I can't count the amount of times I've encountered a writer who asks, "I'm writing a young adult novel. Is it okay if I have guns/sex/swearing/drugs/underage drinking? I don't know if it's right/allowed/will get me rejected." There are a million ways to phrase this question, but in the end, it all comes down to:
"Is this too edgy for YA?"
When I was a teenager (At 19, I'd like to think I still count as a teenager, even though I'm a legal adult) the thing that would piss me off more than ANYTHING else in the world was to be treated like a child. Or that I was stupid. I hated when adults thought they had to "protect" me or "shelter" me. I hated that conversations would get censored around me. It was as though everyone around me thought that if I heard the word "fuck" I would die right then and there.
It made me feel like I was stupid. Like they were belittling me just because I was between the ages of 13 and 18.
And I still feel that anger whenever I hear a variation of the question: "Is this too edgy for YA?"
I'm only going to say this once, so listen up and listen good:
NOTHING IS TOO EDGY FOR YOUNG ADULT.
Want to know what teenagers are doing? They're fucking. They're testing out drugs. They're drinking. They're swearing. They've handled weapons at SOME POINT, and most of them LOVED IT. Even those goody-goody kids that you know and love in your life, that you think, "They can't possibly be doing it." Well, news flash, they are. And if they haven't yet, they're talking about it, and they know someone who's done it.
An editor or agent will NEVER turn you down because you have a swear word, or a character using a gun, or even a love interest who is a hardcore heroin user. If you have to ask if these subjects are going to get your book rejected, YOU ARE NOT READY TO QUERY YOUR NOVEL. Think I'm kidding? I'm not. If you think that any of these topics are taboo, you have to stop whatever point you're at in publishing, and go read more YA books, go read more agent blogs, read, read, read. Because you have clearly not read enough young adult to be able to publish a book in it.
When you ask yourself, "Is this too edgy for young adults?" you're actually asking, "Are my readers smart enough to understand why I'm doing this?"
Nothing makes me angrier than people who assume teenagers are stupid. Or aren't mature enough. Or can't handle it. They aren't. They are. And they can.
"But Katie," I can hear you saying. "I'm not worried about the kids, but the parents. What if they won't buy my book for their kid because they don't like the content?"
Then, again, I have to say: You're missing the point, and: quit writing and start reading.
We aren't writing for parents. We aren't writing to impress school boards. We're not writing to be bought. We are writing FOR TEENAGERS. If their parents won't buy it for them, you know what they'll do? 9/10, if they want it bad enough, they'll buy it themselves. Or they'll read it at a library. Or they'll find it, somehow, because they are not babies, and they don't need to be protected.
The ONLY question you should be asking yourself regarding edgier content is: Is this what the story needs?
Is your character a pot head? Then he's a pot head. Are you making him a pot head just to be edgy? Then you're ruining your story.
Editors/agents won't reject you because you wrote about a sex addict. They will, however, reject you if you shoved that sex addict part in just to try and stir up controversy.
So write what's right for the story. If that involves writing a clean romance (hate that term) then do it. If it involves gun toting, pot smoking teens, then do it. Do what works for the story, and don't censor yourself, assuming that your readers are brain dead morons. We didn't become writers to all write PC, Disney rip-offs where everyone has a happy ending. We tell stories, good or bad, tragic or beautiful, fucked up and insane. We write to reflect life, in all its gritty, ugly glory, and things like sex, drugs and rock and roll are part of life.
Stop asking "Is this too edgy for YA?" and start asking "Is this right for the story I'm writing?"