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Smells like teen spirit 

Todays young adult books have more mature themes

click to enlarge Far from Xanadu - by Julie Anne Peters - (Little, Brown & Co.) $16.99/hardcover
  • Far from Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little, Brown & Co.) $16.99/hardcover

Nancy Drew never would have dreamed of swearing like a sailor, lighting up a big fatty, then getting it on with boyfriend Ned. The teen sleuth was 16 or 18 (depending on the era in which you read), but characters in young adult novels didn't do those things back then.

The maturation started with Judy Blume's Forever, which featured a graphic depiction of what sex and "losing it" was like. First published in 1975, it was banned from various libraries and eventually became contraband that youngsters secretly passed to one another. Forever has proven a timeless classic and has sold over three million copies worldwide.

Today's young adult, or "YA," genre, hazily defined and marketed for ages 12 to 18, explicitly discusses rape, drugs and sexual exploration without batting a proverbial eyelash.

Welcome to the new era of young adult fiction.

Holly Black's latest book, Valiant, a gritty and modern faerie tale, follows 17-year-old Valerie, who runs away to the Big Apple. Valerie soon finds herself living with other homeless teens and slinging Never, a powdery substance that serves as medicine to faerie-kind and as a heroin-like drug to humans.

Black read young adult novels until she was about 12.

"I think that [YA literature] has moved to a different age group than when we were younger," she said.

This faerie tale espouses no moral, and Black says that it might not be necessary.

"There's a strong temptation to have a message of 'Don't do drugs!'" she said. "I don't know that anyone doesn't know that drugs are bad.

click to enlarge Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie - by Holly Black - (Simon & Schuster) - $16.95/hardcover
  • Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster) $16.95/hardcover

"I think the difficulty of writing about drugs is doing it in a way that seems true and not moralizing it, but still [showing that there are] consequences."

YA author Julie Anne Peters of Lakewood, Colo., also has written a slew of award-winning books, including Define "Normal" and Keeping You a Secret. Her latest book, Far from Xanadu, stars Mike (ne Mary Elizabeth), as a butch, sort-of-out lesbian.

While Mike is getting through everyday life, in walks newcomer Xanadu. Mike falls hard. Problem is, Xanadu's straight and boy-crazy, and soon twists Mike around her little finger. It's a story of first love and manipulation, as heartbreaking and hopeful as both can be.

Peters started writing for the middle-school market 15 years ago and was considered "edgy" at the time because her book featured black characters. Her editor, who's straight, encouraged her to write a lesbian love story for a YA audience.

Like Black, Peters found that her publisher had no problem with her content. She and her editor did, though, see the themes differently: Peters considered the book to be about gay and lesbian issues, and obsessing over someone who can't love in return, while her editor considered it a story of manipulation.

Peters sees the change in YA literature coming from the readers themselves.

"They're exposed to so much more today," she said. "Kids are actually picking their own books, and they have their own spending money."

Peters feels that kids shouldn't be exposed to some topics until they're ready, and she and Black agree that the division of literature for younger teens and older teens has to be made more obvious. They both add that young readers generally are good at self-censoring and deserve more trust from parents.

In the end, though, they say kids are going to find the most talked-about books, no matter what.

"That's always been true with literature," Peters said.

-- Kara Luger

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