Monday, June 6, 2011

Too Close to the Edge?

Currently Reading: Fourteen first-20-pages for everyone in the Martine Leavitt workshop next week. Lots of critiquing to do. 

Because of the recent article in the wall street journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon, here, and Robison Wells excellent response to that article, here, I've decided to re-post a blog I wrote last year for the Utah Children's Writers website. 

There has been a lot of talk lately about “edgy” young-adult literature.  Read the blurbs about what many agents are looking for and it will include the word “edgy” or "dark."  Manuscripts are rejected because they aren’t “edgy” enough.

Edgy is generally defined as books that push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.  One definition said that there are no forbidden subjects in edgy young-adult fiction, but they are “written with sensitivity and care, not gratuitously.”

Critics opposed to edgy YA argue that the novels encourage destructive or immoral behavior.  

Those in favor claim that fictional portrayals of teens successfully addressing difficult situations and confronting social issues helps readers deal with real-life challenges.

One book that recently caught my eye is about a teenage girl who falls in love with a boy from her apartment building.  The girl’s feelings for the boy become confused when she discovers that he is actually a girl who has had a sex change.

Is that edgy?  Is it gratuitous?  Or does it help teens confront real-life challenges?  How many teens will really have to face that kind of situation?

Another recent book is written entirely in text message lingo and deals with a group of teenage girls who discuss boys, gossip, sex, clothes and getting drunk.  A book geared for grades 8-10.

One reader left her comment regarding this book on Amazon:  “This book offends me and makes me ashamed to be a teenage girl…is this what people think we’re like?  AHHH.  No.”

Are we underestimating our youth when we push edgy too far?  Are we selling the rising generation short when we appeal to the lowest common denominator?

Many books that were once considered too edgy are now taught in our schools.  Lord of the Flies, The Outsiders, and Speak.  What’s the difference?  What makes these books worthy of study?

What is the boundary between “edgy” and “trashy”?  Where is the line for taboo subject matter?  Do we compromise ourselves as authors when we cross those lines simply for the chance to make money or get our work published?

There are many books for YA's that deal with dark subject matter in a positive and inspiring way. I made my teenage son read "Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher because it dealt with the reality of suicide in a way that I felt sent the message I want my son to learn: You never know how unkind words might affect the life of another person, and suicide is not the answer.

All teens deal with challenges, heartache, and a huge range of deep, serious, emotional issues.  It seems to me that books that actually help them cope with these “real-life challenges” are uplifting, not gratuitous, and carry a message of safety and hope.  They stretch the teenage mind into a positive, new way of thinking that inspires them to want to be better, rather than simply shock and tantalize the senses.

What do you think?


  1. I agree with you here. Edgy books can certainly be positive. And some books never stop being edgy, even when they are taught in school. I still get criticized for teaching Catcher in the Rye. It's a book every high school student should read, but it requires discussion, just like any good literature should.

  2. Good question. I have teenagers, so I know how sticky it can get. Sitting on the fence here, but nervous about the direction this could go - however loving it when a really good book comes out that I can share with my kids (or vice versa). It would help if they came out with a rating system for content.

    And, you've been Meme'd at my blog. : )

  3. I totally agree! It's the difference between the "problem novel" and novels that have problems in them. One is made for sensation, one is made to show the way.

  4. Julie, I kept thinking about this and had to make my own post about it. I linked your article, too.