YA Not?

Young adult novels have a bad rap. For every Ender’s Game, there is a Twilight. For every Harry Potter there are more Twilight books. I personally don’t read YA. When I was the target age for young adult novels, I was busy being pretentious and reading Hemingway. Now that I study the publishing field, I am surrounded by YA—from meeting people my age who eat it up to reading statistics that say YA book sales are on the rise.

A few months back I interviewed local Portland author Kerry Cohen. Kerry writes memoir, is working on a novel, and has also written a handful of YA books. She told me in her interview that she wished more good writers wrote YA. A lot of people think they can write YA because the language is simpler than adult novels. People think that because they were teens once they can write about/for them.  This reminds me of people who think that just because they have kids they can write children’s books. It simply doesn’t work that way. So I started thinking about YA, and then I interviewed the author Lidia Yuknavitch. She commended Kerry for her work in YA, but she lamented that too many other YA books written for girls focus on the end result of the girl finding a boyfriend (think Twilight). That’s it. That’s the point of the book.

After having talked to these two writers whom I greatly admire, I started thinking more about the challenges of writing in this genre and what I think I could add to the genre if I were to write my own story. One of the key elements that has to be remembered when writing YA is pacing. If you’re writing for a teen, your plot needs to move fast. Whereas in my character-focused, often interior writing plot can develop slowly (often less action happens as opposed to realizations), YA tends to be plot-focused. One YA aficionado and editor told me that something has to happen in every chapter. That seems like a simple rule, but it’s important to note.

Also in YA comes the realization that certain topics can’t be explored as in-depth as in adult novels, i.e. sex and violence. These subjects exist in most YA books because they exist in real life. But they are watered down to a “suitable” (censored) level for younger audiences. Perhaps my biggest beef with this is that sex is so much more heavily censored in YA than violence (really sex is censored more than violence anywhere in American culture). An author honestly depicts sex in a book for teenagers and it gets put on the banned books list, and yet one of the most popular books in the YA genre right now, The Hunger Games, is an entire series revolving around teenagers fighting to the death. Something seems a bit off there, but that is the sad nature of American’s misplaced values weighing on the creation of art (and that’s really a post for another time).

For me, writing YA means writing a book and a protagonist that I don’t think enough young girls get to experience. My book is YA noir and my protagonist is a sixteen-year-old lesbian. The noir genre is characteristically male-dominated, both in who writes it and who stars in it. I want to shift that norm. Also while shifting norms, I want to present readers with a gay character whose sexuality isn’t the focus of the story. There is no “coming out” moment—she just is. More and more gay characters are appearing in YA books, and I think it’s important that this keeps happening.

This is the fake cover I designed for my YA book-in-progress.
This is the fake cover I designed of my YA book-in-progress for a class. Note the dream blurb from Lidia Yuknavitch.

I look forward to working on a project that is so outside my comfort zone. If anything, I think I’ll have a lot of fun unraveling this plot. What I hope for the most is that I can create a story and characters that my thirteen-year-old niece will appreciate. There is so much swirling around in a teenager’s life, so much to distract them, that sometimes I think the best thing a YA writer could hope for would be to hold their attention, give them something they can relate to, and speak to them on their level without doing so in a patronizing way.

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