What’s ‘Safe’ For YA? Guest Post & Excerpt from Samantha Durante, Author of Stitch
Cursing, drinking, and sex are, for many adults, parts of everyday life. We throw back a few beers, make some crude jokes, get “lucky” every now and then, and it’s generally not a big deal. And when it comes time to write a book about these things, that’s generally not a big deal either. Unless of course your book is a YA novel, in which case the question becomes: how much is too much?
Young adult novels are, by definition, mainly targeted at young adults (generally teenagers). And as authors – some may argue with this, but I at least feel – we have a responsibility to censor our content for our audience, to make sure it’s appropriate. Because let’s face it, the stuff that a teenager (or anyone really) watches and listens to and reads DOES have an impact on their behavior, or at least on their thoughts about certain behaviors. So you have to strike a balance – how do you make a young adult story believable and realistic when it comes to touchy topics like drugs or sex or violence without inciting the wrath of parents and teachers, or worse, putting potentially damaging thoughts in the heads of readers?
It took me a long time to even decide that Stitch was a young adult novel (more about using the “YA” label in another guest post here), and once I did, I went back and forth a lot on what was “safe” for me to include in my story. After all, my main character is a college student, and anyone who’s gone to college knows that cursing, underage drinking, and casual sex are rampant on most college campuses. This is not a judgment – it’s a fact. (Okay, really this might be more of a misconception since studies always seem to find that the vast, vast majority of students DON’T engage in *too* much risky behavior, but let’s be honest here – we all know these people and they definitely influence the college experience.) So I wanted Alessa’s college experience to look and feel like the real thing.
When I started to include cursing in Stitch, the first person who protested was, of course, my mom. Her complaints were more on the grounds of it just being unnecessary than any strong anti-cursing sentiment, and after thinking it over, I remembered what my ninth grade English teacher once said to a student (Mrs. Fine: “Why do you feel the need to curse?” Student: “It’s just part of who I am.” Mrs. Fine: “Is that really how you define yourself? I would hope you’d realize that you’re so much more than that.”) and realized that I didn’t want to define my writing by using curses when I could come up with a more creative solution. Also, I know there are plenty of people out there who are truly offended by foul language, so in the end I complied with my mother’s request and dialed back the cursing, except where I thought it added more to the story or character building. I ended up with two “hells,” two “shits,” and one “bitch” (which for a 75,000 word book seemed reasonable to me as it yielded a FAR lower curse ratio than my everyday language…).
Sex was an easy one for me. Stitch is my first book and I was planning on sharing it with all my friends and family, so I decided to keep things simple and nix anything remotely graphic. As an avid reader of trashy romance novels, I can certainly understand how this might be disappointing to readers who were hoping for a little Fifty Shades-style kinkiness. But hey, there are still two more books in the trilogy; if Stephanie Meyers could be goaded by readers into including sex in the Twilight series, perhaps the same could happen with Stitch. But not for book 1, people!
Drinking is actually where I ran into the most trouble with Stitch. There is a scene in Stitch (excerpt below) where Alessa goes to a party and there is underage drinking (and drinking games) going on. Alessa’s character is 19 at the time, which (in the US at least) is not old enough to drink legally, and regardless of legal status, there’s also the question of what is a responsible amount for someone to drink. Alessa is a pretty normal person, which is part of her strength as a character – readers can connect with her because she’s a lot like them. So it didn’t seem realistic for Alessa to abstain from drinking on moral grounds, and additionally, the scene requires Alessa to let her inhibitions down somewhat. So I intended for her to drink at least a little. And this is where the problem arose.
As background, I absolutely hated the idea of underage drinking when I was in high school (and did not drink at all myself), but then once I turned 18 and got to college, I felt mature enough to make my own decisions and drank with the rest of my friends (and on certain – okay, many – occasions perhaps I even drank too much). Nowadays I rarely have more than a drink or two at a time, so I would consider that pretty normal “adult” drinking. So my drinking experience has pretty much run the gamut, and I include this background because it has allowed me to see the drinking issue from all angles.
In the original draft of Stitch, Alessa consumed about five and a half beers over the course of a few hours at the party (including some which were chugged as part of a game). After getting some feedback from people in the industry who said NO underage drinking was tolerable in YA books, I revised it down to two – I still felt no drinking wouldn’t be in line with Alessa’s character. In the final draft, I brought her tally back up to three beers. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me, and followed the clever little rule that my college used to try to tout (“One drink an hour, no more than four,” which works very well for me now as an adult – too bad the sentiment was a joke amongst the student body at the time).
When it comes to the drinking scene in Stitch, I know high-school-Sam would have abhorred Alessa’s behavior, rugby-playing-college-Sam would have thought she was a lightweight, and adult-Sam thinks Alessa drank very sensibly. I made a conscious decision to have Alessa behave in a way that was realistic but also responsible, to set an example which young readers (if they choose to drink) would do well to follow and to use this scene as a teachable moment for parents and teachers who want to talk to younger readers about drinking. This seemed like a fine plan to me, but I didn’t know what my readers (or their parents and teachers) would think.
In the end, I’ve seen absolutely no comments from readers about Alessa’s drinking in any of the reviews I’ve read, which I’m taking to mean that Alessa behaved in a way that readers found realistic and unobjectionable. Do you agree? Take a look at the following excerpt and let me know what you think!
About the Author:
Samantha Durante lives in New York City with her fiancé, Sudeep, and her cat, Gio. Formerly an engineer at Microsoft, Samantha left the world of software in 2010 to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams and a lifelong love of writing. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology, Samantha is currently working full time for her company Medley Media Associates as a freelance business writer and communications consultant. Stitch is her first novel. Learn more about Samantha at www.samanthadurante.com.
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Stitch – http://www.shelfari.com/books/30363286/Stitch-(Stitch-Trilogy-Book-1)
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