As both a YA author and a high-school teacher librarian, I’m in the unique position to look at young adult literature from both a writer’s as well as a gatekeeper’s perspective. And when it comes to sexual content in YA, there are some things YA authors might be interested to know about getting their book into a school library.
Let’s Talk About Sex … in YA
Sex in young adult literature is not a new thing. Ever since Judy Blume’s YA novel Forever ruffled some moral feathers along with the bed sheets back in 1975, young adult literature has gone where a lot of parents, teachers, and other adults wish teens didn’t venture until they were well past the age of eighteen—namely behind that closed door where all that … well … you know … where all the hanky panky takes place (insert blush here).
Okay, brace yourselves, because according to a recent survey of Australian upper secondary students 69% of fifteen year olds have experienced some form of sexual activity, including intercourse. Since one of literature’s roles is to reflect society, it makes sense that fiction for young adults would include themes of sex and sexual discovery. If done well, sexual content in books for young adults can play an important role in the social and emotional development of teens. Whichever way you feel about sex in YA, it’s here to stay, and any school librarian will tell you that sexual content in fiction for young adults is pushing boundaries and becoming more explicit. Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury and Patrick Ness’ Release are only two such examples.
Now, school libraries and teacher librarians are at the forefront of YA literature advocacy. The only thing we love more than YA books is matching a YA title with the right reader (cue the warm-fuzzies *sigh*). But even though most school librarians take a strong anti-censorship, ‘open access to information’ stance, they must work within the ethos and guidelines of the schools that employ them. This means some school libraries won’t acquire certain YA titles because of their explicit content. YA authors might – or might not – want to keep this in mind when writing that ‘swinging-from-the-chandelier’ sex scene.
Here are some things for YA authors to consider in relation to school libraries acquiring their book babies:
- Most school libraries cater for a broad age range, which often means twelve year olds have access to the same books as eighteen year olds. Depending on the procedures in place to help students select developmentally appropriate material, some school libraries may choose not to acquire YA with overtly explicit sexual content. It’s not personal, trust me.
- Don’t assume all faith-affiliated school libraries will only want ‘clean YA’. Yes, some faith-based schools will have conservative acquisitions policies, but you’ll find many that are more liberal.
- When writing, ensure sexual content in your YA novel has a purpose; that it serves the plot and / or character development. If it’s simply there because you believe most teens your characters’ age are ‘doing it’, it most likely won’t read true to your story, and is less likely to be selected for a school library collection.
- Aim for realistic depictions of teen sexual experience. Teen sexual encounters, whatever end of the heat scale they’re at, are often awkward and fumbly, filled with insecurity, naivety, and self doubt. They need to be put on the page with sensitivity, while taking care not to patronise the intended reader. School libraries are looking for YA texts that reflect their student body and community.
- More emotion and less body parts, please! YA fiction by nature is usually written from a close point of view, and can therefore benefit from focusing more on the characters’ internalisations than the mechanics of the act. Young adults learn about the physical how-to of sex in primary school. It’s the emotional and relational aspects where sexual content in YA can play a powerful developmental role in young adults’ lives, and it’s this – as well as a good story, of course – that will win school librarians over.
What are your thoughts on sex in YA when it comes to school libraries? I’d love to hear about your experiences, whether you’re an author, librarian or reader.
Kat Colmer is a Young and New Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is due out with ENTANGLED TEEN in August 2017. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!