Sanitizing YA?

There was a Twitter thread earlier today about “sanitizing” high school parties in YA fiction. It seemed to be referring to some other conversation that may or may not have been going on, a stance that the parties are “unrealistic.” And I think these are two different arguments.

I didn’t party in high school, and I didn’t know anybody who did. (Or if they did, it wasn’t obvious.) I went to a handful of “parties,” but these were not like the movies. No houses packed full of students spilling alcohol everywhere, music blasting, precious items being broken. The parties were somewhat small and fairly tame. There was sometimes alcohol, but there was also stuff like Win, Lose or Draw. (Which is hilarious to play if you’ve been drinking btw.) ::shrug::

Anyway, everyone’s experiences vary. What is “realistic” to one person may not be to another. Aaaand there’s the whole “it’s cliché” angle to these teen parties in books and movies. But to say that a suggestion to remove such a scene is “sanitizing”? That feels extreme.

I mean, sure, if the person who is suggesting the change is doing it because they feel like they don’t want to encourage that kind of behavior, then they’re sanitizing the story. I can see why that might be considered problematic, but I won’t delve into that here. However, if they’re saying it should be changed because it’s not realistic, then . . . That’s just a personal opinion. I mean, look at most writers and editors. We were the bookish kids, the quiet ones. Parties like that sometimes don’t seem realistic based on our experiences.

The Twitter thread spent a lot of time talking about how teens need to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Agreed. And some of them party and . . . want to see parties in their books, I guess? Some take drugs and want to read about other kids who take drugs? But some of us didn’t party, and we like seeing the quiet kids front and center because we felt so insignificant and overlooked in high school.

Look, teens who party and do drugs and get in trouble with the law—they’re out there. It’s not an experience I can identify with, but I know it happens. And there’s a place for those stories, too. Maybe it’s because I don’t write those kinds of books, so I can’t see where the scrubbing is taking place. Do agents, editors, publishers really squash stories featuring problematic teens and the issues they face? I honestly don’t know. As I pointed out in a previous post, I was told my teen fiction wasn’t edgy enough, so . . . I’ve experienced the flip side of this problem.

Bottom line for me is that I’d want to know the reason behind an author being told a YA party scene (or sex scene, or drug scene) needs to be changed or omitted. Because I don’t think it’s always simply to sanitize the text, or keep the reader “safe” from those things. Maybe it is some of the time—in which case, that should be addressed—but sometimes the reason may really be that the scene isn’t realistic (or the editor doesn’t think it is, anyway), or else it’s cliché. Those are valid opinions. Not everyone shares them, but they aren’t necessarily wrong.

There have always been books, and music, and movies that parents or adults don’t think appropriate for young adults. This is nothing new. And if a publisher thinks, No parent is going to want their kids to read this, then they might not publish it. Not out of spite or a need to whitewash teen experiences, but because they’re a business and want to sell books. And though teens do buy their own books some of the time, parents buy books the remainder of the time. And school librarians. And teachers, if they keep a classroom library. And school librarians and teachers won’t buy books that will get them in trouble with parents or the school district. And a publisher won’t risk their business for something they don’t think parents and teachers and librarians will buy.

Then again, sometimes you’ll find one who hopes the book will create buzz through shock value. They hope kids will buy it in secret and smuggle it to their friends. But one copy passed around a dozen people doesn’t amount to many sales either.

So, again, it might not be that they’re “sanitizing” YA. It might just be that they see no profit in it. If you write edgy YA—if you write parties and sex and drugs and jail for teens—go for it. Prove them wrong.