2/27/2014

Consequences in YA Lit

I've been pondering a post like this for a while but wasn't sure exactly how to go about it. Then the other day I finished reading Panic by Lauren Oliver. Now, this post is not going to be a dump on that book, nor am I trying to attack Lauren Oliver or make her look bad. Not in the slightest. I respect Oliver and actually quite enjoyed Panic. My rather positive review will go up soon. No, here I am going to focus on an event from the book (in the ARC, anyway) that inspired me to come back to this post idea. The idea of actions in books having consequences. 

Funny enough, the action I'm concerned with in Panic is not one of the many dangerous (and mostly illegal) challenges. No, I found those were given the weight they deserved. The action I want to discuss is this: 

A main character in the novel, Heather, allows her friend Nat to drive them home despite smelling alcohol on her breath. Now, readers are not shown how much she drinks because at the time Heather is quite out of it and is drinking herself. We have no concrete idea of how much time is spent at this place, which also has an impact because it's fair to believe that the longer they stayed, the more they drank. So it's entirely possible that Nat only had a few sips of a beer. However, it is equally possible that she drank more than that, and the book does indicate that, at least according to Heather's perception, Nat drank right before leaving.

Now, I don't know what the laws are like anywhere else, but in Ontario all drivers under a certain age (21 I think, which these girls most definitely are) are not allowed to drive with ANY alcohol in their systems, no matter their license level. It is clearly implied in the novel that Nat, a high school senior and the driver of the car, has had something to drink, even though it isn't clear how much. And because of the reactions, there is no real weight placed on the fact that that this is wrong. That it is illegal and, most of all, dangerous not only to Nat and Heather, but also to whoever else they may encounter on the road.

Don't get me wrong. I understand that this happens in real life. This is totally a realistic situation. That's not where my problem lies. I don't think it'd be bad at all to show this situation because teens and young adults do it. My issue is that there is almost no indication that what they're doing is wrong. Heather basically thinks "I shouldn't let Nat do this but oh well" (Not an actual quote but close enough. The actual quote from the ARC: "... normally Heather would have been annoyed that she [Nat] was drinking right before they were going to drive. But she didn't have the strength to argue, or even to care."). So, no argument from Heather despite the fact that Nat is about to carelessly put their lives at risk. Then they leave and there is no consequence. So not only do they not really consider how bad an idea this is, nothing happens that would show them that it is indeed a very bad idea. Would this not then enforce the idea that it's no big deal? That they made it out safe so, see, nothing bad actually happens? Again, I know that not every incident of impaired driving ends in an accident, but so many do. It is perfectly realistic that they could end up fine. But so many people don't. And with a young adult audience, I think it's irresponsible to encourage the belief that it won't happen to them. 

What first got me thinking about this topic was actually from last May when I was in NYC for BEA. One of the evening events I went to while I was there was Teen Author Carnival. There was a panel that night called "Reality Bites" with a bunch of contemporary YA authors like Leila Sales, David Levithan, etc. Suzanne Young was also there and I remember her specifically talking about needing consequences for characters in her work because young readers are influenced by the books they read. Now, you can disagree with that all you want but I've seen young readers directly influenced by fiction, so I believe it. Teens are influenced by what they read. I'm not suggesting that authors shouldn't be allowed to do what they want in their books. I'm simply suggesting that they should be aware of the actions their characters are doing and not pretend that there aren't any consequences for these actions. Because real teens will see that and if they don't know better -- because many teens truly aren't taught any better -- they might just believe that the world works the way it does in the book. That things happen to other people, but not to them. That teens may die from drunk driving on the news but no, this teen won't. And I just think that authors not recognizing that and not being aware of the ideas they're putting out is irresponsible.

Now, drunk driving is not the only action dealt with in YA that deserves to hold some weight and have some consequences. There are plenty of others, unprotected sex being just one of them. But if I were to talk about all kinds of these actions, we'd be here all day. I'm certainly not saying that these aren't true to life. These are things teens do, without a doubt. I just don't know if it's a good thing that the representation of these actions play into the mindset many teens have -- often subconsciously -- that they're invincible. Actions like this belong in YA, without a doubt. But in my opinion, so do the consequences.

But I want to know your opinions. Do you think authors should be aware of the way they portray these actions or do you think it's up to the readers to know better? Is this something that authors shouldn't have to be bothered with, or do you think that because of the audience they write for they need to take care? Are there other actions you think authors need to give a certain weight to in their YA novels?

12 comments:

  1. I'm not a YA author but I agree with what Suzanne Young said. I think these storylines do belong in YA (as well as young adult, and adult!) and showing something, even if it's a short sentence with the character in question thinking 'Well, that was kinda dumb" about that particular action, or even a short dialogue between two characters about the consequences of that action, would not be amiss.

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    1. I definitely do want these stories represented, but I agree, even just an acknowledgement that these decisions are not smart and could be dangerous raises a little flag for the reader. I personally think that's the responsible way to handle it. Thanks for weighing in!

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  2. Wow, this is a great post, and very well articulated. Sometimes I used to get frustrated because even things like skipping school went un-reprimanded (yeah, that's the kind of person I was), so drinking and driving definitely needs at the very freaking least a slap on the wrist in the narrative.

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    1. Thank you, Savannah! I'm like that too, so when I see really dramatic or life-threatening issues not seen as troublesome, it worries me a little. And let's be honest, if you skip school enough, you totally get caught. These characters can't always get off completely scot-free.

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  3. Ahhhh, yes yes YES! We never really see the consequences of things like drunk driving or unprotected sex or going to clubs underage and whatnot. Like, do teens NEVER get into car accidents when drunk? Or NEVER get pregnant, or get STDs? Like what?! As a teen, and like you said, I know these things happen all the time, in real life and in YA lit, but in real life, the reaction happens as well (yay Newton's third law!). Very well said, Jess! This is an excellent critique.

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

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    1. Yes! This is what I'm saying! Teens DO do these things and in real life, there are usually consequences. So why are these things not represented the same way in books? Why does it make it seem like it's no big deal and easy to get away with? I think those reactions are so important. (And don't you go pulling out the science on me, you know that's not my thing ;) ). Thank you very much, Alyssa!

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  4. This is the first time I've ever seen a discussion post on this topic, and I love the way you addressed it. I often see books that deal with the consequences of dangerous actions, but these books are mostly issue books that center around said mistake. While I love this sort of story, it's also important to have novels that weave in dangerous actions and consequences as subplots. As a 16-year-old, I'm not affected by a lack of fictional consequences too much - I know what I should and should not be doing - but I'm a lot more driven and confident about my values and safety than the stereotypical teenager. I could definitely see a book helping to ease a teenager - or especially a tween - into a false sense of security about his or her actions, and that's scary.

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    1. Thank you, Emily! These things are part of life and I don't think we can pretend that they aren't. I completely agree with your point: I also love that there are "issue" books that deal with these things, but they also belong in the "regular" stories because they are part of regular life. Only having them in issue books sort of makes it feel like these are, again, the outlier cases - the "that won't happen to me" type. I think everything has a consequence and sometimes those consequences are bad, and that needs to be represented. I'm so glad you weighed in, that's a great point.

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  5. You know I love this post. :) For me, the two things that really get my dander up are drinking and language. Now I get that teens drink and teens can cuss like sailors. Whatever. But 1) Drinking underage is illegal, but that's never ever mentioned in books. Also, cirrhosis of the liver, hello. 2) I believe in the power of words. I expect authors to hone and sand and massage their prose until every single word justifies its space on the page, so why isn't profanity included in that? So many times I read a book and the foulest is language is used just to "sound like the cool kids." If you can justify five f-bombs on a single page, fine. But most of the time, it's excessive and pulls me right out of the story. In the same vein, don't use slurs unless you prove in some way or fashion that these things are not okay to say. The character readers identify with shouldn't be dropping words like "slut," "retard," or "n*****" unless somehow the author rounds back and points out that those words are hurtful and very real and shouldn't be thrown around with the same lackadaisical attitude as "cupcake" and "chair."

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    1. Thanks Shae :) I think you make some great points. Underage drinking is definitely something that teens do but that doesn't mean there are no consequences - it's illegal for a reason - nor that it should be encouraged. Consequences, people! Also, I agree, profanity for the sake of profanity doesn't help the writing at all. If there's a reason for it and if it's shown that hurtful words like the ones you mention ARE INDEED HURTFUL, I have no issue. But often that part gets left out and it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth, not to mention it could easily teach someone who doesn't know better that it's acceptable. Which, no. No.
      I'm so glad you mentioned these, thank you!

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I'd love to hear what you think!