Are There Boundaries in YA Today? It Depends on Your Readers

Photo by Jared Austin

The “YA Today: Are There Boundaries? What Are They?” panel took place in the Writer’s Track in the Hyatt Embassy at 11:30AM Saturday morning. The panelists were authors Jay Boyce, Katie Cross, Claudia Gray, Isabelle Hardesty, A.J. Hartley, and L.H. Nicole.

Hardesty, as moderator, started things off by asking the panelists what modern kids are looking for in a book? Katie Cross believes most kids are looking for “an awesome story and awesome place that is not right here and right now.” Kids today have new opportunities, and new struggles, from what their parents faced, and they are looking for escapism. Hartley noted that there are a lot of kids who have been marginalized and they are looking for characters like themselves. Meanwhile Hardesty noted that some books are like a window that lets the reader look inward. Other books help the reader explore outward. However, some kids “are trying to break the window and look at things in a completely different way.”

So what boundaries shouldn’t be crossed?

A lot of the panelists agreed that avoiding swear words in middle grade and YA literature is a good idea, because parents and librarians will reject the inclusion of books with swear words in schools. Gratuitous violence is another no-no in YA, but especially in middle grade. No Game of Thrones for teens.

To build upon the idea of boundaries, Cross asserted that authors “set our boundaries in our first book and series.” Readers see those boundaries when they begin reading your books and if they continue on those are boundaries with which they are comfortable. Your number one job as an author is to take care of your readers. If you want to push a boundary, will it be something your readers want? If later you decide to cross those boundaries, you need to make that clear in the type of cover you choose for your story, and the book description. And except that your hardcore readers may not want that story.

Hartley added that you need to make the boundaries of your book pretty clear on page one. If the beginning of your story is very innocuous, then you suddenly throw in something gratuitous out of left field, you will surprise your reader in a bad way.

Gray added that it depends on what the story calls for. In paranormal stories, violence is expected, so you can get away with it a little more than in other YA genres. But you have to “earn the right to cross lines.” You need to demonstrate that those crossed lines need to be there in that story.

The authors transitioned to what characters in their books push boundaries. For Nicole, a good character in her books wanted revenge, and the story examined how far a good person would go to get revenge. Would they get revenge via incidental means, or more intentionally, and what are the consequences of those choices? While Boyce noted a character named Ash from a story dealt with hidden trauma, including the loss of her family, and people no longer remembering her. These realities led Ash to struggle night terrors and antisocial behavior while trying to present a positive self to the world. It turned out to be a boundary a lot of Boyce’s readers identify with, because so many people have their own traumas and idiosyncrasies that they are secretly dealing with, and it helps them to read about characters who have similar issues.

An audience member then asked if there is a difference between boundaries being actually pushed in a book, versus a character thinking about crossing a boundary but never actually following through. The panelists largely agreed that it depends on how gratuitous the author is with their descriptions of the characters thoughts. If the language is very gratuitous, the reader is still experiencing it whether it actually occurs in the novel or not.

Gray then gave a non-fiction example of this where an author wrote a novel about the Columbine shooting. The author wrote a lot about the violence that occurred in the school that day. However, when he read the notebook of one of the shooters, he couldn’t write any of the content in his book. It was simply too dark and disturbing.

The panel wrapped with a discussion about the value of trigger warnings. For many books, the panelists agreed that they are not necessary. You communicate these warnings through genre, the book cover, and book descriptions. However, romance is an exception where readers actually expect trigger warnings as a way to help them determine if the book will give them what they want, and if it doesn’t, they will look for another book that meets their needs.

In lieu of trigger warnings, a way to figure out if a boundary you want to push is acceptable to your readers is to simply ask them. Ask your beta team to read aspects of your story that deals with those boundaries, to solicit specific feedback. They will tell you when you need to dial it down, but many times you may think you’ve pushed the boundary, and your readers are completely fine with it.

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