Thursday, 19 May 2011

Taboos by Savita Kalhan

The list of formerly taboo subjects for writers of teen fiction has become shorter and shorter. Now we can write about sex, oral sex, teen pregnancy, sexuality, drugs and suicide. There are lots of teen books that deal with those issues.
There are no subjects that are taboo any more, you might conclude, not even incest.            
But go into any book shop and you will still be hard pressed to find teen books that deal with the kinds of crimes that are committed by adults on teens and younger kids, particularly abuse, whether it is physical, psychological or sexual abuse. And you won’t find a crime section in the kids’ department, although you will now find a teen section, so that’s a huge leap for all you teens out there. But within the teen section, books dealing with abduction and abuse will be few and far between. They are not considered suitable subject matters for kids to read about, and so have traditionally been taboo subjects. Even now, publishers tend not to want to take a chance on a book that might be deemed too ‘risky’.
But we all know these crimes happen. We read about them in the papers, hear about them on the news. They happen to young kids, older kids, teenagers and young adults. The point is they happen, but rarely figure in books for kids or teens.
I was lucky with my book, The Long Weekend. Despite the fact that it explores a taboo in teen/YA lit, it somehow slipped through the net, and it’s on the bookshelves of book shops and libraries. It’s about two boys who are abducted after school on a Friday afternoon by a paedophile, and yes it’s suitable for anyone over the age of 12.
As a writer I think it depends on how such taboo subjects are approached, how sensitively the subject matter is dealt with, and what kind of story it ends up being. The Long Weekend is at heart a gripping thriller that most teens just don’t want to put down once they’ve started it. It appeals to young adults – and even older adults, too.
I think it’s important to break through walls and go where others have not gone before as long as the writer knows what they’re doing – and remembers the age of their readership. There is still so much scope for breaking traditional taboos in teen lit.
Have you read a book recently that has been devastatingly good and that has explored a subject you have rarely seen on the shelves before?
For a chance to win a copy of The Long Weekend, check out the competition box at the top of the page 


  1. I was speaking to a group recently and the question was asked (by an adult) if there were any taboos in writing for teenagers.
    The teens in the audience were the ones who answered it by saying they didn't think there was anything that should be taboo, because they want to know.
    But I do think the proviso is the way the subjects are handled.

    Writers for YA and teens do need to be aware of the audience they are writing for and deal with sensitive subjects with care for their readers.
    As you say there is a lot in newspapers and television about crimes that involve young people so it is almost more important to raise any questions about these crimes in the context of fiction - where you can experience what might happen through a storyline but from the safety of a book.

  2. I was asked about writin on torture in a book for kids, by a teen interviewer. I said that I couldn't see why this subject could not be covered, particularly in the context of my book, Hidden and he agreed. You are right Savita, it is all about how we handle these sensitive subjects and teens today are alert to and want information on things that we probably hadn't even heard of. Great post as usual!

  3. Thank you for your comments, Linda and Miriam. I agree it's very important to raise 'taboo-type' subjects in teen lit, and almost every author for teens that I know is aware that these subjects do need to be explored in a sensitive way and with complete regard for the age group they are writing for.
    With my book, The Long Weekend, adults have commented that it has brought an issue to light that they might not otherwise have really discussed with their children bar the obvious of warning them never to get into a stranger's car.
    My teen readers have commented that the book was a far better warning than any talk in school assembly about stranger-danger.