YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

This is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

* * * * *

I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…


Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

* * * * *
To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

27 thoughts on “YA books and sex!

  1. sharkell says:

    I also have a thirteen year old daughter who is a voracious reader and I am constantly worried about sex in YA lit as well. I am lucky in a way as she is focused on fantasy fiction and most of those books are okay. Having said that, she has moved a little into teen romance. Ellen did want to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower recently and I read it first and said no to her as there was sex and drug use which I thought was not age appropriate. But, of course, it is not practical for me to read everything that she is going to read before her so I share your fear that she is going to come across books that are not age appropriate. Having said that, she has lots of friends that read and she gets most of her recommendations from them so I am hoping they won’t recommend anything inappropriate.

    Ellen’s favourite authors are Cassandra Clare, Veronica Roth, Alyson Noel, Julie Kagawa and Jessica Spotswood.

    • gaskella says:

      Some good authors to look up there – thanks. I’ve read Perks – and you’re right, I don’t think she’s ready for the book (which I read and loved a few years ago), although we have seen the film.

  2. Teresa says:

    I think I was around 13 when I read Forever by Judy Blume, which is extremely detailed in its descriptions of sex. It’s the kind of thing my mom probably would have hated me reading at the time (she didn’t monitor my reading at all), but looking back, I think it was pretty age-appropriate. It fed a curiosity I had at that age regarding what sex was like and treated the subject in a serious way without being preachy.

    All that said, I’d be uncomfortable with a book that just presumes everyone is having sex at a young age and that you’re absolutely supposed to if you’re to be considered mature. I think there are ways authors can treat the subject, even in some detail, without making kids feel pressured to have sex before they’re ready or scolding the kids who do. That’s what Blume did so well.

  3. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I agree with exactly what Teresa said. It’s not the sexiness of the scenes, I think, so much as it is the assumptions the book is making about what sex looks like for teenagers. I mean I would be much more bothered by books that reinforced yucky gender stereotypes about what the men are supposed to do and what the women are supposed to do, than I would be about much more explicit books that operated under the assumption that sex is about two people both wanting the same thing and communicating with each other.

  4. Philippa says:

    My 14 year-old (nearly 15) daughter and I both just read the same book “The fault in our Stars” by John Green. There was some intimate content but absolutely in the context of the story and certainly not explicit. Based on girl has cancer meets boy with cancer in remission at support group become soul mates, etc etc. Brilliant read but I would recommend you reading it first to see if the content is appropriate for your daughters. The other one with borderline content but also brilliantly written is “Ultraviolet” by R J Anderson. A girl with synesthesia admitted to a youth mental unit and explores her undiagnosed condition, people thinking she is loopy, borders on science fiction with parallel worlds etc Some elements of recounts of child abuse but again at a level that a young teenager would cope with. Perhaps another one to read before a child to make sure it suits your particular stance..

    A very difficult position to be in for those with girls of high reading ability where the YA section might quite be appropriate in terms of content.

    • sharkell says:

      My 13 yo daughter has read Ultraviolet (twice!) and didn’t find that too confronting but I didn’t know the content was as you have described here, Philippa. I have read The Fault in Our Stars and would have no problem in letting my daughter read it – I’ve actually recommended it to her.

  5. Jackie Bailey (@farmlanebooks) says:

    It is such a tricky subject! I haven’t read any of the new YA books to know what they are like, but I do remember trying to find sex in books at that age. I stormed through Mills and Boon books, loving the little glimpses I found, but there was nothing that could be described as explicit. I worry about what might be in books nowadays. All I can say is go with your instinct. Good luck!

  6. Alex says:

    You make me realise how divorced from current YA I now am. It’s six years since I stopped teaching Children’s Literature and like you my own tastes, which I’ve gone on indulging, are mostly in the fantasy genre. For what it’s worth my advice would be as far as possible to read what your daughter is reading and make time to talk with her about it. You aren’t going to be able to stop her picking up books outside the home that portray sex in a way that you’re uncomfortable with but at least you can discuss why you feel that way if you’ve shown a really engaged interest in them.

    Do you know Books For Keeps (http://booksforkeeps.co.uk)? They’re online these days (I had all the old back issues stored in the garage at one point) and they do very good reviews of what’s new in Children’s Literature for all ages.

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    This is a topic I wrestled with when my two daughters were teenagers. I struggled with my youngest wanting to read the Megan books. I think the problem is with some of the stories that the sex and the wanting to have sex is the only thing the book is about and life is not all about that, so it isn’t realistic. And why should it be graphic? Not all adult books are graphic (and we don’t all want to read 50 Sh***s). It comes back to the post on SavidgeReads where I used the word gratuitous – if it’s part of the plot and relevant and done well and not just to be explicit or shocking then ok. But I think there should be some kind of warnings because we do need to take into account that each YA is different, each will respond differently and some are more ready for that kind of content at an early age than others. Good luck – and I think you are definitely right to try and check some of the content first. And I guess maybe talk to her about the kind of thing she is comfortable with too?

  8. gaskella says:

    Thank you everyone for your supportive comments and great suggestions – luckily I have several of them on my/our shelves already. I agree with all of you – it’s all about context/gratuitousness AND the emotional development of your teen.

    However, I’m ‘happy’ to let her watch ‘Friends’ – they’re all addicted to it – and that is actually quite a sexy programme. However, it’s never graphic, and half of the innuendo and double entendre still goes over her head! 😉

  9. Nish says:

    I have no idea seriously. My daughter is 7 and so far, she is totally into Fantasy type of books. When she comes to that age where she wants to read regular YA, I will have to face that problem.

    So much of YA is either vampire-related or boyfriend-girlfriend related…it’s a genre I used to like, but have gone completely against these days.

    • gaskella says:

      My daughter won’t read anything paranormal – she prefers real life in her reading in general, although I think the new Hunger Games film might see her reading those books.

  10. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Fabulous discussion, my 11-year-old prefers to read graphic novels of the Manga kind and in French. I have to admit, I struggle to read them, reading from back to front, and with speech bubbles, I get confused about which order to read in, now I realise I should persevere to find out more what they’re even about. Fabulous post and discussion.

    • gaskella says:

      I sympathise with you Claire, I wouldn’t really know what Manga’s about unless forced to read it. Not my style – and not my daughter’s either thankfully. Good luck.

      • Claire 'Word by Word' says:

        What I do read are the books she illustrates and writes herself, thinking this might give me an indication and also knowing the kind of films she likes to watch 🙂 It’s interesting that she likes to read the kind of things she likes to make. My son is easier to fathom, he reads non-fiction books about animals and dinosaurs and is fast gaining encyclopediatic knowledge of both 🙂

  11. LizF says:

    I’ve always had my doubts about the value of age appropriate books for keen readers as if I had been forced to stick to ‘suitable’ books when I was growing up, I would have gone mad with boredom as my reading age was a good five years ahead of my actual age!
    My reading was never supervised – I pretty much read what came my way and from the age of 11 that was mostly adult books and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading Lady Chatterley at 12 (not sure I would recommend it at any age quite frankly) I don’t think it did me any lasting harm.

    My advice would be to follow your instinct and be guided by your knowledge of your daughter when it comes to putting books in her path. Above all don’t worry about it – if she is not ready for some of the themes in a book, she won’t ‘get’ them and I am willing to bet that she will probably get as bored with the ‘getting-a-boyfriend’ obsessed titles as my daughters did.

    • gaskella says:

      I agree totally in principle – but we didn’t really have many ‘teen’ books and went straight into adult fare. What confuses me totally is that so many of these new so-called YA books have more sex talk than chicklit and other adult fare (50 shades etc excepted of course!).

  12. LizF says:

    Very good point! Fortunately for me, junior daughter was too much of a romantic to be all that impressed with graphic talk – she enjoyed Michelle Magorian, Eva Ibbotson, Rumer Godden and K M Peyton.
    I have to say that I don’t think we lost out on the lack of teen books – I find a lot of the YA fare is incredibly bleak which really isn’t what I wanted when I was a teenager!

  13. FJ Campbell says:

    I love this discussion – so interesting, especially as I have agonised about the sex/swearing etc in my books.

    I have spoken to so many friends and family and other authors about this, and everyone has different opinions, but here’s a general consensus:

    Teens will read whatever they want to read, whether we want them to or not. We can’t monitor everything they read. The pages of a book is exactly the right place to find out about growing up, body changes, relationships, consent, etc, because it gives the reader time to stop and think about what they are feeling during and after the book. It also provides a blank canvas for their own imaginations, which will only take them as far as they want to go – unlike a film with explicit content, which can be hard to tear your eyes away from.

    Authors like John Green, Jenny Downham, E Lockhart, Lisa Williamson, Holly Bourne, Louise O Neill, Non Pratt, Annabel Pitcher, Rebecca Wait and many more are writing YA books that tackle difficult issues that our older teens face.

    I say: let them experience everything in fiction (but hopefully not in real life) so that they are better equipped to be tolerant, patient, kind, understanding adults.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I agree absolutely – but when I wrote this back in 2013, I was shocked to find several YA books that were so much more explicit than chicklit. (I love Louise O’Neill’s books by the way!) My daughter is now 18 and is not really interested in YA books any more, and I’ve mostly grown out of them with her! I’d be interested to hear your take on teen suicide lit though – the subject of another post I wrote a couple of years later https://annabookbel.net/trending-tough-issue-lit-teens

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