Sex in Y.A.

Dirty, Pretty Thing: Purple and Blue Language in Y.A.

I’m a sucker for purple prose. I’m not proud of it, but alliteration makes me swoon, as does a prettily described sunset or milkmaid. (Some favorite examples appear in Proust’s Swann’s Way, a five-hundred-page book about a cookie). But my love of flowery language is, I think, just another symptom of English Major-itis: the desire to write and read Great Works of Art as opposed to Stories. And though they’re often fun to write, beautiful descriptions are best avoided, *especially* in young adult literature. Teens read for plot, not for prose. My 13-year-old sister and other teens I’ve spoken to skip the “boring parts,” which are almost always the descriptions. Descriptions are the icing, and if you’ve ever eaten a jar of icing on its own, you know it only feels good at first.

On the other hand, teens love blue (profane or vulgar) language. (So do I.) It’s fun, funny, taboo, and often the way teenagers speak to one another. Raised by a mother who talks like a trucker, I have to check myself, when I speak and when I write, to ensure I don’t curse a…well, a blue streak. But fiction, and especially dialog, must be believable, which ironically is not always the same thing as true-to-life. At times “realistic’ teen dialog is so vulgar as to be distracting. And that’s the real problem with extreme language of any kind: it steals focus. I don’t want my readers thinking about my protagonist’s foul mouth when they should be thinking about her broken heart.

Today I struggled to tamp both purple and blue. In the scene I was working on, my protagonist and her boyfriend slip into the bushes for some hanky-panky. My first impulse was to pan away and describe the slowly spinning wheel of boyfriend’s bike as it glints in the sun. Yawn. Turning focus back to the kids, I found myself using the same blue language the characters themselves would have used to describe their actions, but the result was too graphic. I settled for skipping the play-by-play entirely and used suggestive post-romp details instead. This was the result:

They made it as far as Sweet Creek before a private path through the trees enticed them off the road. They let the bike fall with a crunch, the upended front wheel spinning freely. Twenty minutes later Cherry was brushing a mud stain from her slacks, and Lucas searched for his sock in the bushes.

            “You have leaves in your hair,” he said.

            “I have leaves everywhere.” She felt like a wild woods girl, a sprite. She wanted to climb into the nearest oak and fall asleep. She stretched, felt an ache above her solar plexus and winced.