Coe Booth: How Real is Too Real?

Coe Booth. “Being a YA author doesn’t mean holding back”.

We all know that when the “Rated R” symbol shows up before a movie preview, it means that the film has crossed some kind of line, either with violence, nudity, or strong language. But for creative artists, defining that line—and knowing when it’s okay to cross it—is much more complicated than you might think, especially with regard to a tough, serious story like the one in Coe Booth’s new novel, Bronxwood (which you can begin reading here on Figment for a limited time).

Bronxwood contains plenty of violent scenes, like the one in which Tyrell’s best friend is beaten within an inch of his life by drug dealers, or the one in which Tyrell confronts his father over the physical abuse of Tyrell’s mother. When she was writing those scenes, Coe had to decide how far she was going to push the envelope. How real would be too real for her teen readers? Read on to learn how she figured out the answer.

I get these questions a lot: “Do you ever worry that you’re going too far in your books? Are there lines you won’t cross?”

My answers, of course, are: “No” and “No.”

I mean, do authors of adult books ever get asked questions like these? Or is this something specific to YA? Do we have different obligations to our readers? Are we held to a different standard? And, if so, why?

When I write, I’m always aware that my readers are teenagers, but that awareness doesn’t change what I write or how I write it. If anything, it’s more of a reason to make sure everything is as honest as I can make it. That means some scenes have to be intense, uncomfortable to read, and maybe even controversial. When I have to write one of those scenes, I ask myself if it’s necessary to the story and the character development, or if it’s just there to be shocking. If it’s necessary, I try to write it the way it has to be written, as truthfully as possible. Being a YA author doesn’t mean I get to hold back. Oh, no. Teens will tell you when you’re not keeping it real!

The books I’ve written so far are all based on real situations that teens and families are going through, things I saw firsthand when I worked as a social worker in the Bronx. The family problems, chaotic living situations, the pressure—all of it—that was their lives.

So it’s always strange to me when some people think I’ve gone too far in my books. Are they saying this kind of reality is too much for teens to read about but not too much for them to actually experience?

Writing realistic fiction is an opportunity to reach readers where they are, to reflect what they might be going through right now. I write about kids who are not always represented in books, and I try to write about the everyday problems they have, things a lot of people can relate to.

Going too far? Crossing lines? No way! I have two obligations to my readers: I have to tell the truth and I have to write a good story.

And trust me, trying to fulfill those two obligations is hard enough!

Want to read more about Bronxwood and Coe Booth? Check out these blog posts!
Books in a New York State of Mind
Talking the Talk: Writing in Dialect
Coe Booth on being a Bronx Native and a Pen-and-Ink Geek.

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