....

    Tough call! Thanks for giving your thoughts.

  3. This question is one fraught with various answers by many different authors across the genre. Personally, my conviction is that readers, regardless of age, are capable of determining for themselves books appropriate for their tastes. Because the key difference between young readers and adult readers is that kids and teens read books that interest them--that's it. Adults alone read novels because they feel they should read them, and rarely--unless you're a frequent YA/Middle Grade/Children's reader--read them because they want to. Therefore, I think the notion of a book's ethics is primarily an adult concern.

    Having said that, I don't believe a moral person is capable of completing, selling, and then publishing an immoral story. What you believe, whether you're trying to or not, bleeds through onto the page. Everything from characters, setting, worldbuilding, genre choice, plot--everything about your writing stems subconsciously from what you believe. You believe in yourself, otherwise you wouldn't continue on such a career path with potentially poor benefits and such a high risk of complete failure.

    How important are ethics to young people's fiction? Vital. But let the reader discover this for themselves. Do what's best for the story--always! Your readers, trust me, will tell you whether they found that scene between the young woman and her young man too violent, terribly immoral, etc. Because, unlike we adults commonly admit, our children/teens understand the world around them far better than we give them credit for.

  4. Based on what I remember about my reading habits as a young adult and even as a child, I'm going to side with Adam on this one. I always read what interested me whether or not it was intended for my age group. While I often tease my mom about warping my mind at a young age by reading me The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the truth is that I was usually a very thoughtful reader, picking what resonated and rejecting what didn't.

    Is there a chance that the reader will misuse what you wrote or learn the wrong lesson from it? Of course. This goes for YA as much as it does for adult, and I think that this is more on the heads of the readers and the people in their life than it is on the author's head.

  5. I have yet to reach this dilhema in my novels. I'm still in the beginnings and haven't really gotten to the emotional aspect yet, but I have discussed this issue with many people before, including the Bella/Edward relationship that is portrayed in Twilight.

    I am of the opinion that our job, as authors, is to tell our story the way it needs to be told, to entertain or provide an escape, and to hope that we can inspire others. It is not our responsibility to teach young boys and girls how to have healthy relationships or even what to take away from the book. That is entirely up to them and their parents! That's one reason I promote the literacy of teens AND their parents. They should be reading together and discussing the books they read.

    So, when a young girl reads Twilight and has questions about Bella and Edward's relationship, she can ask her mother and mom can explain and teach her daughter.

    I am also of the opinion that Twilight is a fantasy of two different people who accept each other for who they are and who fall perfectly in love. That's it. Plain and simple. It's not real. It's fiction! And if young girls are taught and supported properly while reading these books, they will not go off looking for 100 year old men or bloodsuckers in the dark who seek to use and control them.

    That's my rant for the day :) Thank you for the intriguing discussions!

    AubrieAnne @

  6. Great comments, guys, thanks! All good fodder for my internal debate.

  7. I'm not sure that the single scene or paragraph will determine the message the reader takes from your book. If the characters' situation generates thought - or even aversion, if the reactions aren't desirable - then that's giving the reader a chance to form an opinion about that, and the broader topic in general.

    I don't write YA, I'm not really qualified to say what their 'responsibilities' are... maybe being realistic about the consequences of alcohol use, or showing safe sex (if the story includes sex), etc. is what comes to mind.

    Good luck!

  8. This is something I deliberate over all the time. As well as writing YA, I teach English Lit at secondary school level (age 11-16) so I'm even more acutely aware of it then perhaps if I didn't have this experience.
    I think we have to give young people credit in that they are able to distinguish between the artistic/symbolic and what is acceptable in reality more than we sometimes fear. Art is an artifice and teenagers understand this.
    Of course writers have a responsibility to take morality into account - to think about it consciously (The problem is morality isn't a fixed thing and one persons moral is anothers immoral.) - When I write, I always ask myself what message would this give my daughter? Am I happy with this?
    I think that this is a fairly good touchstone. It's not a perfect measurement but then neither is humanity ;-)

  9. Parents protect and at times a Book we may not agree with but a YA is reading its just the way it is...We must trust our Children to make choices.The Author is telling a story and should never,ever be Hindered.You are The Author we Read your Books....I read YA Books all the time..And the Authors are Our Next Group of "Adult" genre..I just think that so many YA Authors Have Such Broad Appeal Lauren Oliver Before I Fall.Becca Fitzpatrick The Hush Hush series and "Vixen"Jillian Larkin..NYT Needs a YA/Adult List The LAT had an article on this a few wekks ago...I read some UF/Paranormal "Nicole Peeler"..GreatAuthor...Seanan McGuire Amazing.Books.....And also Jessica Brody The Karma Club...not UF..Just a Book with a Good Message..I will also suggest "The Poachers Son" Author Paul Doiron...Very Gender Friendly..Paul is EIChief of Down East Maine...Great first book of a series...Soon we hope,Book 2..Happy New Year and Much Success..

  10. What if we've already lost the controls as parents, therefore socially, as it pertains to minding our kids' mental stimulation. I think Twilight did a great thing for an industry and opened huge dialogue as a result. Kids escaped into the Saga, whatever the results, they found a passionate stimulation that they're recreating with other texts. That's good! The bad has yet to be determined, measurably.

  11. I've been reading and re-reading your post for several days now while trying to formulate my reply -- and still, I can't reply coherently, because I am of two minds.

    I've read a lot of posts saying that the romance in Twilight and other YA paranormals are problematic and unhealthy, many by authors and bloggers whose opinions I respect. I haven't read Twilight, so I don't have personal opinion on the matter -- but in terms of your questions:

    Almost every single YA writer and defender will say, when asked, that you shouldn't set out to teach a moral when writing a YA novel, that the primary focus is to entertain. I'm not sure how true that is.

    However, I do think that to write a YA novel where every action a character makes is socially/morally correct is unrealistic. Teenagers themselves don't make all the right choices; they also do things that aren't right, that might be abhorrent. Characters should do the same.

    Will all teenagers recognize that some actions are wrong/problematic? Probably not. But I'm not sure it's the author's job to make every single one of their characters' actions morally right (and that, in itself, is something that's difficult to define) just in case they might adversely influence their readers' minds.

    (Of course, my opinions might change entirely by tomorrow, as this is one topic that I'm conflicted about, but currently -- this is what I think. :))

  12. Thanks Emy, I appreciate the considered approach! I too am of two minds, so I know how that goes. Thanks for adding your two cents.