Tuesday, May 12, 2009

sex (in young adult fiction): the guest blogs day 2

Kelly Milner Halls is the author of more than a dozen books for kids. Her newest, Saving the Baghdad Zoo, will be released by Greenwillow/Harper in November, 2009. Notably, she is one of the publishing industry's most active anti-censorship spokespersons and maintains a blog called The Wonders of Weird. Here's what Kelly had to say about Sex in YA:

SEX. It is definitely a super-charged entity.

Whether it is embraced or repressed, the impact of human sexuality is undeniable. For kids struggling with adolescent development, it can be earth shattering. The scars of teenage missteps will ache long after hairlines recede and waistlines balloon.

Such a universal theme is natural fodder for fiction writers. But they, along with editors, librarians and some readers struggle with even the concept of teen sexuality written for teens.

“They’re too young,” the censors whimper. “Let them stay innocent as long as they can.”

“There is a difference between innocence and ignorance,” the realistic fiction authors reply. “Give teens stories they can talk about -- help them safely find their way.”

Both seek what’s best for kids. But they opt for decidedly different paths. In a nation protected by the First Amendment, that should be okay. Render unto Caesar, right?

Except we seldom take the concept of free speech entirely to heart. It’s dandy as long as it protects the things we love. But the minute it shields something we consider distasteful, all bets are off. And what we find distasteful is subjective – relative to the choice of our lives.

Moral ambiguity can paralyze editorial endeavors. But it shouldn’t. Each author and each story has something unique to offer the reading public. As long as a diverse population of writers pound out a diverse library of fiction, every kid has a shot at finding just the right book at just the right moment. Enlightenment is within reach.

But, as author Chris Crutcher so often says, censor realistic stories and you censor the lives of the kids they reflect. Censor fiction that mirrors their struggles, and they’ll never feel safe enough to ask for help. How can they when well intentioned grown-ups contribute to the power of shame?

Don’t be one of those grown-ups. If the authenticity of your story requires graphic sexual expression -- of length or even powerfully brief – just do it. Don’t hold back for fear of any response beyond your own. Write YOUR story, and let the readers find their way.

That may be easier said than done. Censorship has reach far beyond the enemies of “sin.” Some publishers who fear economic backlash censor stories long before they see the light of the bonfire.

Find another publisher. Fight for your work and for the kids aching to read it. Tap into your creative conviction.

For every adult lamenting the “pornography” of John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA, there are five more wondering why sex is never depicted as a natural part of exploring young love or lust? Again and again, librarians – the first responders in the war against literary oppression – ask that question, to an all but silent response.

Answer the call. If you’re inclined to write fiction with a thread of gold – an element of truth and authenticity – don’t ignore sexuality; a human connection more powerful than any other.

Take the blindfold off. Take the bull by the horns. Go for the spicy twist. Just do it!

The censors will growl -- like a pack of snarling Chihuahuas. But bigger dogs, serious people who believe in the power of story and the importance of free expression, will be there to back you up.

There is no need to silence the opposition. We need only defend our right to stand toe-to-toe. And that is a righteous battle. It’s one we can win, but only f we’re willing to take a stand.

Just do it. In the end, it’ll feel so good.