Hello, all! Let’s talk about YA. Why? Well, a lot of my neighbors/friends/relatives have noticed I’m now working in the publishing industry, which has also generated questions about my writing, and it’s become apparent to a lot of them that I read and write YA in addition to adult. Some of them think it’s awesome, and I love them for it. Some of them… well, I can see the questions, and I can see the things they aren’t saying.
Also, I’ve read several great articles on YA recently, including “Why YA Isn’t Taken Seriously” by author C.J. Daugherty, and the older but incredibly informative “The Value Of Young Adult Literature” by Michael Cart for YALSA, and both of these things prompted me to address a few misconceptions I’ve heard lately.
Misconception 1: YA is a category of books just for children.
Wrong. However it started, YA is now a category of books written for people, about teenagers. Half of YA books purchased are bought by adults for themselves. Lots of teens read YA, and lots of teens read adult fiction, and a lot of teens don’t pay attention to the difference. The core of YA isn’t who it’s written for, it’s what it’s written about: a specific time in our lives. We were all teens at one point, and those of us who aren’t yet teens soon will be. The value of looking forward or looking back to that age is something meant for all of us, not just the people there right now. Of course teens read YA and YA is marketed primarily to teens. However, this doesn’t make YA a category not for adults. My point is that YA is more significantly defined as ABOUT teens rather than FOR teens.
Misconception 2: YA really isn’t that big of a deal.
YA is a huge deal. Some of the most innovative work in publishing is happening in YA. YA is crossing genres and opening up issues adult fiction rarely touches. Big name writers like Joyce Carol Oates have in recent years started writing YA. Some of the biggest titles to have broken out in the past several years are YA. The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Fault in Our Stars. The Harry Potter series. Twilight. Those are all YA. YA is doing some tremendous things, and they aren’t confined to the world of avid readers.
Misconception 3: YA is somehow easier to read or write than books written about adults.
Teens are people. Making a person’s life feel real and dynamic and personal is incredibly difficult regardless of the age of the characters. In some ways, it’s even more difficult, because teens usually have parents. Characters in YA need the agency and freedom and independence to shape their own story within the limits normally set by parents for their children. Sometimes we see absent, abusive, or neglectful parents, true, but often this just makes the characters’ lives more complicated, not less. YA is not easier to write.
It’s not easier to read, either. One of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read was FORBIDDEN by Tabitha Suzuma. Yes, it’s YA. Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS is tough stuff. Hopeful. Gritty. Brilliant. Tragic in the way only real people with real problems can be. Again, it’s YA.
Misconception 4: YA is wholesome stories adults write to teach the younger generations.
Even if this were the main purpose behind YA, it would be enormously ineffective. I’ve had men in suits show up on my doorstep, trying to convince me to join their religion. I’ve had politicians “reach out to me personally” to explain their positive, common-sense politics that surely I want to vote for. And it’s not effective. How many of us look forward to that happening? As soon as I know the story or example or idea is selling me something, I don’t even listen. Why? Because it’s got some kind of agenda. The person is trying to make me to something, not allow me to think for myself. Teens (and adults) can usually recognize that, and they tune it out.
YA isn’t a collection of parables meant to warn teens of the dangers in life, or even wholesome, happy-family stories meant to provide a “clean” form of entertainment. It’s stories about realistic people with genuine conflicts in their lives, just like adult fiction. Sometimes those conflicts are dark, gritty things. Sometimes they’re redemptive or heartwarming. A category of stories about real people with real problems is going to contain just about every kind of story, and if they’re going to be stories people listen to, they can’t be selling something.
Misconception 5: YA is not as complex as adult fiction; it’s lesser in some way.
This is the big one. If you take away one point from this post, let it be this one. YA is no less complex than adult fiction. For starters, the very idea that it is belittles someone else’s art, which is a) uninformed and b) rude. So we can all avoid being that person, let’s look a bit closer at the issue.
Personally, I wonder if this idea doesn’t come partially from the perception that teens are somehow not as experienced, wise, balanced– something– as adults. Sometimes they’re seen as “lesser” adults, so therefore books for them must be “lesser” books. And that idea is one that needs tossed out right away. First, take a good look at what being an adult means. Don’t put it on such a glorified platform. We get stuck in ruts. We sometimes value our jobs more than our families. We operate on prejudices and assumptions a frighteningly high percentage of the time. We mean to do all sorts of good things that never get done because when we get home, Netflix is waiting. We complain about our jobs, our schools, our friends, our in-laws, our neighbors. We get caught up in things– summer vacation, a lake house, a nicer car, redoing the kitchen– and value them over our relationships. Basically, adults are affected by all the things that we sometimes look down on teens for. Those traits just have different expressions for adults.
Second, being an adult doesn’t guarantee wisdom, life experience, or emotional balance. I’m pretty sure you can think of a few people in your life who will confirm this idea for you. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone wiser.
Third, being a teen doesn’t automatically make someone less complex, less complicated, less wise, or less anything. It’s about the individual, not his or her age. Teens do some amazing things. They start cancer foundations and community reading programs and volunteer at homeless shelters and tutor other teens who struggle in areas they excel in. They work hard. They find humor in depressing situations. They’re resilient and optimistic and empathetic. And just like adults, they can be prone to outbursts and complain and do nothing but watch TV. Teens shouldn’t be defined by their age group. It’s much more about the individual than it is the number of years that person has lived. More isn’t always better. It’s about the individual person and the story being told, not the age group we put that individual or story into. YA isn’t a lesser category simply because it involves teens.
Looking down on a whole category of books because of the age of the characters is just silly. YA can be as complex as the writer wants it to be. One of the most complex books I’ve ever read was John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, which is absolutely YA. Complexity in books comes from the interaction of 3 things: 1) characters being “real” people. Having flaws and virtues, being able to change, having preferences and hobbies and perspectives. 2) characters having authentic problems. Problems that matter, that are complicated by other problems and issues, that mean the character stands to lose something. 3) Personal impact of the problems on the character. Since the character stands to lose something significant, a realistic character is going to mentally process it, finding “aha” moments or vulnerable, breakdown moments or moments of change. If I relate to the character, I’ll likely relate to the moment of change. If it impacts the character, it very well might impact me. The interaction of these things creates theme, the little bits of insight or truth that result from watching someone else’s life play out personally in front of us. It’s complex. Any story without these things going on will probably be a shallow one. Stories with these things, regardless of the age of the characters, will most likely be complex.
Finally, YA lends itself to tough stories because the characters themselves, by definition, are at a point of change. Teen life is full of change. It’s an ideal fabric for telling the toughest, and therefore most impacting, stories. What happens when a girl with an eating disorder suffers the loss of a friend, and doesn’t really want to recover? What happens when you fall in love fast and hard, knowing your life is being taken away from you and right now is all you have? What happens when two neglected, parent-figure siblings fall in love and can’t find their way out? When a girl torn apart by her brother’s death is only kept going by her music and the struggle of a girl who died hundreds of years ago?
These are positive, healthy, complex, redemptive stories about the value of life and love and relationships. They’re YA. They’re for adults and teens. They prompt us to think about things that matter. And sometimes, they change us.
Books are books. Read before you judge, and judge them individually, or you’ll miss out on some of the most innovative, exciting things happening in the book world.