“May Not Be Suitable For Children”: What Is Appropriate for Young Adult Fiction

goldshaft-advisory“May Not Be Suitable for Children” should be my pen name, plastered across every short story, poem, and novel I write. There arises a dilemma in writing young adult fiction for teens, even for older teens, in that you must purposefully censor the content, language, and context of the story. At the same time, you want to commit to a certain degree of realism in your portrayal of teenagers—they cuss, take drugs, and make poor decisions. But at one point can the pursuit of depicting something “real” cross the line into commercializing the controversial? While editing my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, these questions have plagued me.

Young Adult Lit in general has begun catering to younger teens, from ages 12 to 15, and with that comes a certain sacrifice of material. Violence becomes cleaner, romance becomes chaste, and the 14-year-old who might be a bundle of angry hormones speaks proper as a British butler. On the other hand, there exist plenty of YA novels that explore the dark and gritty. Thirteen Reasons Why explores the suicide of the protagonist’s sister. The Perks of Being a Wallflower highlight sexual abuse within the family and contain scenes about drug exploration. Probably one of the books that takes on the most criticism for dark material is Crank, which details a girl’s descent into meth addiction.

The controversy has already been much discussed in blogs and articles, asking whether YA is TOO DARK? Here are some opinions on that, but here too is my opinion.

The Article That Started the Debate

YA Fiction Is Too Dark

YA Fiction Saves Lives

Think of the Children!

YA Fiction Shows Teenagers As They Actually Are

As edits began on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I began to have these exact conversations with my editor and publisher. After we reviewed some of the scenes in question, I agreed—some of these existed purely for shock value, the I can’t believe they might do that moments. Some were clearly inappropriate, though others existed for very particular reasons.

I’ll give an example: one character in the novel struggles with abuse in her relationship. In the first draft, I merely hinted at this dynamic and in subsequent drafts I wanted to bring the conversation of partner abuse to the forefront. So I employed the Toni Morrison school of realism and left nothing to the imagination, which created a powerful though perhaps horrendous scene. Was the scene necessary to show the horrors of abuse or could have I implied my opinion in some other way? In the end, I removed that particular scene because I believed that the character could convey her unsettling experience more easily herself. I could explain why domestic abuse was a terrible thing without actually showing domestic abuse, therefore in some way glamorizing that sort of violence.

Other controversies arose, as well, such as certain sex scenes and the presence of drugs and especially the level of cursing that some characters undertook. This caused the book to lower the f-word count nearly 100 f-words, which you probably might not notice reading the book. I based this novel and some of the action and the idiosyncrasies of the book on my friends, and my friends in high school swore like sailors. Of course we were always talking about sex and crimes and what we going to do once we broke out of our hometown. That’s part of growing up.

The most important question to ask is, why are you writing? Is the scene, though controversial, serving a specific purpose? I want to write something entertaining but also something educational. You learn not just about science or the South or even about the inner workings of teenagers, but a little something about what it means to be human.

Lastly, another big question: who are you writing for? It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I’m writing young adult literature, but the stigma of writing for teenagers has begun to dissolve. I always wanted to write “literary fiction,” something serious, though you can write serious fiction for teenagers. After all, I was reading Melville and Fitzgerald and Dostovskey and Eggers as a teenager, and even now I’m barely removed from “teenager status.” Over the past few years, YA Lit has trended toward younger readers (12-15), but I wanted to write something for the almost New Adult. And I don’t mean the genre “New Adult,” which has been swamped solely by romantic fiction. I want to for those in-between, people like me. Maybe we’re not ready to read academic treatises yet and still crave the adventure of a teen lit book, though we also want something substantial in our fiction. We wanted to learn something about being human, want to better ourselves through the process of reading.

So, maybe The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County isn’t “suitable for children,” but I hope it’s suitable for you.


First Novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, To Be Published Fall 2015

I am extremely happy to announce the forthcoming publication of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County.


On May 21st, I signed a contract with PRA Publishing for my first novel. This summer I am working with my superb editor to put the finishing touches on the manuscript, and then we’ll begin a massive marketing campaign. You’ll see reviews, blurbs, interviews, and other creative forms of marketing on this site! The tentative release date is August 2015, though I’ll keep you updated about specifics as the time draws nearer. Find out a little more about the book here:

When Declin Ostrander arrives in Lickskillet, South Carolina, he encounters a town on edge: after a grisly hate crime in their most affluent gated community, the citizens have adopted extreme caution and comical political correctness. The lynching coincides with a series of strange occurrences: the haunted house burns down, the local swimming hole is filled in to make space for condominiums, and a corporate lawyer arrives in town to defend the accused– a lawyer who happens to be Declin’s father. He moves to a new city every six months, sometimes once a year. Such might be the duration of the average hate crime trial. When Declin arrives at Lickskillet High, he struggles to relate with others and must seek out his own identity in the wake of tragedy.

Every town the same: a new racism, a new house, a new you. Declin’s father works for the infamous Knights of Southern Heritage, a cultural group often accused of hate crimes, and though he does not care fondly for the Knights or the victims, he relishes the chance to constantly move from town to town, to essentially recreate himself. The town reels over a central mystery: who killed Francis Jameson?

The book re-landscapes the South as an absurdist menagerie of Southern heritage groups, social segregation, and corrupt local politics. At the center stand the disaffected and aloof teens of Lickskillet, crusading against the humid hum of boredom with reckless mischievousness, post-modern apathy, and redeeming humanity.

Of course, I’ve written a book that is Young Adult (though that term here applies to 16-30 years old) and Southern. I wanted to write a different southern novel, one that didn’t glaze over the potholes of our history and society. Whether I’ve succeeded in recreating the SC atmosphere will be up to you readers come next year.

Thursday, at 11am

On the morn of another Thirsty Thursday, students roll out of bed early—on average, ten minutes before class—to traipse across the Novembered campus en route to the nearest Starbucks. The wind pushes through the streets like a gaggle of British tourists, slapping students’ faces, rippling every Fraternity flag, and snatching piles of leaves into cyclical whirlwinds. The perfume of reefer, estrogen, and dead fish wafted against the historical buildings, which when campus tour guides spoke of them used almost visible quotation marks—”Historical Buildings.” At 11, the students still stand in a winding line out the door of Starbuck’s and down Calhoun, as girls file out the other end clutching Gingerbread Lattes, Caramel Brulee Lattes, Peppermint Mocha Lattes, Pumpkin Spice lattes, and occasionally an iced coffee.

Somewhere on the corner of campus, a man grills hotdogs. Somewhere beyond him, a hung-over professor packs his notes into a leather attaché case and sprints through the wind-scarred streets to class on the third floor of Maybank—where his students are absent, mired in a stuffy Starbuck’s across the road.

Swimming Pool Reflections

His older sister’s friend lays on her back, stretched against the white plastic slats of a poolside chair in the glaring light of the sun. July afternoons have cooked her tan, her long legs shiny and satin-soft, even her feet perfect and brown and pretty. She wears her hair down, un-wet because she never dipped her head beneath the pool’s lukewarm water. Instead, she allows the water to cling to her in tantalizing droplets.

The boy swims around the pool, bobbing his head up from the surface of the pool and back down again. He wears goggles that mask his entire face, even his nose because he has not yet learned to properly hold his breath. When he pops up from the water, he peeks at his sister’s friend through the fogged glass of the goggles, then returns to his aquatic exploration. He wears blue swim shorts with cartoon sharks, which he thinks make him look childish. For the past thirty minutes, he has wanted to climb out of the pool and jump from the diving board to impress his older sister’s friend. But each time she stands and stretches cat-like, her bikini bottoms caught in her crack and revealing the tanned buns he has seen only in videos he watches at 2 am while his parents sleep.

Meanwhile, the girl looks up from a book she is reading for school. She holds it aloft in front of her face, mumbling the words with chapped lips and adjusting her bikini bottoms which unfortunately ride up her ass every time she moves. She contemplates buying a new pair she saw yesterday while shopping online. From behind her amber-tinted glasses, she can see the bloated old man in the pool staring at her. He does not seem to harbor any shame in viewing her body, his eyes glazing over her legs and her breasts. She does not think her breasts look as good in her bikini top as her friend’s, whose little brother looks like a frog dipping in and out of the water. For a moment, she wants the old man to watch her, but she does not.

She reads a book she must read before school starts back, and though she secretly adores the story, she does not tell her friends because they absolutely hate reading.

The man floating on an inflatable ring is a poet, 67-years-old, and gay. With his shirt off, he believes he looks like a Goodyear blimp. He can already feel the sunrays blistering his skin, caressing it with singes that will broil the white into a sickly red. Across the pool from where he floats, he watches two teenage girls—they must be only seventeen. Whenever they look back at their books—they are reading the same novel—he peeks at the girl on the left and shudders. She reminds him of his dead sister. The man wants to cry but he thinks it might be inappropriate. Somewhere behind him, a thirteen-year-old boy bursts through the water, spins around quickly, then descends back underwater. His sister had been driving home drunk one night from a party—this was when the poet had been attending college in another state. He did not hear about her accident until three days later when their foster parents called.

The boy wonders what it might feel like to drown. To test himself, he swims to the bottom of the pool and sits cross-legged on the floor, pinching his thumb and forefingers together like a Buddhist monk—or rather, what he conceptualizes as a Buddhist monk. He attempts to hold his breath for as long as possible, but he cannot. He cannot think about anything other than his friend’s sister if you don’t count the chicken fingers he ate for lunch—they came with honey mustard dipping sauce. He uncrosses his legs and pumps his legs hard, kicking off of the bottom and rocketing to the surface. His splash licks at the old man’s feet, who brushes the droplets of water off his toes, and the boy gasps for breath, then goes under again.

Genre Crisis: “New Adult” Label

a_4x-horizontalNobody likes to be put into categories, most of all writers. But categories—or in the world of books, genres—are very helpful for marketing and selling a book. When querying publishing firms and literary agents, one must identify their genre, which helps the editors and agents decide whether the project will fall into their areas of interest. But recently, I’ve had an extremely difficult time placing my novel in a genre, which should be a good thing because agents seek works that cross several genres, except it seriously curtails one’s ability to market himself.

I could easily make up my own genre: Southern comedy transgressive? Meta-cultural southern teen exploration? Young adult, but not that young, but maybe still in their twenties who like funny but also serious writing?

The problem is, if the agent doesn’t recognize the genre, then she or he cannot place it right? I tried literary, but that


can’t just say that: you need a better phrase.

brand is too broad. While my project has literary elements, it certainly could be explained more descriptively. I tried young adult, but this generally means the books is marketed for teens ages 12-15. My novel is marketed toward older teens and 20-somethings. It, like many New Adult novels, tracks the growth and development of young adults whose identities are forming, who are seriously changing.

So maybe your book is a noir space opera western with thriller-paced plotting, literary aesthetic, and occult elements? Well, you need a better way to say that, a shorter way.

As I’ve been e-mailing literary agents, literary magazines, and publishers, this question has plagued me constantly. Finally I found an age-group description “New Adult” with which to market the novel THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY. “New Adult” bridges the gap between the safe and young group of Young Adult (YA) readers and Adult fiction. But because my books deals with characters in between, I think this genre (a relatively new invention of words) is fitting.

Querying agents has so far not worked out, but I am still sending many, many emails all over the country (and the world!) to publish this novel, as well as poems and short stories.

Have you had trouble labeling a piece of work? What genre did you settle on?

“Sea King”

You are King of the Sea, I said

and I King of the Sky.

Don’t you see me, see my wings?

See how I soar? See how I fly?

See how I launch myself from pedestals,

flapping wings of wax, of ambition and manmade edifice.

See how I can fly?

And he I imagine is an underwater king

though he spends most of the time

gliding across the tide on a battered surfboard.

I imagine him peaceful, innocent, yet fierce

like a sea turtle clutching a trident.

He sits aloft coral reefs, sprints across the backs of Great Whites

and can communicate with sea horses like Aquaman.

It was Sunday, the waves unsure, the sky cold and clear

Later, I could see the stars, and I pretended I could name each one

as if I had named them myself.

He explained, in his childish manner, about the rap industry and then

his theory of art

For a quiet boy from Long Island, a placid surfer dude who wanted to become a doctor,

you do not expect for him to care so deeply for art.


But on that Sunday, we reeled him into our nightly chaos

into our vices, into our storytelling.

And he explained, how art should asymptotically close to nature.

That Art should be a reflection of reality, of one’s perception.

Then we pretended to be great artists too, boldly shaping faces

sketching dinosaurs in top hats in the margins of our biology notes.

I drew an illustration of he and I

He the King of the Sea

Me the King of the Sky

See how I fly? I asked

And you’re in the waves, exploring the deep

as if in dreams, in sleep, you’ve been talking

searching for something to say, whether it be just a word or a sentence

See how I fall? I asked. See how I fall?

I don’t see nothing at all, you said, nothing at all.

And I said, keep searching, just keep seeking.

Thrift Shop Culture: An Investigative Look

Derek Berry here, with the cultural news of the day.

Thrift Shops have taken over the clothing industry, with the popularity of Goodwill and Salvation Army on the rise. Brand-name stores, however, have not been amiss at the rise thrift shopping. Victoria’s Secret has opened its own thrift shop in its Miami location, and thousands have flocked to pay the same prices for less organization.

Source: http://www.autostraddle.com/holigay-2012-gift-guide-bookworms-and-thrift-shops-150627/
Source: http://www.autostraddle.com/holigay-2012-gift-guide-bookworms-and-thrift-shops-150627/

Teens and cougar moms waited outside the store for hours to snag the deals. Victoria’s Secret has introduced many new lines of clothing including “Thong with an awkward hole in it,” “Ironically Ugly Sweater Lingerie,” and “Bras that don’t quite fit right.” The Sweater Lingerie sold out within minutes, though no one bothered with the thongs which were shoved under the sweater lingerie in a metal-wire-mesh bin positioned directly in front of the entrance.

Other clothiers have adopted the trend by eschewing mannequins or even dressing them in mismatched outfits, drawing Salvador Dali moustaches onto their faces. American Eagle has considered changing its mascot to the Dodo Bird. President Michael Ennis comments, “Well, the Eagle is a stylish, mainstream bird that we didn’t want to be connected with any longer. Dodo’s? They’re extinct. There’s nothing as retro as being extinct.”

Abercrombie & Fitch clothing lines have attempted previous reboots, but apparently no one knows the difference between a moose and an elk.

Clothing stores have not been the only businesses affected by the

Source: http://www.sacredmint.com/albrecht-durer-statue.htm
Source: http://www.sacredmint.com/albrecht-durer-statue.htm

influx of thrift-shop-madness. Video stores have begun replacing their DVD and Blu-ray collections with VHS versions of various Tyler Perry films. Furniture renters such as La-Z Boy and Rooms-To-Go have opted to sell slightly broken tables and couches, lamps without any bulbs, and several variations of Praying Hands statuettes.

This is Derek Berry, with your cultural news report of the day. We will keep you updated on the culture as it changes, but for now go to your nearest Goodwill, buy shoes that are too tight, and keep “poppin’ tags.”

Fulfilling Youthful Stereotypes

Let’s be honest: I’m only here to wreak havoc and inspire anarchy. As a teenager, it comes as a job, a duty. This, however, causes me great stress as I must not rise from bed until well after noon. On Sundays, one can often found me strung out on heroin in your local squalid alley, tattooing myself with the same needles I used to inject junk.

In my free time when I’m not obligated to chain-smoke and litter cigarettes in cemeteries, I keep bad horror film franchises in business by burning by cash at the gruesome Halloween box office. We surf out hurricanes and skateboard against the flow of traffic. We pass out drunk on Tuesdays with pizza slices half in our greedy mouths, at least when we’re not in prison.

Youth isn’t wasted on the young—we waste our childhoods and soon adulthood as well with bad decisions, nicotine patches, and conservative, racist, homophobic, innovation-fearing stereotypes.

7 Reasons to Do Something for the First Time

1. The first and only time I ever painted my chest was for a Volleyball game, the state game at the White Knoll high school gymnasium. The year before, our team won the championship, and this year, we would fall barely short. During halftime, we stood in the bitter wind smearing white paint onto our stomachs and chest.

The way the paint mixed with my hair, I could only think of how terrible it would be to wipe off. Then we wrote letters on us; I’m not sure, but I believe I was the exclamation point.

We still lost, but I don’t foresee any game I will ever feel strongly enough about again to spend three hours scraping paint from my wind-scarred nipples.

2. Because the first time I ever kissed a girl, it was a dare at a Valentine’s Dance. I’m not sure that’s how first kisses should happen.

3. Because the first time I tried to ride down the huge hill in our neighborhood without once applying the breaks, I veered into the grass and crashed into a tree.

I had been selling Joe Corbi’s Pizza door-to-door for a school fundraiser in the second grade. I was bored. Perched at the top of the hill, I allowed myself to roll down, picking up momentum until I could no longer control the bike, careening toward a short tree. The trunk halted the bike, but not me; I flipped over the handlebars, busting my head open on someone’s driveway. It was very cool that my forehead squirted blood like a water pistol until I nearly passed out.

Not two days ago, biking down Calhoun to visit the library, I experienced this unique event again. A car braked suddenly. My bicycle’s brakes work only when you pedal backwards, and to do so quickly requires me to stand up. I did this to avoid ramming the car’s bumper, but the sudden stop forced me to again tumble over the handlebars, which this time turned downwards, my body flailing, smashing against the road.

Fortunately, the vehicle behind me did not crush my head and allowed me to push my pathetic bike out of the rode. Once I made sure my head had not again become a gory fountain, I rode all the way to the library, scraped, bruised, bleeding. The only real causality was the button of my favorite red shorts, which had popped off quite violently upon force of impact.

4. Because the first time I ever tried to write a novel, my fifth grade teacher read it to my class, even the parts that seemed a little gory. Even the entire chapter about the main characters being taken in by this couple that resembled Mr. and Mrs. Claus– they are executed at the end of the chapter, tied to a wooden stake and burned alive.

Despite all of the strangely disturbing events in the book I wrote (it was only about 50,000 words long), she read it. Other kids seemed to like it. It was the first time I felt like people might one day read books I could write.

5. Because the first time I read the short story “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk, I was riding a train. An hour-long ride to Stuttgart from Heilbronn, just the right amount of time needed to read short stories. I nearly passed out or threw up or a combination of the two. Instead, I sweated and worried about the words.

This was maybe the first time a book affected me in a physical sense as much as it did in a mental, philosophical sense.

6. The first time I ever went to a concert, the ticket cost me only $17. I arrived five hours early in Asheville and stood for three hours in front of the venue to watch The Tallest Man on Earth. But I got to stand on the front row, basically feeling his spit rain down on me as he sang.

Some people have never stood at the front row of a concert before.

7. When I opened my eyes for the first time today, I thought about the beauty of doing things for the first time. Listening to new songs. Listening to your stupid friends and trying stupid things with them. Reading recently published books. Going to places you’ve never been before, just to try their offerings of the grilled cheese sandwich.

There is a sprawling, grand adventure awaiting us all, and each day, we embark upon it anew.