Publishing U: Tackling Tough Topics in YA

Our readers are often curious about the process of writing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts! In this installment of our Publishing U series, Amy Giles, author of the YA novel That Night, asks what, exactly, constitutes a controversial topic in YA and argues that the most challenging subjects can spark the most necessary conversations.

A few years ago, a literary agent told me, “Teens are doing the same stuff adults are. Just more irresponsibly.” At the time, I was an unpublished young-adult writer who also had two preteens at home. Those words liberated me as a writer and were an epiphany for me as a mother. They reaffirmed what I already knew, mostly from my own teen years: in YA, no topic is off-limits.

When tackling the topic of child abuse in my 2017 debut, Now Is Everything, I wasn’t sure how much violence to show and how much to keep off the page. I wanted to be honest with readers so they’d understand the trauma Hadley endured silently behind closed doors, and her desperation and despair in the “Then” and “Now” chapters. I chose to include a few scenes of physical violence to expose how many victims of domestic abuse are treated in their homes every day. The result was a flurry of emails coming in from readers telling me that they were Hadley growing up. Some teens wrote to tell me that they now knew what kind of signs to look for and how they can help a friend whom they suspect is being abused. And, yes, there were trigger warnings, rightfully, from bloggers. When Destiny of Howling Libraries reviewed Now Is Everything she wrote, “I have never loved a book so thoroughly while simultaneously so strongly feeling that some of my loved ones should not read it (unless they’re in a very good place and prepared for a lot of self-care afterwards).” For many victims of abuse, the book is not an easy read because the story hits too close to home.

These are not easy subjects to read or write about, but
these stories are necessary, and can even save lives.

Now comes the really hot-topic book, That Night, my YA novel about the aftermath of a mass shooting. Readers and reviewers—even close friends!—have been understandably wary of my book before reading it. Would the story politicize and sensationalize what has become a national tragedy and nightmare, especially for teens? The answer is no, because the story is written for a generation of teens who have grown up with lockdown drills, who are already traumatized by the very credible threat that some day, someone they know will come to their school or community with a gun. That Night begins a year after a mass shooting at a movie theater with two of the main characters still reeling from the heartbreak and guilt of having survived a massacre that their siblings did not. In writing this story, I would not give the killer or even “that night” a name.

That Night, by Amy GilesThe topic of gun violence is unfortunately a timely one and has the potential to be controversial. But rather than focus on the violence of the shooting, That Night delves into the psychological healing that takes place in the wake of a tragedy. My challenge as an author was to make sure the repercussions of the shooting were felt in the characters’ every waking moment. My hope is that readers will say, as Idra Novey writes in her article “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature,” “I hear it. I hear what’s roaring in the silence of this line.” The actions of the protagonists can say so much more about the shattering violence they experienced and that still hangs over them a year later.

But what is a controversial topic in young adult literature? Angie Thomas, author of the blockbuster hit The Hate U Give (2017), found her agent on Twitter when she asked him if he’d be interested in a book based on the Black Lives Matter movement. She was afraid the world wasn’t ready for a book about the killings of unarmed black people at the hands of the police, but the world was not only ready for her book, it needed it. The Hate U Give has topped the best-seller charts since its release and was the most buzzed about, most critically acclaimed book of 2017. Although one school district in Texas banned it, there was also nationwide support for the author and the book. These “controversial” books are the very ones that spark a conversation, even if there are some people in positions of power who try to stop those conversations through censorship.

The teenage experience often involves risky and sometimes illegal activities. Pushing boundaries is a rite of passage for this age group. Teens curse, drink, do drugs, have sex. (Not all, of course, but some.) These are not controversial topics. It’s the other difficult topics that YA authors can and should address: sexual assault, abusive relationships, and police brutality are issues many teens are confronting in their lives every day. These are not easy subjects to read or write about, but these stories are necessary, and can even save lives. Books that explore difficult topics empower the powerless. They let teens know their stories are real and their voices are being heard. Literature is the gateway to starting a dialogue and provoking change. And if controversial topics spark important conversations, then let’s keep writing about them.

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