When I was growing up, a book that dealt with a character whose parents were getting divorced or were having their first sexual experience were considered pretty heady, if not controversial, topics. We still lived in an age where there were certain things that we just didn't talk about, despite the fact that they may be occurring. A book on anorexia or teenage alcoholism or drug abuse was really pushing the envelope, almost as if publishers then felt like teens couldn't handle those topics and censored us from them. Enter present day, where teens are offered choices like never before on subjects ranging from suicide to cutting to homosexuality, and even incest and rape. There are plenty of groups that still exist that wish to silence and ban these books, but teens are buying them. Why? Because they are real.
Teens don't like being lied to, nor treated like they are less intelligent just because they are not yet adults in charge of their own lives. They like characters they can relate to and find solace in, or explore subjects that they find interesting. Maybe they have a friend who is transgender, or maybe they are feeling pressure to drink or try drugs as an escape from everyday problems, or maybe they have been bullied. These characters seem far more realistic these days than the perfect, popular cheerleader whose biggest worry is if the boy she likes will ask her to the dance and if she'll find the perfect dress. It's not that teens today are dealing with any different issues than teens were when I was one - it's just that people are no longer afraid to talk about them.
But when it comes to tackling these heavy topics in writing for young adults, what is too much? I, personally, believe that today's teen readers are a savvy group, and the bar is high for catching and holding their attention. I believe they can handle more than most adults give them credit for, and sometimes these stories can offer someone solace in a world in which they feel entirely alone. However, what is the message you are trying to convey in the story? Gratuitous violence, profanity or sexuality bothers me no less in a book than it does in a movie, and can often serve to disconnect me from the story entirely. But, if you are writing it honestly and it fits the character and the story, it can make for gritty, raw, honest writing that can be extremely powerful.
Shying away from taboo topics is like sticking one's head in the sand - that is to say, to deny on some level that it exists. If you have a story inside you that you feel needs to be told, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter, chances are, it does. Think about powerful books like SHINE by Lauren Myracle, or BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, I'LL BE DEAD by Julie Anne Peters, or CRANK by Ellen Hopkins, let alone powerful non-fiction titles for teens and adults like Nik Sheff's incredibly raw and moving chronicles of his battle with meth addiction in WE ALL FALL DOWN: LIVING WITH ADDICTION and TWEAK: GROWING UP ON METHAMPHETAMINES. You can't read these books and not "feel" something afterwards. These books stay with you and creep under your skin, and that's a testimony to how important it was for the authors to be brave enough to tell these stories.
How do you feel about the kinds of stories offered to teens today? Do you think they're pushing the envelope or offering something important, helping kids today become stronger and more compassionate, thinking people?