Preaching in YA

9 Jun

When you write YA, and you’re at all connected to the online community, you often see people who are new to the genre asking questions like, “Can my main character hold a gun?” “Can my characters have sex?” “Can they drink?” “Can they have drugs?” and “Can my main character swear?”

The more experienced writers cry, “Jesus. Freaking (perhaps something less polite, if they happen to write ‘edgy’ YA ;)). Christ. Have you read any YA? Ever?”

It’s an understandable reaction (I know I react like this sometimes), but I think the people with those questions are less naive/time-wasting than we often think they are. In light of the recent WSJ article (which is horrible, so I’m not even linking to it, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, resist your google fu. It’s not worth the time. And no, this is not another blogpost about the article), it’s clear that a lot of people believe that the purpose of YA is to teach. To illuminate the right path for the youth of today.

And my question to you guys is, should YA be didactic?

The knee-jerk answer is, of course, NO. We always hear agents and editors and everyone else in the world saying, “No messages. No morals. Don’t preach, tell a good story first and foremost”. But I’ve always taken that to mean, don’t overtly preach. Theme, to me (subtly explored theme, anyway) is a huge part of what makes a book transcendental. REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly (which is awesome. You should read it if you haven’t) wouldn’t have the same flavour without the theme at the heart of it: brutality rules the world, but not necessarily us as individuals.

Beyond this, beyond me thinking that a theme is a truly important thing to have and subtly explore (it’s not like Donnelly is like, “HERE IS MY THEME, TAKE THAT READER,” every two pages), I think that there are contradictory messages even within the writing community on whether or not messages are important. I mean, there are a lot of people who want to see CONSEQUENCES to every. single. action.

They want to see the girl who drinks occasionally have something bad happen to her as a result of that drinking. If the kids have sex, even just once, there MUST be a baby. Or an STI.

If someone takes drugs, it must be made clear, clear, clear that DRUGS ARE BAD. BAD. BAD I TELL YOU. Maybe the character can become an addict and wind up in the gutter and then work their way back to being a ‘normal’ person. If a character speeds, they’re obviously going to be involved in a car crash.

I’ve seen a lot of people, within the community, argue essentially that if we DON’T show these consequences, we’re neglecting our responsibility to our audience. That we’re teaching them bad things, and they’re impressionable, and we shouldn’t do that. And that kind of attitude betrays us, because it shows that no matter what we say, a lot of us think that YA has a didactic purpose.

I disagree (you guessed it, didn’t you? It was like an overly foreshadowed plot point that you could see from chapter one) with this attitude, completely, however. Firstly because, you know, I am a teenager in real life (I know, another shoddily foreshadowed plot point. It’s in my bio and all). And I know other teenagers.

And guess what? Sometimes, we’re irresponsible. Does the kid who speeds always wind up in an accident, or get a ticket, or lose their license? No. Does the kid who drinks always wind up an alcoholic, totally alienating everyone around them, losing everyone’s respect? No. Does the kid who takes drugs wind up an addict, or have a really horrible come down, or something else terrible? No. Does sex (unprotected) always lead to a pregnancy? No.

You know, when people take risks like this? There are rarely BIG EXPLOSIVE consequences. In my opinion, it is not irresponsible to not have consequences for these actions. It’s just being honest. And as a reader, I find it refreshing when the characters can smoke and drink and have nothing too bad come of it the vast majority of the time (Looking For Alaska, The Absolute Value of -1).

I think we need a diverse range of representations of these things. We don’t always have to hammer our readers over the head with the DRUGS ARE BAD message, or the SEX IS BAD message, or the ALCOHOL IS BAD message. We can sometimes, and in certain stories (and I think these stories are so valuable, and have a place, for sure. I write them, sometimes), but it doesn’t pay for this to always be the case, because we just wind up with shelves full of didactic stories that are not true to life.

And we set off bullshit detectors.

And okay, since I’m making a habit of being more confessional in my blogging lately, I’ll admit the other reason I worry about didactic narratives: I don’t know anything. I mean, that’s not true. I know a lot of things about maths (okay, not really…) and literature and art and the way people talk to other people, and what all those facial expressions mean.

But I haven’t figured out the world, and I don’t think I ever will figure out the world — not now, not when I’m a hundred. Oscar Wilde once said, “I am not young enough to know everything” and seriously, when I’m a hundred, I think I will be truly old enough to say that I know shit all.

I don’t write from a place of moral absolutes. I don’t write from a place of knowing and wisdom. I write from a place of uncertainty. I try to write as honestly as I can, and I avoid didactic narratives, because I have nothing to be didactic about. And I give my readers what I can. Instead of offering all the right answers, I offer, I hope, all the right questions.

And isn’t that better? Even for those of us who do know things? Isn’t it better to give our audience questions, and let them think on those questions, rather than to force the answers down their throats? To let them think on those questions, and reach their own conclusions, no matter how vastly different than ours they are?

So those are my thoughts on being didactic in YA. What do you guys think?


Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney Australia. Her currently untitled debut novel, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

33 Responses to “Preaching in YA”

  1. Maya June 9, 2011 at 8:49 AM #

    I agree with you one hundred percent. As a teen, I hated being told that all actions have consequences and that doing drugs were bad, drinking was bad, sex was bad, etc. For me, honesty is the best policy and you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 9:08 AM #

      Honesty is definitely the best policy! And you know, teenage drinking in a YA novel is *probably* not going to shatter the world 🙂

  2. Susan June 9, 2011 at 9:04 AM #

    Awesome, awesome post. Especially because you’re right–there AREN’T always consequences. And while I think it can be okay to show bad consequences, it can also be okay to NOT show them. we’re telling a story, not preaching. And I absolutely agree that it IS better to leave the reader (in YA or adult) with questions to sort out on their own.

    (ACK! I broke my internet silence to leave this comment–it was just too good a post for me to resist.)

    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 9:13 AM #

      Ahaha, I’m sorry for making you break your internet silence, Sooz!

      BUT YES, that is exactly it. We’re telling a story — if showing consequences comes about as a natural result of the story we’re telling, then we should show them. Otherwise it just comes off as totally false.

  3. Rowenna June 9, 2011 at 9:18 AM #

    First–I have to say that there were valid points in WSJ article that were missed in the hubbub. Seems a lot of people read it as a diatribe against having dark themes in YA, period–I read it as questioning the balance and the focus, and reinforcing the importance of YA literature as an influence. (Um, I’m also one of those people who’s been known to say things like “Yeah, he’s a jerk and hates laughter and joy and Christmas–but sometimes he’s almost nice! Let’s give him a chance!” so my opinion tends to be rosy on most things.) I definitely didn’t agree with all the points…but I think that brings me to my response to you, which is–YES! YA is important. And readers of YA aren’t stupid or blind. They’re going to read what they want to read about…so a YA author should ask the same questions any writer would. Not “can” I include XYZ but “should” I–both in a sense of should I for the story and should I for the responsibility I personally feel as a writer. Everyone defines that responsibility differently. But I think it’s valid to have it.

    I don’t think YA–or any book–should have a didactic purpose, but I think all writers have a responsibility to their readers. For me personally, I wouldn’t write any book that would suggest that life choices I consider dangerous or repulsive (like drowning kittens or something) are a good idea. For grown-ups or YA. I wouldn’t write a book bashing a message over anyone’s head, either–because that also fails in the responsibility a writer has, which is to entertain and, when possible, enlighten or open doors or provoke questions. Bashing =/= enlightening. Plus it’s boring.

    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 9:36 AM #

      I think what really annoyed me about the WSJ article is that it was written in a completely misleading way. First, because it took so many books and reduced their discursive elements to a line or so, and concluded by calling them depraved. That completely ignores the nuances involved in any kind of literary endeavour (and anyone who connects The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, in any way, with depravity, loses their gold star from me, lol. Cause everyone wants a gold star from me ;)). In the same way that you can’t reduce a book to a sentence within it, you can’t reduce it to a one-line summary.

      Furthermore, I firmly believe that it’s not the responsibility of the industry to guide young people through their lives — although that’s sometimes a side-effect of entertaining them, and that is a beautiful and wonderful thing. That’s not why I write (and maybe it IS why some people write, and I’m not saying that’s not a valid purpose, just that I — and a lot of authors — probably don’t share it). Also, what was up with the “Suggestions for Young Men” and “Suggestions for Young Women”?

      But yes, I do totally agree with you on this! I wouldn’t seek to condone something I morally disagree with in my work (although I may remain neutral on a lot of things that I find repulsive — but not drowning kittens! Eeee, poor kitties! — esp to make some kind of point/purposefully disturb in some way — ie not just for shock value), but I would also never get all preachy on my audience.

      • Rowenna June 9, 2011 at 10:31 AM #

        I know–I thought it was an undercooked article, for sure. I haven’t read all the books it talked about, but I assume most are about “more” than whatever “difficult” element that was pulled out–that there’s a storyline beyond just shock value. I can see the benefit in discussing how we keep from slipping into just shock value, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I was really confused by the “yound men and young women” sidebar—ummmm, as a girl, I’d read any of those? And no industry can bear the responsibility of guiding anyone! It’s not a business’ job (and publishing is business, which not a bad thing as so many people like to lob at it–just how it works). Which is why I was glad to see a lot of responses reminding people of that–ie, parents, talk to your kids about what they read.

        Anyway. I find this topic a really great one for good discussions and for reaffirming how important writers are 🙂 But I’ll shut up now and quit hijacking your comments section:)

        • Vee June 9, 2011 at 11:10 AM #

          Hijack away! 😉 (No really, please do :)). It’s an interesting question to pose — will we ever just slip into shock value, to get people’s attention? Hopefully not. But all the books WSJ garbaged are actually really, really fantastic books (Courtney Summers! Sherman Alexie! Elizabeth Scott!), and handle their subject matter so, so well.

          The gender thing was just weird. And kind of stupid And potentially limiting, because now boys will think they *must* like books that fit this particular mould, and girls will think that they *must* like books that fit this particular mould.

  4. Sarah Ketley June 9, 2011 at 9:34 AM #

    oooh…. itching to leave a reply here…

    Now i do agree. Preaching NEVER works with young people. It sounds false and stupid when writing YA. It is an instant turn off. When i read a YA book that has “a moral story” that is slap in your face obvious i hate that. The minor character that learns that “drugs are not he way” is overdone, i agree, sometimes we should not see this character do the right thing, or, see them get away with no consequences.

    YA should explore hard issues, the characters should make mistakes. They sometimes should have consequences sometimes they should get away with it. Why should we always force the ‘right’ way to do things down kids throats. Sometimes they are smart enough to work it out for themselves and i think that we need to let them do that. Sometimes. Perhaps with some guidance and support. (Which i admit they don’t necessarily get enough of today). I always hated being treated like an idiot when i was younger.

    However while i do believe that we should explore every facet of issues in YA, We do need to be mindful of what we are showing them. If you have reasons. Go ahead, if you have thought it out… go ahead. BUT if you are using these ‘issues’ as a money ticket with no prior planning then you need to be careful. Young people are (for all they pretend not to be) impressionable. Please take care with what you show them. I’m not saying sensor, i’m saying have reasons. Write skillfully.

    I have recently written a post about weather we should swear in YA, however my take was are we using the swearing as a cheap way to try and connect with teens. Rather than exploring the emotions, writers are writing the bad language and hoping that will cut it. It doesn’t in my opinion. You need the guts behind it. You need to think BEFORE you use it, to ensure that it is adding to the book rather than an easy way to make it look like you are writing ‘good YA’.

    anyway excuse my midnight ramblings, i was in the middle of writing a post on the same topics as you when your post popped into my mail box.

    Have a good end to the week,


    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 9:51 AM #

      I don’t know about how impressionable my audience is — if they’re reading teens? Probably not that impressionable (if you read a lot of books, you get a lot of messages/themes, and my idea is that a single novel really will not be enough to sway you).

      Beyond this, I don’t know many teenagers who didn’t start dabbling with adult fic when they were around fourteen. I read Fight Club, and The God of Small Things, and Less than Zero and Rant and Lolita and all manner of disturbing things as a teenager. Man, they force teens to read Shakespeare and Ovid at school! (Okay, I like Shakespeare and Ovid, but the point remains…disturbing). If I hadn’t read the disturbing stuff, I don’t think I would have half the ability to think critically that I do today.

      I’m not saying that no teens are impressionable, nor am I saying that I think you shouldn’t approach sensitive subject matter with care. I am saying that I don’t think many teens are going to get swayed one way or another by a book.

      On the swearing — I swear in my fiction if it’s a part of my character’s voice. As I said, I write from a place of honesty. Besides, I don’t think swearing is immoral (this is a post for another day) in any way, and I haven’t personally met any teenagers who don’t swear.

      Thank you for your thoughts!! 🙂 It was interesting to see a different view point. Still, I think we’re basically in agreement, that you should consider what you do (I think you should always consider *everything* as a writer), while still remaining realistic and not insulting the intelligence of your target audience 🙂

  5. Sarah Ketley June 9, 2011 at 9:38 AM #

    Gusty post by the way, i enjoyed reading it!


    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 9:53 AM #

      Thanks! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter, too 🙂

  6. Sarah Ketley June 9, 2011 at 10:12 AM #


    I agree, we really are saying the same thing, just an ever so slightly different take. Besides, i like a good juicy issue. The world would be a bland place if we all agreed on EVERY tiny detail. *grin*

    I agree, that kids do read adult fiction at a young age, I think i read “The Handmaid’s Tale” before i even knew what sex was…. oddly enough i had difficulty understanding it *grin*

    Writing with honesty is awesome. Some of the most powerful books i have read have been a voice that just ‘puts it all out there’ holding back no stoppers or having any regard for ‘what is moral or right’.

    I think my issue is with writers that think they can side-step good writing by using cheap ‘issues’ and language. Make it real, your honesty is what will get the readers excited. Show them your strength as an author to get things out there. They will appreciate it. if you are writing with honesty then your reasons for writing are justified (in my humble opinion). This kind of writing never comes out preachy.

    Anyway, i’m off to bed now (apparently) i Think i can see a post coming out of this topic for my Tuesday discussion post next week!

    many thanks again,


    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 10:30 AM #

      LOL at reading The Handmaid’s Tale before you knew what sex was…That must have been interesting, haha 🙂

      Also, totally agree honesty is key, and that sort of writing never comes off as preachy or cheap.

      And I know, how boring would the world be if we all agreed about everything all the time. Very, very boring 🙂

  7. thegildedpage June 9, 2011 at 10:27 AM #

    I think that a writer, no matter the age of their audience, has responsibility only to two things: their characters and their story. Which, in the end, come down to one thing.

    If the story, between those two things, is worth telling, there will be a message. An entire novel is, itself, a message; a convoluted combination of signs and symbols and images. It’s a piece of literary conversation; it interacts with others in its genre, with the books the reader has previously read, and with the books that the author has previously read, among others. If it doesn’t have anything to say, it won’t be published.

    Because a story isn’t a story without a point, and a character can’t have a proper journey if they don’t learn something.

    Considering the reader silly enough to be unable to read complex messages, and to learn from the characters/story what they will themselves, is kind of digging your own grave. A story doesn’t exist on the same plain of thought as we do; interacting directly with the reader minimizes its effectiveness (since the whole point of fiction is immersion), it doesn’t bring the reader more into an understanding.

    Teachers teach. Writers write. Sometimes that writing teaches, sometimes it converses, and sometimes it validates. Sometimes it’s useless. There’s that story. : )

    • thegildedpage June 9, 2011 at 10:31 AM #

      (On that note, an Ayn Rand quote:

      “I am often asked if I am primarily a novelist or a philosopher. The answer is: both. In a certain sense, every novelist is a philosopher, because one cannat present a picture of human existence without a philosophical framework…”
      — Ayn Rand//For the New Intellectual )

    • Sarah Ketley June 9, 2011 at 10:38 AM #

      So much for me going to bed!

      Ha ha…

      Great addition to the conversation. “Nail on the head” –> The story needs to come first. The underlying message should be created as the story evolves, not put in place first and the story developed around it.

      You need that character growth in the book. The book needs to go somewhere and go there in style.

      At the end of the day. Just make it a dammn good story and be done with it!


      Nice chatting with you all – Now i MUST go to bed as it is nearly 1:00am

    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 10:40 AM #

      Sometimes the point of a story with no point is that it has no point. Wow. What a tongue twister this sentence is. Sometimes, the point is that a character learns nothing, or gets nowhere, and the message is so convoluted that we can’t decipher it (think If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller). But even that is saying something, I suppose. And I don’t think you were really referring to postmodern stuff like If on a Winter’s Night in your post, cause, you know, the postmodernists didn’t really like that whole immersion business 😉

      But I love your comment, especially that last bit. So eloquently put 🙂

      • thegildedpage June 9, 2011 at 10:59 AM #

        : P Yeaaahh, I’m not talking no Waiting for Godot hereabouts. xD

        But yep, that’s furthering too, no? : ) A la Eliot’s Wasteland. All you can do is try to understand the conversation, even when things are pointless: recognizing futility is one of the hardest things.

        And @Sarah, Very much sooo! : D

        • Vee June 9, 2011 at 11:15 AM #

          Sarah — definitely the story should come first. Always 🙂

          And oooh, Waiting for Godot. Also love Eliot’s Wasteland. Tbh, though, I don’t really like stuff where the whole point is to break the fictive dream and spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of narratives. I just get bored, lol.

  8. ibeeeg June 9, 2011 at 10:35 AM #

    This is a great post. Truly, it is. This is a topic that I think about a ton..a ton.

    See, here is the thing, I am a mom to 6 children with teenagers in the mix. I was a teenager; I remember. You are right, if the story does not ring true then it read like BS. When a story is trying to drive a message home then it becomes a turn-off. I also agree that there are no moral absolutes, BUT there are morals and each one of us needs to judge that on our own. Still, I do believe that a writer has a responsibility to their audience. If a writer chooses to write to the YA group then they should take care with how these topics are written. Sex, drugs, etc should have a reason to be in the plot…not just thrown in because it is expected or create a buzz. With all that said, yes, sex/drugs/etc happen it is real. BUT as a parent, would I want my child to read a steady diet of all of that where there are NO consequences…Nope. Just being honest on that. But even at that, the consequence really needs to fit the story, and not just thrown in or wrenched into the story because the author thinks it should be there. Am I okay with my child reading books that have those actions, yes, but not all of my children…an age and a place, so-to-speak. In other words, my 15 year old is ready to read books that my 13 year is not.

    I disagree with you that one book can not have the power to change a person’s mind. I disgree because words can be powerful. Words can be replayed over in ones mind, and can help mold a thought, and tweak an opinion. A book that gives hope vs answers is probably the better of the two because hope carries further than answers most times because usually one person’s answer will not fit another person. Hope, however, can give every one their own answer.

    Again, this really is a great post.

    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 10:56 AM #

      I absolutely agree…it would be terrible to have a YA section full of no consequences. Worse, even, than a YA section full of consequences. We really need diversity in the way choices and consequences are portrayed, imo. Also, I will absolutely defend to the death your right to parent your kids however you want to! And of course your fifteen-year-old is ready to read stuff your thirteen-year-old is not 🙂

      On whether or not a book can change a person’s mind…Yes, I agree with you that words are powerful, and that our minds are absolutely shaped by language (we’re practically prisoners of language, lawl). And I do think that shortly after reading a book, one’s opinion can be tweaked, changed etc but all the information you receive from one book is contextualised in the info you’ve received from all the other books you’ve ever read. You, ultimately, choose which philosophies to keep, and which to chuck out. That’s why I said, for reading teens, one book making such a lasting impression (especially if the book is absolutely amoral) is unlikely (although if they love something…John Green’s made a lasting impression on me, because I chose for his books to, because I saw myself reflected in his books and they ‘connected’ with me).

      I also really, really like what you had to say about hope 🙂

      • ibeeeg June 9, 2011 at 11:43 AM #

        Yes, I agree, it is an accumulation of books that can potentially help form a thought an opinion. It is contextualised so I also agree wholeheartedly that having a age group of books lean only way is dangerous: “it would be terrible to have a YA section full of no consequences. Worse, even, than a YA section full of consequences.”

  9. Ella June 9, 2011 at 11:02 AM #

    Thank you for this. Honestly, how utterly patronizing. As a teenager myself, I can say with certainty that most of us are a lot smarter than we’re given credit for; not only that, but many people my age have a hypersensitive gag reflex to “Aesop” stories after being knocked over the head with them so many times. That sort of preaching is never accepted in adult fiction, and yet in YA it’s somehow /not/ seen as patronizing to the reader’s intelligence. I definitely agree with you on the point that the best way to convey morals through literature is to portray an issue sincerely and realistically. If there’s one thing that teenagers care about, it’s honesty.

    • Vee June 9, 2011 at 11:20 AM #

      Being patronised IS very, very annoying. I’ve read some adult fic with very, very superficial themes, but you’re right…Usually, this kind of heavy-handed moralising is done away with in adult fiction. I think it sometimes is in YA, too, and I hope that’s a trend that continues as the years go on for both our sake’s.

  10. Marina June 9, 2011 at 12:04 PM #

    I think the minute you try to put something in the story that doesn’t belong, it all goes wrong, and forceful preaching is one big factor. Unless of course, the book is meant to preach…

    • Vee June 10, 2011 at 12:16 AM #

      But stories that are meant to preach are boring! (or maybe I just have a short attention span, haha). Totally agree, though — including stuff that doesn’t fit into our work is always a bad idea.

  11. Asia Morela June 11, 2011 at 5:41 PM #

    I can’t imagine a book that wouldn’t teach me anything. I would probably forget it immediately. But, exactly as you say, teaching is not preaching, even less brainwashing. Teaching isn’t giving somebody ready-made answers; it’s giving them the means to find out their own answers.

    As a romance writer, I am also extremely shocked and revolted by the notion that sex could be considered “bad” in the same way doing drugs or drunk-driving is. SEX IS GOOD!! Let’s repeat it all together… I mean, seriously. If there’s one thing I’d like to teach my readers, it’s to get rid of that no-good puritan view of sex.

    I think one of the main reasons why I stopped reading Harry Potter is when the characters became teenagers and still they behaved NOTHING like teenagers. When I was thirteen, sex was the primary topic of conversation amongst kids. Everybody had watched porn at least once. I’m not saying it’s wonderful, only that it’s the reality. And I happen to like being able to relate to the stories and characters I read.

  12. Theresa Milstein June 12, 2011 at 10:26 AM #

    When I was a kid, we had preachy after school specials. When I was young, I’d be wide-eyed at the consequences about making bad decisions. When I got older, my friends and I laughed at the ridiculousness of it. We knew every bad decision didn’t lead to dire consequences. I think the one that got made fun of the most was Jodi Foster taking drugs and jumping out a window. We knew these could happen, but it was to a small # of people. Making it look like the logical outcome was ludicrous.

    That doesn’t mean when I write, anything goes. But I think teens have to navigate in the world they live in, and make choices accordingly. I try to be in my protagonist’s head and let her tell me what she wants to do.

  13. Clarice Hilst June 16, 2011 at 10:54 PM #

    I’m going to ‘preach’ and tell you I stopped reading your post after you used the name of Jesus Christ for the purpose of sarcastic humor. It’s one thing to be edgy and it’s another thing to offend an entire religion by using His name like that.


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