Duty of Care

More than any other writers1 we YA writers get grief over our subject matter. We are frequently told that we should not be writing about subjects such as sex, drugs, cutting, suicide, anorexia nervosa, etc. because our audience is vulnerable and easily swayed and it is our duty of care not to lead them down such scary paths.

Now, there are a tonne of smart, cogent ripostes to this argument. But I just want to say that we YA authors do not have a duty of care. It is not the job of YA writers to teach or guide teenagers. That is their parents’ and guardians’ job. Their teachers’ and coaches’ job.

Our only duty is to write the best and most truthful stories we can.

Which is, frankly, hard enough without taking on responsibility for the world’s teenagers. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I salute all you parents! It’s way harder than writing YA books. So imagine how hard it would be if we YA writers really were responsible for all the teenagers who read our books? We would all die.

Too often those adults with the duty of care look to us to not write things they consider inappropriate for the teenagers they are looking out for. How on Earth can we YA writers be the judge of that? I don’t know your teenager. I don’t know what will freak them out. Frankly, the teenagers I do know are not freaked out by what I write. I’m freaked out by more stuff than they are.

Sometimes I don’t think parents know what will freak out their teenagers either. And I say this because parents I know have told me they have no idea what goes on in their teenagers’ minds. Somehow they think that because I write for teenagers I might have some helpful hints for gauging the mysteries of the teenage mind.

Sorry. Teenagers are as varied as adults. Half the time I barely know what’s in my mind, let alone anyone else’s.

To be totally honest I mostly write for the teenager I was and the adult I am. I write stories that interest and engage me. That those stories fall into the publishing niche that is YA is a happy accident. And that some teenagers find them entertaining/useful/inspiring/whatever is an even happier accident.

I am sorry that we YA writers are not portraying the kind of world you think is suitable for your teenagers. But I have a solution. Why not write your own books?

Why not write the world the way you want it without all the bits you find objectionable, without any scary conflict, or teenagers doing things you wish they wouldn’t? And then every time the teenagers in your life pick up what you consider to be the wrong kind of book you can give them yours instead. Who knows? Maybe it will be a bestseller and start a whole new genre.

  1. Except for those who write for children, obviously. []


  1. Christopher on #

    You know, I think that if more people actually *remembered* their own teen years, they might give YA writers a good deal less grief. Or if they acknowledged certain realities, even.

    I sometimes think that being a parent *requires* partial amnesia and a big honkin’ pair of blinders, and that only a few parents manage to dodge those requirements.

  2. Tania Roxborogh on #

    I teach secondary school. I thought, before I had kids (and even while my two were small), I’d be a fantastic parent of teenagers because I got to hang out with them all day most days. I was wrong because the kids I teach are not my own and the two that are, I don’t teach (and refuse to be taught by me at all).

    I’ve been berated by the far right by some of the content in my books but I shrug it off just as I ignore the unintentional slips a kid might make by cursing in my class – sometimes these things just come out. For me, as you say Justine, it’s about the story and the strength of it. I have to tell it as it comes, in the way it comes and try to capture as truthfully as I can, the voice that is speaking to me.

    I get quietly furious (if you can imagine that combo) at gate keepers and know-it-alls when it comes to what I write and who I teach. Kids are so much more resilient than the world gives them credit for (and it’s always been like that) but, thankfully, good writers ignore that trend – think Dickens, Enid Blyton and our dear, late Margaret (Mahy).

  3. Lori S. on #

    One of the more interesting conversations I ever had with my brother revolved around the topic “why were you so angry as a teenager?” He honestly couldn’t remember. As a result of this and other data, I’m beginning to reach the tentative conclusion that nobody quite knows what’s going on in teenagers’ heads or what will (or won’t) freak them out and/or what they do (or don’t) need, up to and including the teenagers themselves. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all; my teenagerdom is similarly a fog of Big Emotions that I am pleased to be on the other side of now.

  4. Devin Ganger on #

    Exactly! As a parent, it is MY job to guide my kids. Books like yours help me do that, because they allow me to introduce and discuss potentially sensitive topics without either of us getting embarrassed. Good books are one of the most invaluable tools I have for starting conversations and teaching my kids to think. That is the only way I know to prepare them to be adults.

  5. Kaethe on #

    Gah! It makes me crazy that there is such an obsession with protecting kids from words. As the parent of a teen and a tween, who have found their own favorites among your works, I say: Thank you for writing clever, entertaining stories. That’s more than enough for you to do. I’m confident that you can write about whichever subjects you like and that your books will find their appropriate readers and that NO ONE suffers any harm from reading a book. Carry on with your marvelous story-telling, use whatever language or themes you like, and kids who aren’t ready for certain books will drop them in favor of others that suit.

  6. Justine on #

    Thanks, everyone. And for the crazy number of retweets.

    Tania Roxborogh: You know, ever since I heard the news about Margaret Mahy I’ve been trying to write about what she meant to me. And I just can’t do it. It just makes me tear up all over again. 🙁

    Christopher & Lori S: Yes, there does seem to be some weirdarse amnesia that sets in the day people turn 20. Sometimes I think that what makes good YA writer is simply the ability to remember what our teen years were like.

    Devin Ganger & Kaethe: Thank you! And keep up the good work. Parenting must be one of the hardest and most thankless undertakings.

  7. khoela on #

    I have never heard of a teenager being “lead astray” by something they read about in a book… I think that experiencing something through a medium that disconnects you from it allows you the chance to think logically–what would I do? How could that be avoided? What could those consequences be?–without having to deal with it in real life.

  8. Kaethe on #

    Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I don’t find parenting to be very hard at all these days. Nor is it thankless: to my delight I’ve got these two very cool people to hang with, at least one of whom shares my enthusiasm for , and both of whom are big readers.

  9. Ebony McKenna on #


    As a parent, I’d utterly suck at writing for my son. So many authors do it way better, I’ll leave them to it.

    I can only write the stories in my head, that teenagers seem to enjoy (phew). And my characters threaten me with a cricket bat if I don’t write their stories down.

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