The summer before my senior year of college, I was interviewing for internships at both publishing houses and magazines, and, if I may be really modest right here, I was kicking butt. If I interviewed for it, I got it.
Except for one. I interviewed at Seventeen, and I could tell from the second I locked eyes with my interviewer-to-be that I wasn’t going to get it. I didn’t have the right look. I desperately wanted to turn around and walk out, but they kind of frown upon that in life in general, so I sucked it up, sat down with her, and warmed myself up with her radiating waves of repulsion.
The thing is, though, she asked what turned out to be one of my favorite questions of any interview I’ve ever had. And it wasn’t because it was a clever question – actually, it was just, “Why do you want to work at Seventeen?” And when she asked it, I kind of panicked, because the truth was, I didn’t. I wanted to work at Maxim. (Which is where I ended up.) But then I opened my mouth, and what came out was so true it made my heart ache into actually wanting this job for point-five seconds.
I wanted to work at Seventeen because it catered to that awesome age when you were actually seeing and learning this stuff for the first time. It isn’t like the way I shuffle through Glamour now, looking for which lipstick is the perfect shade of hot purple. It’s potentially teaching someone how to take lipstick on its maiden voyage, and that, to me, is an incredibly awesome thing.
Sound familiar? That’s right – it’s kiiiiinda like writing kidlit, isn’t it? Such potential to be someone’s first – first sci-fi, or first book set in a boarding school, or the book in which they first see a character of color, or a bajillion other things. The point is, when you write for kids, being their first exposure to something is a very real possibility. It’s power.
And you know what they say about what comes with great power.
A few weeks ago, I attended Teen Author Carnival at the New York Public Library, and sat in on a panel called “Reality Bites,” featuring authors of contemporary kidlit such as Elizabeth Scott, Leila Sales, and David Levithan. Eventually, questions were opened up to the audience, and someone stood up and asked something I imagine made a whole lot of people groan inwardly, just as I did – the inevitable question of whether or not authors have a moral responsibility when writing for children.
Oh noes, the sex! The swearing! The drinking! All that stuff no one’s ever heard of until they graduate high school, because that’s how life is!
As you can imagine, particularly with the names I mentioned, the answer was a pretty across the board, “I write real life, and real life includes these things. I don’t censor myself.” And I nodded, because if you’ve ever read anything of mine, you’ll know that drinking, sex, swearing, and other things that actually happen in high school are all over the damn place.
But then little interesting bits came out. Little lines authors had decided for themselves they would not cross. Not “I won’t use the F word,” but “I always make sure that if my characters have sex, birth control is mentioned” and “I refuse to have any consequence-free drunk driving.”
And I nodded then too, because I have the same personal rule about writing sex, and I had literally just changed a scene in a manuscript because I didn’t want to feature consequence-free drunk driving. And I thought of all the other ways I “censor” myself, even though they might be real life. I won’t use homophobic or racial slurs, not because they don’t happen, but because I don’t want to contribute to their persisting in the lexicon. I don’t write girls who obsess about their weight, even though most girls I know (myself included) did in high school, because I don’t want it to be a part of the Teen Girl Daily Routine.
I recently wrote a book which featured the morning after pill, something I hadn’t come across in any other YA. And I thought, “Oh, hey, maybe that’s for a reason, and I shouldn’t do that. Maybe.” I really did toy with the idea of taking it out. But you know what’s a much more persuasive thought than, “Hey, this might upset people I completely disagree with who think the morning after bill is tantamount to killing a baby?” This might be how someone learns the morning after pill exists.
Left it, obviously.
So, my answer to the question is that yes, I do feel moral responsibilities as a kidlit author. I feel a responsibility to use my books to get information out there without moralizing. I feel a responsibility to try to tweak the world just a little bit in ways I’d love to see it change. I feel a responsibility to believe we have the power to do that, even if it sounds incredibly self aggrandizing.
To pretend I never had a beer in high school? Not so much.