Wednesday, December 22, 2010

WHY WRITE?: Young Adult Fiction

Thanks to everyone who voted on genres for the Why Write?TM series last week! Voting is still open, so if you haven’t chimed in yet, head on over now to put in your two cents.

As for how the voting played out last week: literary fiction took the lead, followed by a tie between Young Adult fiction, sci-fi and fantasy (or speculative fiction), and historical fiction (who knew I had such history buffs among my readers?!). Romance followed that with just a few votes, and westerns and mysteries received a single vote each. I’m excited to dive in on those top four, and if you guys really like the Why Write?TM series, let me know and I’ll tackle the extra challenge of dissecting romances as well.

I’m going to jump in at the middle here because today’s post flows pretty naturally from my recent post on why character transformation works so well in YA fiction. So—why write YA?

Because you want a welcoming audience. Teenagers who read do so voraciously. They read in school and out of it. They flock to blogs and message boards, they review the books they read on Amazon and in their own blogs, and they spend hours discussing their favorite books with their friends. From the droves of teens who dress up as characters from The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series for Halloween, to those who flock to communities of writers and readers like John and Hank Green’s massive posse of Nerdfighters, to those who, hungry for more of their favorite characters, take to reading and writing fan fiction, I don’t know of any audience that more actively interacts with their books. Writers of YA, by and large, love to interact with their audiences—and how could they not, in the face of such devoted readers?

Because your readers need you. Middle school and high school can be nasty, and teens both yearn for connection and desperately fear putting themselves out there. I think that’s a big part of why so many teens become ardent readers. Like everyone, they want to open a book and see someone they recognize come to life on the pages. But even more than the adults who read, they need that character who’s just like them—to know they’re not alone, to know they’re not as strange as they feel, to know that if it’s bad, it can still get better. Affirmation and hope can be hard to find in the bitter wilderness of childhood, but a great YA author can give that to a teen.

Because you want to write something deep… Teens are smart and hungry to critique the world around them, including the books they read. Teens often get a bum rap for being addicted to video games, TV and Facebook, but the majority of teens I know are more tuned into the world than a lot of adults. Unlike so many tired nine-to-fivers, they can spend all day thinking at school and still not be ready to shut their brains off and veg when they get home. They’re not daunted by complex plot structures or layers of meaning, and they’re intelligent enough to understand and expand upon complex themes. If you have something serious to say, you might actually be more likely to be heard by a teenager than by an adult.

…But you also want to have fun with it. At the same time, teens are brutally honest and quick to call bullshit. They love to be blown away by a book’s deeper meaning, but they’re not as likely to put up with unnecessary frills. Books for teens are often more fun to read than adult books, without sacrificing the complex themes you find in literary fiction. Compare The Hunger Games or Feed to A Brave New World or 1984 and you’ve got similar themes being expressed in a more fast-paced, fun format. No one ever said that, just because you have something to say, you can’t have fun saying it.

Because you want to change the world. Teens are passionate, political and idealistic. Just as they’re eager to think critically about the world around them, they’re hungry for a cause to believe in—and, as Robyn pointed out a few weeks ago, they're quick to act on their ideals. If you’ve got a message, you might be better off imparting it on the young than on the old. Adults can be jaded or may have already decided exactly where they stand on an issue, but teenagers are still learning all they can, deciding what they think, and committing themselves to ideals. What’s more, teens are just a few years away from inheriting power. Given the right ideals, the next generation might be able to live better than we ever have.

Because you want to change a person. The books we read as teens are often the ones we remember best and love most fiercely, and for good reason. They determine the people we become, the ideals we adhere to, and the way we view the world. There’s a reason that the fight for people of color on book covers and for diversity of gender, sexuality and race in literature has been fought so much more loudly in the kid-lit community than in the world of adult fiction—we recognize that readers of YA are still forming their worldviews, and that books play a powerful role in that growth. The worlds teens experience when they read will help them, whether they are conscious of it or not, to decide what’s right or wrong and what’s normal or abnormal in the world around them. In some ways, picking up a pen to write for teens is (as one of the programmers in my office would say) your Spiderman moment: with great power comes great responsibility. When you write a book that hits home for a teenager, you help to form the belief system he or she will take into adulthood. You can literally have a hand in making that teen the person he or she is becoming.

Do you agree? Disagree? Maybe there are other genres that do some of these things better. Maybe I missed a few good reasons. Let me know in comments!


  1. All excellent reasons :-D Another reason I'd add is YA authors seem to have more freedom when it comes to genres than adult authors. Lots of adult authors write consistently in one genre, and maybe that's because it's all they're interested in, but I also know many resort to using pen names when they want to write something radically different. In YA I think you're more likely to see authors bounce all over the place. Off the top of my head: Suzanne Collins wrote contemporary fantasy AND the futuristic dystopian Hunger Games; Scott Westerfeld has written science fiction, steampunk and horror; Justine Larbalestier created a world with fairies before getting into the gritty LIAR; Laurie Halse Anderson does amazing contemporary stories that dig into real problems before stepping back hundreds of years for her historical thrillers.

  2. Angela, totally true! I always think of that when I look at Libba Bray's publishing history, too. And how cool is it that YA authors so often team up on their books, like David Levithan and John Green did for Will Grayson, Will Grayson, or James Frey and Jobie Hughes for I Am Number Four?

  3. Okay, I'm definitely taking the "teens like to think too much" and the "you can change a person" numbers, agreeing, and running with them. When I think about the most important/memorable/influential characters in books I read when I was younger, I can only think of two—Sterling North's younger self and Jeremy Thatcher—who weren't female, and none who were "traditionally" female (whatever *that* means) at all. Between Lyra, Meg, and "Princess" Cimorene, I pretty well got the impression that most women were strong, intelligent, well-rounded human beings with an interest in the world—and far more than just Another Boring Love Interest. Plus, a bit of JT Dragon Hatcher/Rascal/His Dark Materials/Time Quintet/Enchanted Forest is just the kind of thing to give to some kid to teach them that, really, everything they think about the world is probably very, very, wrong—and that the really crazy ideas, the ones that everyone else thinks are nuts, are probably the right ones.

    This is a very dangerous thing to teach young people who like to question things anyway; these books are probably half the reason why I was a teenage nihilist, and later a philosopher—accepting the common view simply because it's how things have "always worked" seems like the dumbest thing ever when your world includes dragons, pet raccoons, and non-wussified angels!

    It also makes me very, very scared indeed when I see some poor kid being given Twilight or some other such piece of tripe. Do we really want to be teaching them that the best possible thing in the world is that kind of relationship, that "true love" involves being fought over by potential suitors who are entirely unequal to you (rather than coming together with someone who has their own rich inner life, is more than any amalgamation of spare Stock Character Parts could ever be), and that the world really is pretty much like what we can sense and perceive, rather than something far stranger and more magnificent, even in its most mundane details, then the limited intellects of human beings could ever hope to conceive?

    Those poor kids. Their worlds must be so dull. That's why my cousins are getting Hunger Games and Wind in the Door this Christmas.