To quote My Chemical Romance (and this is the only time I ever will) “Teenagers Scare the Living Shit out of Me.” And to be honest, I think it scares the literary world as well. This isn’t Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell. This is a new generation where oral sex is the new handshake, and sexting in class is the new love note. In my day—God, I sound old—teen pregnancy was still considered shameful, but now it’s revered and glorified on MTV. Teens swear and the vocabulary grows larger by the day, and the cruelty among peers has gone to criminal extremes.
This is what teens have to deal with now, yet parents rage at the thought of these issues leaking into literature. This is an accurate account of what is going on in young lives. Literature shouldn’t be censored for some archaic notion of modesty, but reflect the ails of the human condition, provide life lessons, and capture the essence of its time for posterity. And the truer it is to life, the better the reader can relate to it.
Now if you are writing for an impressionable audience, you DO have to show a bit of discretion and decorum. Curse words don’t have to be in every single piece of dialogue. There doesn’t have to be a graphic sex scene in every chapter, or even at all. But kids do it, they talk about it—in great detail—and they are prone to experiment. Kids can’t be protected from these elements, not when they’re exposed to it in school and other medium.
I may cuss like a drunken sailor at “last call”, but I own a great deal of tact and leave plenty to the imagination in my writing, which in most cases is better than spelling it out to the reader. As tasteful and PG-13 as I strive to be, I don’t feel that I should have to baby-sit someone else’s kids. I’m an author; therefore, I’m only responsible for the actions of my characters, who happen to be kids. I make sure that every dumb decision they make comes with consequences that the reader can see and hopefully learn from.
Writers shouldn’t glorify bad behavior, but use racy subject matter as examples. Present positive alternatives and role models in characters to help young readers make the right decisions in life. As screwed up as they can be, we underestimate our youths’ tolerance and intellect. If they can figure out how to hack into a database, they can grasp the concepts of right and wrong. We can’t hold their hands forever, and we can’t grow up for them; they have to do that all on their own. All we can do is steer them in the right direction and hope for the best.