There’s a lot of confusion out there about how “hot” a young adult novel can (and should) be. The short answer: it all depends. Here’s the thing–there is no “line in the sand” where sexual content is concerned in YA fiction. To completely ignore the topic of sex in young adult fiction is, at best, unrealistic and inauthentic. Not to say that every YA book out there needs to deal with the issue–clearly, that’s not necessary. But in order to write authentic teen characters, some books will need to deal with the issue in a realistic (and believable) way.
As an author, you need to figure out the audience you’re writing for. Younger teens (i.e. the 12 and up crowd)? Or older teens (14 and up)? Unfortunately, there are some readers out there who feel as if anything even remotely sexual in nature is inappropriate in books for teens. Take this little snippet from a review of my book HAVEN:
“Offensive. I found myself wondering how this book got passed as a YA novel. Uses all swear words including the F bomb at least twice!! It also had excessive sexual innuendo jokes and was about as base in teenage dialogue as an author can get. Shame on Cook for reaching out to Youth and giving them this kind of content to think on. I expect this in an adult novel, not Young Adult. She either doesn’t have any teenagers yet or is void of any moral compass with regards to the influence she wields as a writer…” –Musicalmom on Goodreads
For the record, yes, there are a couple of f-bombs in the book, but there is no sex, and very limited discussions about sex. I would rate HAVEN as “fairly tame” on the content meter as compared to YA fiction as a whole. I would hate to see this reviewer’s take on, say, John Green’s fabulous WAITING FOR ALASKA, or Jandy Nelson’s equally brilliant THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE (or even Stephanie Perkins’ delightful LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR).
But luckily, one reviewer does not get to arbitrate what is the “right” amount of sex in young adult fiction. You’ll find a very wide range in YA books–from totally sweet and clean to dark and edgy. As an author, you just need to make sure the content is appropriate for the story you’re telling. I would save your explicit, on-page sex scenes for adult books, but beyond that, there’s a lot of gray area. If you read a lot of YA fiction, you’ll realize that (and if you want to write young adult novels, you should definitely be reading YA). For the best discussion I’ve ever read about the sexual content in LOOKING FOR ALASKA, you should definitely check out this excellent blog post by Varian Johnson.
Recently, I read a book by one of my favorite realistic fiction authors. It was quite “fluffy” and romance-centered–a book that would be appealing to younger teen readers. Except….the main characters had sex (off-page). The sex made it more appropriate for older teens–but the general tenor/fluffiness of the book was probably less appealing to older readers. In other words, there was some confusion regarding reconciling the content with the targeted audience, leaving me to question to whom, exactly, I would recommend the book.
Don’t confuse your readers. Edgier books with “older” teen issues/themes work with sexual content, whereas sexual content is less appropriate for lighter books with “fluffier” issues/themes. As the author, the choice is yours.
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.