You Don’t Grow Out of YA: 5 Reasons I Write (& Edit) YA

I originally wrote this post for Writer’s Digest as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes!

When I first started writing fiction, I never expected to end up writing YA. But once I discovered what a vibrant, challenging category it was, I was hooked. I love young adult fiction, and I love the authors working in the category. Explaining to my friends and family, though, what YA is and why I was taking my career in a new direction was a bit of a challenge. Here are a few reasons YA has grabbed me:

1) A wide audience. By writing YA, we’re not crossing out adult readers. YA isn’t a reading level, it’s a category of story about a particular stage in life. Many of my adult friends thought if I started writing “teen fiction” it wouldn’t be a story they’d enjoy. But about half of YA readers are over 18, and a huge portion of the adult readers of YA are over 30. I didn’t find YA and start reading it myself until I was in college—and I’m so glad I did find it, because it reminded me how honest and surprising and deeply human fiction can be.

When you write YA, you’re writing to a wide, diverse audience. Adults buy and read YA all the time. Of course, it’s important to write with teen readers in mind, too, since they’re a significant portion of the audience, and no one can sense preachy messages or condescending stories like a teen.

2) A point of change. YA explores the teenage years of a person’s life, and those years are a significant point of change for most of us. Teens are tackling adult issues for the first time—serious relationships, jobs, shifting authority structures, new limits and opportunities—but they’re doing it without the experience and often without the resources that adults may have. It’s a vulnerable, heady, thrilling stage in someone’s life. Teens are also adjusting to greater independence and more authority in their own lives, but might still be dealing with limitations at odds with those things, like curfews, not having a car, house rules, and the structures of school. I didn’t start reading YA until I reached my twenties, and I wish I’d found it earlier—seeing so closely into the lives of other teens who are wrestling with the same changes and struggles I was would have been so helpful as a teen. I still find myself identifying with the characters in these stories, because people never stop struggling with change. You don’t grow out of YA.

The experiences we have in our teenage years are formative ones, and the mistakes and choices we make can follow us into adulthood. There’s great opportunity, uncertainty, and passion in those years, and they leave a mark on us.

3) Trying new things. Experimenting with craft is another reason I love YA. It’s a brave category. Novels in second person and novels in verse. Unreliable narrators. Thick, several-hundred-page stories. Companion short stories or novellas. Genre-blending, and epistolary-style novels with texts, blog posts, letters, and graphics. So much can be done in YA, and no story is off-limits. I love being challenged as a writer, seeing a tough story and figuring out how I can tell it, and YA is a great place to be doing that. Don’t let yourself be limited by what has or hasn’t been done before—explore new devices, new ideas, and new ways of telling these stories. Like teens themselves, YA is known for being brave and taking risks.

4) Exploring tough issues. One of the main reasons I love reading and writing YA is that the category tackles such tough issues. Along with all the new independence, vulnerability, and vibrancy of teen life come problems—things we’d like to think teens don’t have to deal with, but are so often a part of their lives. Our ideas about adolescence are often at odds with the struggles of it. The weighty, bitter truths of growing up sometimes get painted over when we think about childhood. Like adults, teens have to deal with bullying, neglect, abuse, physical and mental illness, assault, discrimination, addiction, broken relationships, loss, regret, and personal failures. YA fiction is a great place to explore what those teen years really look like, and how we can adjust, heal, and reinvent ourselves. And sometimes those harsh truths take over, and YA can give us those stories, too. Sometimes the biggest struggles are crushes and cliques at school, but that’s not usually the case. The best YA is genuine and honest about what it means to be a teen.

5) Why not? A final reason I love YA is that there’s no reason not to. Teens are every bit as complex as adults, and they can think as deeply, too. Of course they can. Teens aren’t a more simplistic or less demanding audience, and their stories aren’t any simpler or less worthy. When I came to YA as an adult, what drew me in was the depth of these stories, and that’s what I’ve stayed for, too.

Teens are people, and people have fascinating stories. There’s no reason we shouldn’t write or read their stories, and there’s every reason to do exactly that. We read and write YA to remember that stage in life, to explore, to see someone else’s life, to empathize. To keep the teenage part of ourselves alive. For catharsis. For fun. To be challenged. To think. To create, and to participate. The stories in YA are first and foremost human stories, and that’s what makes them so wonderful.