YA: The Dark Place of Children’s Lit

By Almitra Clay

“So what is your novel about?”

This is the point where I go from smiling to my deer-in-the-headlights grimace. See, I’m not much of a talker to begin with. I shy away in person from discussing religion-’n’-politics, or anything similarly sensitive — but that’s exactly what my novel contains. “It’s a young-adult fantasy,” I quip, still with the fake smile glued on my face. I really would like to tell you the specifics of what I’m writing, but I’m afraid you’ll hate me.

By book-industry standards, I am writing for children. This puts me in the company of writers I admire, who write for those whom I would consider to be the best possible audience. The problem is, I’m writing for the kids who are ready to be done with the kiddie table. They’ve been out behind the garage with the beer they’ve nicked from the fridge, and they’ve come to the conclusion that the fluffy books they’ve been reading are failing to reflect the dark complexity of the world. They are feeling held back, misunderstood, and lied-to.

I’m pretty sure this is what young adult literature looks like to some folks: sweetness and spikes

Enter the YA category — the spider-filled attic of children’s lit. The litany of topics YA writers reach for is enough to choke a horse: mental illness, suicide, rape. Murder, genocide, abuse. Questioning authority, breaking rules. What happens when the reader really is too young for the subject matter? Or when the reader is emotionally unprepared, or uninterested? There is plenty of stuff here for a reasonable person to object to–and they do.

But those worries are the considerations of adults — who are not my audience — for readers who are also not my audience, because those readers are too young, or not ready, or simply not interested.

My audience is my friend’s teenage daughter. She likes to cuddle with her boyfriend; she hates driving but does it anyway. And when she opens her mouth, the most unabashedly uncensored things fly out: sexuality and social justice and so much more. I sit back in awe when she speaks. She has seized on undiluted real-world topics, and woe to anyone who gets in her way.

Why, then, should we not let such teens find their way straight into adult literature? Well, for one thing, I think we should. Many readers are ready for mature subject matter well ahead of their peers. But whereas adult books often toss in “adult” subject matter with all the mindfulness of a distracted chef tossing hot sauce in the soup, the Young Adult category is very specifically tuned to the consideration that the reader may be encountering each blood-curdling topic for the very first time.

For each and every instance of a sensitive issue raised in my writing, I must consider that my audience could be traumatized if I do not write with caution — and perhaps even if I do.

As an example of the care a YA writer must put into serious topics, consider this blog post by author John Scalzi regarding rape in literature. The comments in particular are enlightening. (And civil, surprisingly.)

I believe that young readers benefit by passing through the carefully curated horrors of the YA category on their path to the jarring joys and unbuffered shocks of adult books. I see it as an opportunity for them to explore dark places in an arena that also shows them a light at the end of the tunnel — whereas adult books all too often go to a dark place and stay there.

Of course there will be people who disagree with me — and I do not consider them wrong to do so. If a reader puts down my book in disgust, I fully support her decision. Whether a parent throws open the doors to the library for their own children or blocks it off is a personal parenting choice. Although I am a writer of what some might consider to be inappropriate, I too am a parent, and I too make decisions regarding what my children do and, occasionally do not, read.

Part of the challenge for me as a YA writer is understanding the gatekeepers that stand between me and my audience, and what each gatekeeper will and will not allow. Are the topics I have chosen too sensitive for traditional publication? Or, if I am careful enough and lucky enough for my work to pass that monumental hurdle, will my writings be rejected out-of-hand by parents of a particular political or religious bent? Will my books face enough rejection by concerned adults that they end up banned?

It ultimately doesn’t matter from my perspective that those who seek to ban books misunderstand the difference between denying their own children’s access to books and denying access to others. Once we as YA writers have concluded that we are not morally in the wrong for writing what we do, our concern is with choosing which gatekeepers we need to appease, and which we can safely ignore.

Now, after all of this, I imagine you are dying to know what topic in my writing is so ghastly that I am already thinking ahead to book-banning. The answer: religion. Or lack thereof. “ ‘We shy away from religion and spirituality in publishing YA. . .’ says Candlewick’s Deborah Noyes.” The YA shelves are sagging under the weight of of novels dealing with mental health and sexuality, but when it comes to this one dazzlingly important issue in the lives of so many young people, the selection of reading material on religion, pro, con, or otherwise, is slim.

It’s a good thing I’m bull-headed. Given the growing segment of the young population who consider themselves to be non-religious, I see a market for YA that addresses coming of age as a non-religious teen in a religious community — especially in a genre as open to exploration as fantasy. Yes, I’ll have to navigate a minefield of gatekeepers. But what self-respecting teen ever followed all of the rules, anyway? If you need me, I’ll be out writing behind the garage.

Spooky_Garage_from Pixabay
If you need me, I’ll be hiding behind the garage, writing books that reflect the dark complexity of the world.

Articles and sites linked in this post:
Darkness Too Visible by Meghan Cox Gurdon
This Book Is Too Old for You by Maria Casale
A Useful Moment from a Mentor by John Scalzi
Banned & Challenged Books by the American Library Association (ALA)
What to Expect When You’re Expecting YA by Sue Corbett
Diversity 101: Religion in YA by Aaron Hartzler
Thou Shalt Not — Religion and Teen Books by Maria Kramer

Image credits: Cupcakes, styled and photographed by Almitra Clay. Spooky garage, Pixabay

Almitra Clay records her brain-spewings in words and whiteboard scribblings at http://almitraclay.tumblr.com/ , tweets as @AlmitraClay, and is writing a fantasy novel for young adults


  1. So THOSE were the cupcakes you were baking! Ah ha. Perfect visual metaphor for this excellent topic. To those who would ban books for YA readers that include spiny topics like rape and other abuses, one could point out that some kids in that age group do suffer as victims of crime, don’t they? As in The Lovely Bones, reading about such topics is compelling for victims, friends of victims and kids in general who need to understand that inner strength and recovery are vital. Young adults are faced with many cupcakes like yours and books like those you refer to are helping kids survive. And why should religion not be included among the healing, enlightening topics that books for kids show? Good for you, Almitra.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, yes, yes and yes! When my kids were in their YA reading phase(s), they pretty much found either fantasy or visceral reality. I think my daughter, especially, would have appreciated what you’re working on, Almitra. Looking forward to seeing – and reading – more. (And I absolutely love the cupcake stylings, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I needed this! Just the kick in the hinder, that I needed. I am not writing my YA novel, for shock-effect, but questioning what life is about. If that bothers some people, then ok. Tomorrow I start CampNaNoWriMo, and I need to get this down. Yes, it will be shitty, but at least I will make the first leap. Thank you Almitra! I will need to look your books up. BTW, I raised three boys and really nothing was holy. But they all turned out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sally! Here’s hoping I’ll have books on the shelves eventually! This is my first, and it started life as a NaNo thing a couple of years back. I still cringe with embarrassment that I let anyone read that first wretched draft. At this point, the thing has been almost entirely rewritten, and it will be rewritten even more by the time it is done, but *wow* has it come a long way (thanks to my awesome critique group — woo NEST!) and that first NaNoWriMo draft made all the difference, even if only some essence of that version remains. I would love to know more about what you are writing!


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