Author Guest Post

Behind the Book: Tricks and the Value of “Difficult” YA

January 12, 2017
Ellen Hopkins
Author of The You I've Never Known

Tricks is a difficult read, both in terms of subject matter and actual content. The book is about domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST), and while that might seem miles removed from anything you might ever experience, according to the National Human Trafficking and Smuggling Center, every day in the United States, between 150,000 and 300,000 children under eighteen are trafficked. The average age of a child introduced to DMST is twelve.

Like the five characters in Tricks, these young people come from all parts of the country, and all walks of life. That girl, whose boyfriend hooked her on heroin, and pimps her out to pay their bills? That could be your boss’s daughter. That gay kid, forced onto the streets, who tricks to buy a hot meal? Might be your pastor’s son. Sometimes these kids are coerced, sometimes they think it’s their only choice. Almost always it becomes a matter of survival.

It was impossible to write about DMST without referencing sex. Prostitution involves sex. And while some readers (or their gatekeepers) might consider the topic inappropriate for a young adult audience, I considered it a vital conversation because every teen could be at risk if presented with certain situations. Knowing what’s at stake is the best way to arm them against making a decision that could negatively impact their lives forever.

The conversation about appropriate YA content isn’t new. It’s ongoing, and at this particular moment in history, with diminishing respect in some circles for the guarantees our Constitution provides, those of us who support the right to read will have to remain steadfast in our advocacy. The value of the first amendment cannot be overstated. Journalists, nonfiction writers and yes, even those of us who write fiction, must be allowed to represent the truth without fear of censorship.

Yes, some YA lit includes references to sex or drug use or abuse. And that is because those things are threads in the teen weave. But YA authors do write with our audience in mind, and when we choose to include LGBT characters or characters of color it’s because the world is a diverse landscape, and every potential reader deserves to see him or herself on the page.

When I was a teen, “young adult” meant middle grade. There was no teen fiction. So I, an avid reader, devoured whatever I could get my hands on. I read Jean Auel. (Oh, those Clan of the Cave Bear rutting scenes!) I read Jacqueline Suzanne, Jackie Collins, Colleen McCullough (that priest in Thorn Birds!) and Erica Jong. I read Stephen King, Ken Kesey, Dean Koontz, Mario Puzo (Sonny and Lucy against the door!), and even managed to find a copy of Story of O. Often, these books equated sex with “getting off.” They didn’t make me want to run right out and get off. But neither did they define “healthy sex” for me.

Young people have sex, and always have. Why not show them what healthy sex is, or isn’t? Rather than focus on sex as titillation, YA books tend to portray it as an outpouring of love—good, bad or confused. They show the outcomes of sex given too cheaply or taken by force. Teens make choices every day. It is imperative they understand that every choice has a consequence. Mistakes can be forgiven, but some consequences can’t be taken back—a pregnancy, an addiction, a drunk driving accident that kills someone. Knowledge is power—the power to see consequences before a choice is made.

It is shortsighted to assume a teen who reads about cutting will choose to self-harm. Kids cut to deal with the immense pressure in their lives—the pressure to succeed at school, at sports, to live up to others’ expectations, or perhaps have no expectations at all because no one really cares. Ditto reading about drugs. Young people use to cope; to fit in. Hey, to have fun. But if they can become a character in a book, use and lose control, right along with that character, they understand better what’s at stake.

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“YA books do not make the world a darker place. They bring light and hope to an already shadowed landscape.”

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YA books do not make the world a darker place. They bring light and hope to an already shadowed landscape. Parents have every right to encourage their kids to read the kinds of books they’d prefer. But I submit that they also have a duty to arm their children with knowledge; to empower them to make better choices. And they should respect their teens enough to let them read the books they’re hungry for, whether that’s vampires or wimpy kids or teen prostitutes. Step up to the plate, parents. Read with your kids. Open the lines of communication and discuss your kids’ favored reading material with them. That’s parenting. Censorship is not.

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