I've recently joined a group on Goodreads.com called Clean Reads. I've kept an eye on some of what members of the group have said in various threads, and while I'm willing to bet we'd disagree on several things, I do agree on one important relevant point. Far too much of what's marketed as YA these days just isn't appropriate for a twelve year old, which is the bottom of the age range for YA. For that matter, much of it isn't even appropriate for a sixteen year old.
I was aware of specific examples, like one recent series in which the "hero" is an expert assassin who happily muses on what a man would look like bleeding on the floor. (To be clear I might have been fine with the same scene if she were not the "hero" but a villain.) I was aware that much of the fault was simply with marketing. When I see something billed as "Game of Thrones for kids" I'm genuinely perplexed, because isn't the whole point of Martin's (brilliant but brutal) epic that it's "fantasy for grown ups"? I was not aware of exactly how bad the situation had gotten. I was just referred to this article in the Wall Street Journal. Yes, I know that Rupert Murdoch owns the paper now, but I do think the paper has enough credibility on this for us to listen, even if it may have a rightward bent. The point is that the very morbid, hyperviolent, sexualized content is now a large chunk of the YA market if not a majority.
To be honest, I didn't start out with a plan to target the "clean reads" market. At the time I didn't know there was such a thing or even know of the need for it. (Tara Maya pointed it out to me.) I simply assumed that authors would write age-appropriate material and that publishers and agents (where applicable) would police that material as part of their traditional role as gatekeepers. That was so intuitive it never even occurred to me to question it. I had no idea how wrong I was or how bad the situation had gotten.
If nothing else, why is the same content that would get an R rating if in a movie or an M rating if in a video game considered just fine for a twelve year old if it's in a book?
I can see how (and perhaps even why) a few other liberals might dismiss the people in the "clean reads" market (mostly middle-aged mothers in conservative churches from what I can tell) as merely "prudes" but I acknowledge them as "a huge chunk of my target audience". While I don't have children of my own, I sympathize with the plight of parents who just want some bit of decent entertainment for their kids. They wind up micromanaging their kids's exposure to mass media because most of it these days is frankly garbage. The market for something better is there, and where there is demand, there must also be supply. One of the good things about the age we live in is that these markets are easier to identify and therefore serve.
Another good thing is that as an independent author in this new era of self publishing, I don't have an agent or publisher telling me to "sex it up". I control the content.
I can't promise that everything I ever write will be "PG". In fact I have ideas for movies that would probably be R, though I might be able to tone them down enough. What I will do though is be clear about who my target audience for each work is and write something appropriate for that market. I can promise that I will never do anything gratuitously- that is just to shock, sell, or get the R rating. I will always have a reason for everything I write. I will write what is natural for the characters to do and say in the setting and situation they're in and what is appropriate for the audience.
I don't write graphic sex scenes and when I do write about sex I don't cheapen or glamorize it or portray it as somehow free of consequences. I often portray violence, but I try not to revel in it or glorify it. I do use profanity but I try to keep it reasonable and appropriate. In a fantasy world I can create the cultures, and I chose to make them such that most people aren't very foul-mouthed.
I think with a little care I can tell a story that still appeals even to less sensitive readers. At a basic level, a good story is a good story. People still like The Princess Bride, for example, and don't dismiss it as hokey or dated. While Violet Skies definitely has a "moral stance" as BC Woods would put it, I hope to get that across without preaching or browbeating readers.
We'll see how well I've done that, hopefully soon.