First, a little bit of context. I have been a part of the Rosemont College Graduate Publishing Program since September 2013. I Started grad school right out of undergrad and I am so glad I did. It has been a wonderful program and has taught me so much about publishing and how to refine my skills as a publishing professional. This spring I will be completing my degree and will receive a Master's in Publishing. To say that I'm excited would be a bit of an understatement.
One of the biggest parts of graduating from the program includes writing and presenting a thesis on a topic that is relevant to the current publishing industry. Since last August, I have been working on completing my thesis, which serves to take a look at sexuality and sexual relationships in Young Adult Literature. To do this I have been reading all the YA books I can find that deal with themes of sex and sexuality. If you want to check out the books I have been reading for my research, check out my Goodreads page here.
I am almost done (the paper is due April 15!!) and I am super thrilled with how everything has been going so far.
Recently I was lucky enough to be able to conduct an interview with best-selling YA author Kody Keplinger. Kody has written multiple best-selling YA books and I read her book The DUFF for my research. It turned out to be perfect book for my thesis and the topics it discusses feature in
a significant portion of my paper. She was able to answer some questions about the sexual content in her books. What follows is a transcript of that interview. I wanted to share it here because there are some wonderful insights here in regards to YA literature and I was unable to include it in its entirety in my thesis.
Q. Bianca uses sex as a distraction from her personal life, something not often seen in YA literature. Was this a conscious choice you made, or did it come organically from her character development?
A. Bianca's relationship with sex came completely organically. Going into the first draft, I knew the story would deal with a complex relationship - and that sex would be a part of that - but I wasn't sure where it would go. It wasn't until I actually began drafting and the character began developing that I started to realize the nature of the sexual relationship and Bianca's reasons for her choices.
Q. What would you say is Bianca’s main motivation behind her physical relationship with Wesley?
A. Bianca's motivation behind her relationship with Wesley is a combination of attraction and desperation. She's dealing with some complicated issues in her home life, and she finds escape from her feelings in a physical relationship with Wesley. However, as things develop between the two, her attraction (and emotional connection to) Wesley also fuels their intimacy.
Q. Can you talk about the significance of having a main character who is not a virgin and also not in a relationship when she engages in sexual activity?
A. The decision behind Bianca not being a virgin at the start of the story actually came late in the drafting. Her previous sexual experiences had not crossed my mind until, in the first draft, I reached the beginning of her physical relationship with Wesley. At that point, I had to question Bianca's past and what history she was bringing into this. It dawned on me that it didn't feel natural for her to be a virgin. Her character and her attitude toward sleeping with Wesley made it clear to me that she has some experience in the past. At the time, it didn't cross my mind that this would have any significance. It wasn't until after publication that it was brought to my attention that, typically, YA heroines are virgins. As a teenager, that fact had never stood out to me. As an adult, however, I do think it's important to have characters with a variety of experiences with and attitudes towards sex. Because the fact is, not every seventeen-year-old girl is a virgin. And that's okay! Fiction can - and should - reflect that and not punish the characters with sexual histories.
Q. Bianca and Wesley use protection. Was the use of contraceptives in the novel important to you and what sort of message did you want your readers to take away from that?
A. It was never about sending a message, though the use of protection was important to me. I wanted to show that Bianca and Wesley were handling their physical relationship in a responsible way. This was, in many ways, a character choice.
Q. What, to you, is the importance of sexual themes in YA literature?
A. I think we're seeing a new phase of YA literature that is becoming much more open about sex and sexual themes, and I'm thrilled about this. In real life, many teenagers are dealing with sex and sexuality for the first time. Whether that's actually having sex or just confronting feelings about sex and sexuality and attraction and identity - it's a time when a lot of questions and concerns and realizations emerge. I think it's important that YA reflect that. I think it's good for teenagers to be able to see characters asking and thinking about the same things they are dealing with. So I love seeing how honest and open YA has become about sex over the past few years.
Q. Do you think there is a difference in how YA genres deal with sexual themes? Did this affect your writing of the sex scenes in any way?
A. I didn't think about genre at all while writing The DUFF - partly because I was a teenager and didn't actually think I'd be published. As for differences among genres, while I think realistic, contemporary YA probably discusses sex more often than other genres, there are many great, honest, beautifully handled YA books in other genres that also deal with sexual themes. I'm so happy about this, and I hope it continues.
Q. Did you always set out to write a YA book? Did this affect the way you dealt with the themes found in the book, particularly the sexual themes?
A. I knew I was writing YA because most of what I read were YA novels. However, I didn't think much about how the sexual themes were handled while drafting because, while i hoped to be published one day, I didn't foresee that happening nearly as soon as it did. So I wrote a story I wanted to read, more than anything, and I wrote about sex in the way that felt most natural to me. Luckily, I ended up with both an agent and an editor who were very supportive of the way I'd chosen to handle those themes.
Q. Were there any authors or books that inspired or influenced you?
A. I was heavily influenced by Judy Blume. Everything she wrote was so honest, even when that honesty wasn't easy. She did things I still can't believe she got away with. She's my hero even still. I strive to be as raw and unflinching as her stories were.
Q. What do you hope that YA audiences take away from reading The Duff?
A. To me, one of the central themes of the book is the way we judge each other, and how hurtful and unproductive that is. I hope readers are able to look at Bianca's story and think about the judgments they've made about others (whether about sex, appearance, or anything else) and examine those attitudes in a new light. Even more so, I hope they begin to think about the judgments they've placed on themselves and feel a little less alone.