Friday, 30 November 2012

How Far Can You Go in Young Adult Fiction? by guest author Anne Cassidy

Another treat for you this week, as we welcome award-winning author, Anne Cassidy, as our guest at The Edge.

I’ve been writing young adult fiction for over twenty years. My first book was about a violent murder and it involved teen pregnancy/sex/pornography/love. It was called Big Girls’ Shoes (a line that was triggered by an Elvis Costello song, Big Sister’s Clothes). It didn’t sell many copies but it did lay down a kind of template for the books I was going to write.

Since then I’ve written about thirty young adult fiction novels. I’m best known for Looking For JJ, a story about a ten year old girl who killed her friend and was sent to a secure unit. She is released when she is seventeen and the story is about how her life is shaped by what she did when she was ten. This book has violence/pornography/love and lots of other things.

The question of how far you can go is, for me, a matter of taste rather than censorship. My books deal with dark things, adult things and I make no apology for writing them for a teenage audience. When I was a teenager I was desperate to get my hands on adult novels (the more risqué the better) to find out what was really going on in the adult world. I hated the way I was excluded from things in that world. I was expected to be grown up and sensible at school but when it came to knowing what was going on, about life as it was lived, then I was kept in the dark because of my age.

So I would cover just about any dark subject for a young adult audience. The way in which I would cover it would reflect the kind of books I like to read. For example I’ve read a range of serial killer/torture chamber/gore books and frankly I find them laughable. So if I’m writing about a murderer who kills young girls I will have a lot of the violence off camera so to speak. Not because I’m worried that librarians won’t buy my books but because I think it’s better to leave some stuff to the imagination. How scary the film Alien was for NOT seeing the creature. Also The Blair Witch Project. It’s the old saying LESS IS MORE and this works so perfectly for young adult fiction.

The same goes for sex. I like to have sex in my books. My memories of being a teen involved thinking about sex an awful lot (although not doing very much). So any account of teenage life has to have sex in it. However I don’t want readers cringing at sex scenes so I leave a lot of it unstated. I hint, I imply. The unclasping of a belt or the unbuttoning of a shirt might be enough. I think we all know what will happen next.

The main reason that I try to be honest in my storytelling is because I thinks young adults demand it in a way that no other group do. If you try to peddle some made up version of what teen life is like (or what some people wish it was like) you’ll get found out by your readers. They’re a sharp lot. It takes them a long time to pick up a book to read but only a second to put it down again.

Anne Cassidy’s new series THE MURDER NOTEBOOKS begins with Dead Time, which has been nominated for the 2013 Carnegie Medal
The second of the series Killing Rachel will be out in March 2013.

To find out more about Anne and her books visit

Finally, thanks to Anne for being this week's guest author at The Edge.


  1. A great post, Anne. You are right to point out that honesty is very important in writing for teenagers and young adults. They don't like to be talked down to, patronised, or over-protected, and they demand that in the fiction the read too.
    'Looking for Jj' pulled no punches, and I loved it, as I did 'Dead Time' too. The Murder Notebooks are set to be a great series and 'Killing Rachel' can't come out soon enough as far as I'm concerned!

  2. 'LOOKING FOR JJ' is one of my favourite YA books precisely because it deals with such dark and difficult subjects so skilfully. Savita Kalhan's THE LONG WEEKEND is another wonderful example of how less is more. I think you're so right - it's how these subjects are handled that makes the difference - graphic and gratuitous portrayals run the risk of being too risque, too disturbing - or, as you say, laughable! So long as the "edgy" content is conveyed sensitively, honestly, and in context, perhaps there's no such thing as a taboo topic?

  3. Yes, quite right about less is more and also about the power of violence NOT SEEN ...the Greeks knew all about that!

  4. I agree about less is more - the film Seven is a prime example - images from that film stayed with me to this day - mainly because you had to fill in the blanks with your imagination. So much scarier than films which show it all.

  5. Excellent post Anne and glad that you depict sex the way that I prefer to do also - I say that I have a Jane Austen approach to writing sex for young people - you don't have to spell it all out and yes, they still get it! Wonderful to have such an edgy author here on The Edge!

  6. Anne writes; 'The question of how far you can go is, for me, a matter of taste rather than censorship.'

    Unfortunately that is an entirely subjective measure, reflecting only the preferences of the adult writer and what they have noticed sells books. However, writing for youth also entails some measure of social responsibility. Early exposure to the most shocking crimes imaginable is not a healthy part of child development. These books are picked up by schools, form part of curriculums and children are exposed to their themes without the choice an adult has as to whether to read it or not.

    Honesty is not exclusively synonymous with macabre and violent subject material (or indeed any material). Violence sells though, as we have known since the Roman colosseum.