How much “steam” is too much in Young Adult Lit?

Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized | 35 comments

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately, and I’ve seen it crop up in quite a few places. Other authors have posed this question, and I’ve seen readers discussing it on various forums I visit, and I think it’s one worth considering.

I don’t think there’s one right answer. The field of “Young Adult” literature is vast, and tends to encompass literature written for ages somewhere between 12 and 20. One issue is that outside of the intended age group, Young Adult literature runs the gamut of genres — it can be fluffy paranormal romance, adventure stories, gritty, realistic memoir … each change in genre probably brings with it whole different parameters for the level of “steam” one might expect.

So, for the sake of simplicity in discussion, for today I’m really thinking about steam for the sake of steam, in lighter, romantic, fictional YA, whether realistic or some form of fantasy.

These kinds of romances have really steamrolled their way into the mainstream with books like Twilight, which definitely had some “steamy” scenes, although there were definitely lines that Stephenie Meyer strayed away from crossing.

I recently finished reading Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater, which is essentially the same genre as Twilight — YA Paranormal Romance, where a teenage girl falls in love with a werewolf, and while Ms. Stiefvater never went into descriptive detail of any “steamy” scenes, I was a little surprised by how far she took her characters, especially since it wasn’t actually essential to the plot. Looking at the reviews for this book on Amazon, there are reviewers who have concerns about this, and even parents who have mentioned to the reviewers that they appreciate the forewarning, especially parents of children at the younger end of the “YA” age range.

One thing worth noting is that these books are very much marketed toward the younger end of the age range. Now, Scholastic’s marketing practices in schools are a whole ‘nother eighty blog posts’ worth of discussion, but the fact is that books like Twilight and Shiver appear REGULARLY at book fairs and in book catalogs in ELEMENTARY schools.

Now, obviously, steam sells. It just does. Noting the success of books like Twilight, both publishers and authors have to be looking at the potential of a book that appeals to an age range from 12-99 (a more-than-fair amount of Twilight’s commercial success was a result of its appeal to the so-called “Twi-Moms”).

The question is — what kind of obligations do writers of Young Adult literature have in the messages they are sending to these youngest readers?  Sure, parents should be responsible for monitoring content and discussing the values of their own families with their children, but should there be some kind of expectation for what you WON’T find in literature marked “young adult?”

Television and movies have rating systems, so that consumers have some idea of what they’re getting into. Parents don’t have anything like that when it comes to books. In fact, parents are often deliberately misled by both publishers and authors in how the books are labeled and distributed — when something appears on the shelf at an elementary school book fair; most parents have no idea that it might contain that level of questionable content.

Anyway, before this post becomes a book in itself … I’d really like to hear your thoughts. How much is too much? What is appropriate in Young Adult literature? What are you, personally, looking for content-wise, when you pick up a book that is labeled YA?


  1. 5-7-2012

    Some time ago I read an interview with a fairly famous author (can’t remember her name now). She stated that she didn’t do explicit sex scenes because she wouldn’t write about what went on in her bedroom…and felt that even fictional characters deserved the same degree of privacy.

    From my own perspective, I’m proud to write G-rated novels….and I have no problem advertising that I do.

    When I was about twenty, I wrote a VERY steamy scene…and was quite proud of it. As I reread it, though, a thought went racing through my mind….if this gets published, my DAD will read it. I can’t remember if I wrote it with a pen or pencil, but I either scribbled it all out, or erased it (something ALL over the pages, top to bottom, side-to-side).

    As for my responsibility as an author when I start my YA series, I feel like I have TONS of responsibility. I get so angry at celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Brittney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, and other females that young girls look up to like goddesses. They dress too suggestively, their public behavior leaves much to be desired. And these young girls want to look like them, act like them…BE them to some degree.

    In my opinion, anyone with any sort of a voice, should look long and hard at the examples they want to set and be famous for. A steamy make out scene…of course. Authors have to be realistic or no one will read their work. But it’s all in the details. And the choices our characters make in the heat of the steamy scene.

    Maybe I’m a prude. Even though my father has been gone for almost nine years, I still ask myself, “Would I be humiliated if Dad read this?” That’s my yardstick. We can only write what we know….and I wouldn’t want my dad to know what I knew behind a closed bedroom door.

    • 5-7-2012

      I totally agree with you, Kristy. *My* dad, if he ever read my stuff, which he probably wont’, wouldn’t maybe be so offended, but personally I think — I’ve taught kindergarten and several other elementary school grades. Do I really want someone picking up a really steamy book and thinking “OMG — my KINDERGARTEN teacher wrote this!”?

      And I think I have a huge responsibility, too. Yes, it’s important to be realistic, and my books do have some “steamy-ish” make-out scenes (even more so now that I have characters who are moving toward a deeper relationship), but there’s a line, especially with young and impressionable minds. One has to be really careful about understanding what kind of message you’re sending, and to really think about those elements from a teenage perspective, and not one colored by our own adult experiences and maturing process. There’s a huge difference between acknowledging that something might be a typical behavior, and portraying it as an EXPECTED one. Not all teenagers ARE “doing it”, and some of the stuff I read lately starts to feel almost like peer pressure in itself.

  2. 5-7-2012

    Oops…I meant to add that the scene I scribbled or erased was also torn to TINY shreds and thrown away.

  3. 5-7-2012

    I prefer mine light on the steam and LIGHT on the mushy. :) I think its just because I am a adult who likes reading YA and don’t want ot read about a bunch of teens getting all steamy, makes me feel like a pedaphile…LOL :)

    • 5-7-2012

      Yeah… that’s another thing to think about. I don’t like reading it as an adult, either. I don’t mind teenagers kissing … but when there starts to be touching things that I prefer to picture covered, or pushing apart things that I prefer to picture together…. yeah, I’ll get mine from adult novels, not those young enough to have BEEN my kindergarten students. :)

  4. 5-7-2012

    LOL, Stormi!!! Breeana…will your Techie Tuesdays also include lessons on Pinterest? Someone suggested I do a storyboard for Enza but I don’t have the faintest idea where to start. :)

    • 5-7-2012

      Um… maybe someday when I’ve actually figured out enough about Pinterest, LOL. I’ve been thinking of trying the same thing … but yeah.

      I am thinking of trying a Pinterest contest … stay posted and I’ll share the process. :)

  5. 5-7-2012

    I love steamy YA. To me, sex in YA is the same as sex education for teens – just because we ignore it doesn’t mean it goes away. Teens in my book club don’t like it when authors ignore sex altogether, and personally, I do too. Sure, it’s uncomfortable for adults or parents to discuss with their kids, but it’s still happening whether we talk about it or not, or acknowledge it or not. :) Plus, as a writer, it’s one of those “hard to believe” things, like when two main characters “cuddle” in bed without once letting sex cross their minds.

    • 5-7-2012

      I don’t think it goes away if we ignore it, either. I also think, though, that there are a LOT of places for young adults to get steam (why not just pick up a copy of Fifty Shades — the characters are only a couple of years older), and I still think that there should be literature that reflects the fact that not all teens make the same choices when it comes to steam.

      I don’t think we should pretend it never comes up, but I do think there should be a level of literature where some of those things are NOT included, and parents who choose books (and teens who would prefer to read books that reflect their own values) would have some way of knowing what they’re getting into when they buy a book.

      • 5-7-2012

        Hm, I personally don’t agree with parents deciding what books teens should and shouldn’t read. It sounds like censorship to me, and being around teens all day, it can be sad to see teens not being allowed to read wonderful, amazing books because said books aren’t in line with their family’s values. (For example, a lot of teens I know can’t read Harry Potter because their parents think it’s satanic.) If the teen has adopted these values for themselves, and would not feel comfortable reading about sex or “satanic” themes, then that’s another thing – but why stop a child from experiencing different, amazing worlds just because their family doesn’t agree with it? Let them experience the book and decide for themselves if it’s not something they’re comfortable with.

        Kristy: 11-12 is more MG than YA, and I’m more familiar with sex in YA than MG – but I’m sure there are preteens who’re curious about sex too. I think there are some who’re thinking about it whether or not they’re reading about it. There might be “edgy” MG books that deal with sex. To me, it’s not about peer pressure. It’s just about offering real-life experiences. Keeping sex out of MG/YA literature gives off the vibe that sex is an unnatural thing, something to be whispered about and ignored because it’s somehow embarrassing and wrong. Sex is real. It happens. There isn’t anything wrong with it.

        And that’s why I’m all for sex in books and sex education for teens and young adults. :) Yay for generations that aren’t afraid of sex.

    • 5-7-2012

      The thing is, with YA, is that 11 and 12 year old kids are reading this…they do NOT need graphic sex. They’re too young to be thinking about it, much less getting that kind of eyeful.

      And I have to disagree with the ‘it’s still happening’ argument. No offense but, just because it’s happening, doesn’t mean it SHOULD be happening. Decisions are being made at younger ages all the time…largely because of what kids read, watch and listen to.

      It’s all a form of peer pressure. Everybody is doing it, therefore I should be, too. That’s never a good reason.

      • 5-7-2012

        I commented to you above.

        Aaaaaand I’m gonna stop myself from replying/reading anymore comments. I’m sure you guys have great points! But I always feel like I could be writing or reading a novel when I get into debates on the Internet. x_x

  6. 5-7-2012

    Well, if you do read any more, I just want to say thanks for stopping by and commenting. :)

    I do agree with you that I don’t think parents should be completely controlling what their teenagers read (younger kids, yes — teens, no), BUT that there is a difference when it’s the parent doing the purchasing vs. something the teen bought/borrowed for themselves.

    It would probably help if there was a book rating system, similar to what there is in films and video games, and also if publishers/authors wouldn’t MARKET their books to the younger age groups, which is what is currently happening.

    Right now, though, even when a teenager HAS adopted those values for themselves (and, despite the hype there are plenty of them out there), there is nothing letting them really know what they’re getting themselves into. For example, while there’s nothing over-the-top in Shiver, there are about four or five pages where, except for those, I would have considered the book appropriate for an eleven-year-old, and the book is being sold AT SCHOOLS to those age groups.

  7. 5-7-2012

    As an adult I read a lot of YA and often it is because of the action and the story are appealing to me. I am not a prude by any means, but I really feel the smexy belongs in the noted adult reads where it is appreciated with a more mature understanding. It is disturbing to me that so many of our lovely young people feel they have to appear oversexed. Yes the hormones are going wild, yes they are curious and growing up, but with all the general media forcing the issue everywhere we turn, I feel there needs to be a haven of enjoyment without this pressure and books are a perfect forum. Kisses and hugs and holding hands is sweet and somewhere along the line it has been made to be viewed as babyish. So not so! Give me a good story and maybe we can have at least a little corner for our young to be allowed to be young with all the wonder and joys without the pressure to be a grownup too soon :) That is not to say that I do not think important social issues should not be addressed in a good YA novel, but it is not necessary for the read to be enjoyed by young adults and adults alike for it to be too close to that line :) Thanks for letting me rant LOL

    • 5-7-2012

      Thanks for coming and ranting! :) And I agree that books really are the place that should be that haven. There isn’t some problem where there’s nowhere for teens to find smexy stuff. It’s on every single television program out there. Not to mention … if a teenager can read YA, they are perfectly capable of reading adult stuff if that’s what they’re really looking for. I think there should be a genre or two that’s “safe.”

  8. 5-7-2012

    A rating system for books geared toward young people is an interesting and appealing idea, but I’m doubting that it would ever actually come to fruition. I don’t think publishers would ever really get on board.

    It is disturbing to me to think that steamy books are being marketed to 4th and 5th graders in their schools. Just another reason to pay attention and be involved as a parent…

    It does bother me that the YA genre seems to be more and more “soft core” romance novels as authors try to copy the success of the Twilight series…it is almost redefining the genre. There is a lot of adult fiction that doesn’t have steamy scenes or sex and is still a great read. I hope that YA can preserve good stories that stand on their own without always resulting in sex to sell.

    • 5-7-2012

      Yeah, I’m sure it never will actually come to fruition. Mostly parents are going to have to still be aware of what books are out there, and what the values of the authors are, and they’re going to have to teach their teenagers to be discerning for themselves.

      For as much as some people will argue that wanton sex is “normal” and should sell, I think it’s interesting to note that in the two YA series that have enjoyed the largest success as of late, the actual sex is kept to a minimum. Twilight got steamy, but there was no actual intimacy between the characters until after they were married. And in the Hunger Games, sex was never mentioned at all, even though the characters DID sleep in a bed together.

  9. 5-7-2012

    Actually The Morganville Vampires is a pretty popular series. The lead characters do have sex, but there are zero sex scenes. Some do get steamy, but when I think of it as YA, it bothers me. The books would still be great without it.

    I think a little steam, and a little hinting is more than enough. Not only for YA, but regular romance as well. I’m sorry but some of the scenes I read are not really any different than watching porn. I don’t need that much detail.

  10. 5-7-2012

    Clarifying here…not much different than what I imagine watching porn would be. Sorry, don’t get into that either, lol.

  11. 5-7-2012

    LOL… yeah, I don’t watch or read porn either … except when books get unexpectedly a little steamy.

    Aren’t the Morganville Vampires more college-aged, though? I know it’s still “Young” Adult — but the characters are at least over the age of consent, yes?

    • 5-7-2012

      Three of the MC’s are still teenagers, but 18 or older. However, Claire 16 when the series begins. But I’m thinking she doesn’t start sleeping with Shane until she’s pretty close to 18. At least they’ve been together for quite awhile. Not that they needed to go there at all, but it did take several books before they did.

      I’ll be reminded of more details before too much longer. The final installment was released last week. I just have to make a trip to the nearest Barnes & Noble to pick it up. :)

  12. 5-8-2012

    Breeanna, I have actually been fighting this situation myself. I have a story that if you only read into the basic layers (because it follows some basic conspiracy theory about a place called China Lake) is sounds like a horrible pedo story. But those layer have to be in place for what happens to the main character in about the sixth book.

    The Maraude Series was never intended for the YA crowd and even though many of the core characters are YA or even MG, I’m having a hard time as to how much detail I should give to some of these “Rituals”

    I’m not a strumpet. Not by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m trying to give some insight into the lives of children caught in a child soldier/white slavery perspective. And it covers a “Blood Sport” type system of entertainment for the upper societies to bet on. There are an elite guard made up of children, and many other things.

    I can hear many of the people reading this asking, “Why write something like that?” or “Kids don’t act like that.”

    It is a story that had been in my head for over 30 years. And the research I’ve done on the subject says that, yes children could be coerced to act like this, just as they can be taught many of the wrong things to do. Think about the things they do to be accepted into gangs? And that’s peer pressure. Imagine the effects of long term sleep and food deprivation.

    It seems harsh, but things like this happen every day in the underbelly of our societies and we over look them. My series of books will be dedicated to the generations of children who died because of the slave trade or fighting in the Congo or the Golden Triangle.

    But, again, I am perplexed as to just how much detail to give this torture that they have to endure. It isn’t that I give these details in large chunks. Mostly in backstory-like paragraphs by the characters as they relate the story to the MCs.

    Anyway it’s long and detailed about the way the system goes about tearing down these kids for use, and I don’t want to get into it too much here, and technically it’s not steam, it’s more that the reader is supposed to start wondering “does this really happen?” And that’s my point, to help people start reading between the lines to see how much of an epidemic we really have on our hands.

    • 5-8-2012

      Thanks for stopping by, James! :)

      I completely get where you’re coming from. I do think it’s very different, because even though your characters are children, your book is marketed toward adults. You’re also, it sounds like, explicitly implying that the things these children had to undergo are WRONG, which is the opposite message of steamy YA, which sort of implies that the steam is normal and expected behavior, and that if the teen reading it ISN’T engaging in similar behavior, maybe they’re not normal.

      As far as detail — that’s a tough one. You want readers to understand the level of depravity, but not disengage them. All I can say is that for me, personally, a little imagination goes a long way. I could read a story about things like that happening as long as it didn’t leave me feeling hopeless, and as long as I didn’t have to walk through every detail of what happened.

  13. 5-8-2012

    I understand where all of you are coming from and can agree on all sides. I am a small elementary school librarian whose 3rd grade student’s parents are too busy or dissociated from their everyday decisions because of the pressures they are under to put food on the table and a roof over their heads that they don’t pay attention to ratings and don’t read the reviews so their kids get to read/watch the Twilight series at 8 or 9 years old because “it’s just a kid’s book, isn’t it?” I know this is a problem of the parents not doing their job, but because of that, I try to watch what I put in “my” library. Some may call that censureship but someone needs to allow these kids to remain kids as long as they can.
    I do believe YA books can include some steamy scenes but they should be marketed to the appropriate audiences, to the appropriate age groups and I don’t think that is being done well at this point.

    • 5-8-2012

      I’m totally with you, Robin. I am okay with books that have older teenage characters and steamy scenes, but I REALLY think they should be marked and marketed differently — and I’m really not sure why they’re not. I have a feeling it wouldn’t hurt sales, given the number of people looking for them. Although, I guess they would be losing the third graders.

      I’ve seen it, though. Eleven years in an elementary school, and the fact is that younger kids WANT to read about older kids. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because my books are YA, and yet, I want them to be safe for third graders, even if that’s not exactly the target audience. I don’t think safe and uninteresting have to be synonyms.

      • 5-8-2012

        When you look at writers throughout history, they became famous because they had talent….even though they did NOT write steam and sex. Talented writers don’t need to add that stuff in order to have a good and interesting book.

        It’s like another author told me about the extreme cussing in too many books. The authors who write like that don’t have the talent to come up with real ways of expressing themselves.

        Don’t get me wrong, I do my fair share of cussing sometimes…but I try not to. I might use mild cussing (very sparingly) in a book or two, just for the sake of realism, but I’m like you. I don’t want to have to worry about anyone picking up one of my books and reading something inappropriate.

  14. 5-15-2012

    Wow! What a great topic. I see I missed all kinds of discussion getting tossed back and forth. This is one that has interested and concerned me for some time. Not because I am looking to add a bunch of sex in my books, but because I believe every story should be realistic. If it belongs there do you add it or not?

    I sat in a panel last year where a group of authors discussed this topic. Their take was that teens are going to search it out so it’s best to include it if your story calls for it, but to write it appropriate to their age group. That way they aren’t reading the same steamy sex scene they’d get in an adult book. I’ve read several that are very watered down since then. I don’t see my YA books going there but I do like knowing how others stand on the subject.

    Like Kristy, I may put in a light cuss word once and a while for realism and come up with creative choices for the others. I think approaching sex in the same manner might be the ticket. Never throw something in there for the shock value though. Only if it is necessary for the overall storyline in some way.

    As for YA books, it would be nice if there was a breakdown within. Like upper YA for those over the age of 16 or even 18. Something like that. That might help with some of these issues.

    • 5-15-2012

      Hi Debra! I’m so excited to see that you dropped by!

      It is a complicated topic, isn’t it? There are so many layers to it. And sometimes, I’m sure it really is necessary to the story. Other times, it seems like there’s an agenda to it — either to add spice, or draw teens in, or to make a statement about the author’s own beliefs about how open sex should be among teenagers.

      It’s a very real topic, and one that teenagers face every day. And I think that being realistic can go either way. It’s certainly real that many teenagers are in sexual relationships. It’s also true that some teenagers choose not to, and I think it’s important to represent those ones as well. Books shouldn’t be one more place where they’re ALWAYS receiving a message that they’re not normal if they’ve chosen to wait.

      Personally? I thought it was handled pretty appropriately in the Twilight series (for older teens, though — it still bothers me to see those books marketed in elementary schools), and yet in Shiver, which is much less “steamy” it kind of rubbed me the wrong way, because it felt like it was something that was just thrown in there.

  15. 5-16-2012

    Hey! I just found your book and this discussion from your author page on goodreads. Wow, this is really an good topic for discussion.

    I’m a teenager so I can be very cautious about what I read. I don’t want to read a lot of steamy of over-the-edge sexual scenes. I’m not there yet and I don’t think that it’s presenting good images to the reading. I know that for me I think about what I read and sometimes it’s too steamy and not appropriate so I don’t want to read it. I do really like a good romance and some light steam and heat is good. But NOT going to far. So generally I”ll check out reviews and content rating sites to see what I could read without worrying to much. That’s my thoughts.

    • 5-16-2012

      Hi Hannah!

      I’m so glad you found my page. It’s awesome to have an actual teenager contribute to the discussion. I know I felt the same way when I was a teenager, and most of the ones I know in real life seem to be in that same place, but it’s good to hear your thoughts on it!

      And your blog is beautiful, by the way. I’m going to have to spend some time there! :)

      • 5-16-2012

        Ditto. Well Thank you! Hope you enjoy! Your book looks really great btw- I’ll have to scrounge up a copy!

        • 5-16-2012

          Thanks. If you get this comment soon enough, my first book is free on Kindle today. :)

  16. 9-5-2012

    I found this discussion very interesting. I am an adult with three children, the oldest being eleven. I love reading clean fiction and am constantly keeping my eyes open for books I can share with my daughter. I usually stick to inspirational fiction because I am guaranteed a clean read. However, I have discovered a love for fantasy (particularly medieval) and it is hard to find that in Christian fiction.

    Your books fit the bill for me. I loved the story and the character depth. I LOVED that it was clean. I am in agreement completely. Let our children be children for as long as possible. Sex is a natural curiosity, yes, but it is private. I do not want the sex education my children receive to be a self-indulgent, crass, casual activity. They need to know about it, yes. But not the heated passion presented in most novels. I would like for them to learn the importance of love and tenderness and friendship from the books they read with the understanding that sex comes later.

    I think the majority of steamy scenes are NOT overly realistic. When I stumble across them I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes and feeling uncomfortable. That is not the impression I want my children to have of sex. I much prefer the sweet holding of hands, the nervousness and surprise of a first kiss. The falling in love. To me, THOSE are the things our young ones should be excited about reading.

    Thanks for your books, I can’t wait to share them with my preteen.

    • 9-5-2012

      What a compliment! Thank you so much. Sometimes, I take a look at what’s out there, and I wonder if I’m really going in the right direction, but then I get a message from someone like you, and it reaffirms my decisions. I want to write books that show readers (younger, yes, but all of them) that sometimes, “taking it to the next level” has a much deeper and richer meaning than a few steamy moments.


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