Wednesday, January 23, 2013

No sex, no swearing, no drugs, no alcohol: Istoria Books YA line

by Libby Sternberg

During the Christmas holiday, I received a charming card from a family we know. On it, the twelve-year-old daughter had written her own message to me: "I love your books! When I'm not reading them, I'm thinking about them!"

She was referring to my first two published novels--the Edgar-nominated teen mystery Uncovering Sadie's Secrets, and its sequel, Finding the Forger. There's a third book in the series, Recovering Dad, that I will dispatch to her this week.

Not only did her comments warm my heart, they affirmed for me a commitment I, as an author, made to myself when I first wrote "young adult" fiction. That is, I would write the kind of YA books that I enjoyed reading as a preteen, books that didn't shock or startle or depress but instead invited the reader into a world worth visiting. In this world were people who set good examples, tried their best, loved their families, and didn't try too hard to be part of the cool crowd.

Notice, by the way, that I mention "YA books that I enjoyed reading as a preteen."  Many preteens read YA, while teens themselves have moved on to adult fiction. So, when I write YA, I assume my audience is more likely to be nine- to twelve-year-olds than it is older readers.

In my YA mysteries, the characters don't swear. They don't use drugs or alcohol. They don't have sex or talk about it. And I know--this doesn't reflect reality for all teens. But for a good number of kids, it does; or, at least, it's the life they aspire to. Their parents scold them if they swear. They're expected to abide by their family's rules. They're expected to try to be good, even if they sometimes fail. They're not trying so hard to be cool that they'll fall into trouble easily.

Many teen novels don't follow this pattern. Many YA novelists believe their books would betray the worlds they want to create and a sense of verisimilitude if the characters don't confront coarse situations and use coarse language. Some of these authors, I learned from participating in a YA writers email group years ago, take a perverse pride in being provocative, as if shocking parents of teen readers with dark tales is the goal, rather than telling a good story or even offering a good lesson.

The Wall Street Journal's children's book reviewer shared some thoughts on the dark state of YA fiction in a June 2011 article that generated controversy. Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in that article:

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Don't get me wrong--I don't begrudge YA authors success if they happen to tell grittier tales than mine. And I'm not suggesting that YA fiction should be censored or have the real world whitewashed within its pages. (Neither was Gurdon in her article.)  But I do think there's a place--an important place--for YA fiction that does not focus on what's wrong in a teen's world, for stories that make readers feel good about themselves and perhaps even affirm the good choices they are making.

These are the kinds of YAs Istoria Books is looking for.

That kind of "clean" YA fiction doesn't have to be boring. In fact, this spring Istoria Books is proud to release a sweet and fun YA, The Body Electric by Allie Duzett, that doesn't include a single curse or reference to sex or substance abuse. It's a rollicking journey to the "end of the world," an exploration of young love and ancient curses. It's the exact opposite of boring. But it doesn't have a single element in it that would make a parent cringe.

Editing Allie Duzett's debut novel reinforced my belief in this kind of YA fiction. It's the epitome of our mission: we publish "good stories, well told."  Good stories--where you want to keep turning the pages to see what happens. Well told--where you want to keep hearing that author tell the story to you (instead of jumping ahead to the finish). And while our adult fiction does handle adult themes, sometimes explicitly and realistically, our young adult fiction will be a place of refuge for the preteen and teen reader who wants stories where they feel comfortable with the characters and don't mind inviting them into their own lives.

In The Body Electric, an eighteen-year-old Colorado girl meets and falls for an odd new fellow in town. He seems to possess heroic strength, is a gentleman of the old school, dresses as if he stepped off the pages of a menswear ad spread, is cheerful, honest and...has a family of grudge-bearing maniacs. As Lena learns more about Zach, she finds more to admire...and also fear. She learns just as much about herself in the process, about what values she holds dear, about what is most important in life.

I hope young readers will enjoy The Body Electric as much as all of us at Istoria have. Watch these blog pages for an interview with Allie Duzett in the weeks before its spring release!
Libby Sternberg is an award-winning novelist. She is editor-in-chief of Istoria Books. If you have a young adult novel you'd like to submit to her, send a query to

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