Sex, rape, swearing, alcohol, death, suicide, drugs...There's no way to deny that the YA section contains all these and other graphic subjects. We're definitely not in the Children's room anymore! To save time and words, I'm going to refer to these subjects as "content." Every book varies in amount and intensity of content. This depends on whether the author aimed for older teens or younger teens, graphic images or light-heartedness.
No one can dispute that YA books have "content," but neither can they name a meaningful book that is free of it. In fact, if books were rid of "content," then I'm convinced they would be quite boring. How would To Kill a Mockingbird be without the death of the negro field hand Tom Robinson? It would lose its meaning. Or Hamlet without murder? Or Huckleberry Finn without racism? Teens read these classics, too.
So having "content" is not the real issue. The real issues are "why" and "how much."
Let's start with the "why":
It's important to look at the content in context. Authors present many of the questionable elements in ways that cause readers to question and think. For example, the YA book Speak was once lampooned for sexual content. The complaints were wrong: a freshman girl was raped in the book. The story is about the girl's recovery. There was a good reason for the so-called "questionable content.
Another factor to consider? If a teen is a certain age, they'll have heard about these subjects already. In fact, they'll know a lot about it if they go to public school. Books are a controlled environment to learn from. Usually teen books deal with all these issues because real teens have to deal with them. Teens at school get invited to a party. Or they want relationship advice. Or a friend dies. These things happen. Books talk about these things. Is it any wonder they're appealing?
Moving on to the "how much":
This part is very subjective. My tastes tend towards less violent novels with minimal swearing. In fact, despite all the awards won by John Green's books, I can't drag myself through the haze of profanity, drugs and drinking.
Picking books is actually very similar to picking movies or music.Tips for Picking Books with Little Content:
1.) With names like "Gossip Girl," or the very--erm--revealing cover pictures, it's usually not too hard to avoid the books that don't suit your tastes. So, take the titles and covers into consideration.
2.) Often, if you open to the first page of a book and read it, it will tell you what you need to know about content. Once, I checked out a book about dragons. I settled down to read it and found the first page littered with profanity. I gave up on it pretty quickly.
3.) Certain authors are known for ramping up their "content" for "teen appeal." These are the kind I usually avoid. If one book had too much for your taste, read the synopsis and first page of one other. If it's similar, don't read his or her books anymore.
4.) Usually, I try to finish every book I start, even if I don't like it. I think this is important because the author makes their real point at the end. If, after finishing, I still hate it, I just don't read another by that author. This system has worked well for me.
5.) Another idea for parents is to read books with their teens. This opens up a door to talk about the hard stuff.
I hope this post eases some of your worries!
By GRPH3B18 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons