How to tackle difficult issues in Young Adult fiction

28th May 2014

Out of Control by Sarah Alderson
Human trafficking, sexual abuse, bullying… Where do you draw the line when writing young adult fiction? How far do you go in tackling these often quite graphic and heart-wrenching topics?

Why YA?

When I first started writing novels I steered clear of difficult topics, sticking instead to mind-control powers, government conspiracies and vampires, but by the time I was on my fourth book I had decided I wanted to use my voice to speak up on issues that matter to me, first and foremost female empowerment.

My characters had always been strong girls – the kind of girls who knew their own minds and didn’t need a boy to rescue them. But I didn’t just want girls to feel empowered by role models, I also wanted to give my teenage readers something to think about.

In my novel The Sound – a YA thriller – I tackle the issue of sexual abuse and the hideously termed ‘slut shaming’ – a practice whereby women are attacked for their seeming transgression of accepted norms of behaviour.

The teenagers I speak to are dealing with difficult issues every day. To pretend they need protecting from the realities of the world is condescending. The backlash

What I found hard to handle was how a couple of reviewers thought that because one of my characters engaged in the practice that I was therefore endorsing it. Which is a bit like reading The Silence of the Lambs and accusing the author of being pro eating human livers.

I wanted to yell; ‘For crying out loud, I’m not endorsing it, I’m highlighting how awful it is!’ but of course as an author you can’t say anything. You just have to bite your tongue and hope that most of your readers are a bit more intelligent and can differentiate a narrative voice from an authorial one.

The point of the book was to say ‘Look how terrible this is! This is wrong on so many levels. Why are we putting up with it?’ And indeed, the main character Ren, at enormous personal risk, doesn’t put up with it. She fights back. And she wins.

Which is all to say that when tackling a tough issue you are inevitably going to get backlash. Often, I think, it’s because people are triggered by the issue, and sometimes it’s just because haters are gonna hate.

What can you do?

My advice to writers would be to go with their gut and to not be afraid of making a statement or of tackling tough issues. You have a voice. If you’re lucky you have a platform from which to shout; use that responsibility wisely and well.

With all my books I do a lot of research; talking to teens, finding out what language they use, what things are worrying them, what they get up to that their parents know nothing about.

The teenagers I speak to are dealing with difficult issues every day. To pretend they need protecting from the realities of the world is condescending. Not only do they have their own complex, often challenging lives, but they also have the internet! There’s not much your average 15 year old hasn’t seen online if not witnessed first hand.

How I used YA to shine a light on human trafficing

With my latest novel Out of Control I wanted to focus on human trafficking but my agent advised me not to as books on hard hitting topics like that are a very tough sell.

I also felt that I didn’t have the knowledge or the authority to write on the topic. I spoke to someone who worked for the UN who did have experience and knowledge and she encouraged me to write the book anyway.

Instead of making it a story about a victim of trafficking, which I knew I couldn’t do justice to, I made the lead character the daughter of a man who runs a government task force tackling trafficking.

I hope that what I’ve managed to do is write a compelling, page-turner of a book that also opens up a dialogue among readers about an issue that’s incredibly important (human trafficking is the third biggest criminal industry today with an estimated 60-80 million people enslaved, more than at any other time in history.)

Above all I hope that as an author I can help build empathy in a world that sorely needs it.


Do your research. Use online resources, ask experts, talk to people who might have experienced what you want to write about, especially teenagers!

Draw on your own experiences where appropriate.

Don’t write anything for the sake of being sensationalist. Make sure it’s an issue you personally feel passionate about.

There’s no need to ever be gratuitous when it comes to sex, violence or bad language, but neither should we assume teenagers need protecting from the realities of the world. Being honest about those realities is probably a better way of arming them against them.

Sarah Alderson started writing seriously in 2008, when she decided to give up her South London life and job in the not-for-profit sector to travel the world with her husband and young daughter in search of a new place to call home. Hunting Lila was her first novel in 2011, followed by Fated in 2012 and The Sound in 2013.

Her latest novel is Out of Control and is published by Simon & Schuster.