young adult is about young adults. FYI.

| Monday, June 28, 2010
Today's Tune: Shores of California

I hope this doesn't come as a surprise to anyone, but young adult literature? About young adults. Middle grade? Middle grade kids.

You'd be surprised how often people getting started in writing literature for young people forget that the work is primarily supposed to involve and engage the young people. This is very difficult to do, so it's not as though people are being needlessly negligent. Keeping children and teens interested in a book should be a Herculean trial, really.

It's not that they don't want to read - kids really do want to read! Many of them are desperate to do so! The issue is that they want to connect with what they're reading, and it's difficult to do that when something is written below their reading level. Or above their reading level. Or about a character they don't care for. Or about a subject they don't care for.

You see the dilemma of many would-be YA authors. There is good news here: teenagers are as varied as adults. Some have a low tolerance for flowery language; others adore it. Some want action-fantasy, others want contemporary romance, and still others... you get the idea. So the positive side is there's probably a teenager somewhere out there who will love what you have to say. The bad news is that it may just be the one. Or a handful.

Crappy, but true. But there are a few ways to avoid stacking the deck against yourself in terms of keeping interest higher.

One major key to novels for young people? They have to be the central hub around which the story turns. Always. You can't write a story about a protagonist who is significantly older or younger than the target audience. Adolescence is a crazy time, as you may well remember. The world changes by leaps and bounds between the ages of 11 and 13, 13 and 15, 16 and 18... big changes.

If the target audience of a novel is 15, they're not going to connect well with a 20-year old protagonist, or a 10-year old protagonist. Which doesn't mean they can't enjoy novels written for older or younger readers. It only means that for YA novels in particular, the loose requirement is that the MCs should be between the ages of 13 and 18. I say "loose" because this isn't set in stone, but it's definitely the bar to aim for.

Not only should the MC of a YA novel be a teenager, but they should always be the focus (unless you have multiple MCs, but that's another ball 'o wax). If you open with other characters, their actions must in some way directly apply to or involve the MC. Many YA stories open with a birth scene, or the MC as a toddler/young child. When going this route, it's important to remember whose story is being told - is it the parents' story, or the child's story?

Parents and adults can be fleshed out and full characters, of course, but they shouldn't steal the spotlight. We are all the star of our own show, and this is especially pertinent during the teen years.

Another major factor in YA and MG literature is allowing the characters to fight their own battles. It's a very common theme in YA for parents to be absent, abusive, oblivious, or otherwise useless. There's actually a reason for this, other than the obvious ready-made angst factor. You see, for a story to truly be centered around an underage MC, they have to do everything themselves. Parents, guardians, and other adults can't do it for them.

The protagonist holds the power. This may mean they disregard the wishes of authority figures, or have to pull themselves along on their own momentum because Dad's dead and Mama's a drunk. This works because if there's one thing a teen can relate to, it's being told they're not adults. That they're not mature enough to do X, Y, or Z. That they have no power.

To clarify, this isn't about wanting to go out with friends to smoke and get drunk. It focuses more around decisions about their own lives that teens want to make, but are held back from. Young adult literature is about putting those decisions in their hands. The police aren't figuring out your father's murder quickly enough? Take it into your own hands. Dad is an abusive ass who has no interest in sending you to college? Do it yourself. The kindly headmaster wants you to stay in your room like a good boy while he and the other teachers hunt down the monster that hurt your friend? No way.

The point I'm trying to get at here is absentee parents aren't really about the dissolution of family and teaching teens to rebel against authority, as is often argued. It's about putting power in their hands. This can also be done with a traditional family unit with caring parents, of course. It's just something to keep in mind - adults can't be the solve-all. The protagonist has to be the catalyst for the action, always.

I think that's about enough rambling for today, yeah? Heh. YA RULES AND STUFF.


{ Keri } at: June 28, 2010 at 8:43 AM said...

You make excellent points. YA is a tricky thing as it is so hard to pinpoint exactly who your audience will be and how to go about writing the novel. I haven't actually delved into writing a YA novel, yet. I've got a novel where the protagonist is 15 but I don't know if you would call it YA. This is a great post. Very informative and gets me thinking about things I might not otherwise.

{ KLM } at: June 28, 2010 at 10:07 AM said...

Great post. FWIW, I vowed at the outset of my YA novel to NOT kill off the parents. The world of children's lit is littered with the bodies of parents and incompetent guardians and I didn't want to put another dead mom or dad on the bookshelves. I'm rather proud of the way I neatly dispense with them without resorting to doing them in.

{ maybe genius } at: June 28, 2010 at 12:03 PM said...

Keri - It is absolutely a tricky wicket. The genre is so vast. I'm glad it got you thinking :)

KLM - That's awesome! It's difficult to do, that's for sure. Finding the right balance between good family life, but still allowing the teen to be center stage without too much parental involvement - it's tough. Kudos!

{ jjdebenedictis } at: June 28, 2010 at 1:38 PM said...

One major key to novels for young people? They have to be the central hub around which the story turns. Always.

One reason for this is that, according to psychological tests, children are technically psychopaths.

As the human frontal lobe grows, we get better at feeling empathy and understanding others, but when we're young, we're all a bit narcissistic and self-centred.

Not in an obnoxious way, necessarily--as children and youth, we really can't grasp that we aren't the centre of the universe and that maybe not everyone cares about our last tragic social embarrassment.

Thus, as you note, the book has to be about the character the young reader identifies with because slightly narcissistic people are most interested in a reflection of themselves.

{ Simon C. Larter } at: June 29, 2010 at 11:41 AM said...

Huh. That's an intriguing way to look at the absentee parent issue in YA. I rather like how you laid that out, good lady. Nicely done!

{ maybe genius } at: June 29, 2010 at 12:03 PM said...

JJ - Exactly :D You always lay things out so well.

Simon - Thank you! Happy to be of assistance :)

{ Jen } at: June 29, 2010 at 12:31 PM said...

Excellent points! What's funny is when I first started writing I thought I would be an Adult writer but my husband told me to have my niece read some of my work because he thought my book was meant for YA and when she was finished reading it he was right, I have a knack for writing teen stories!

I love the advice and the tips though! Never have too much knowledge!

{ aspiring_x } at: June 30, 2010 at 7:53 AM said...

the plague of absentee parents has often annoyed me. i've never thought of it this way... you make good points, but i still wonder if the literary usefulness is reason enough for the proliferation of such characters. i think we need to think about the mentor characters also. those who give good advice, but let the MC experience life on their own. there is often one of these characters in a novel where there are absentee parents. so, why is it that the mentor character is very rarely the parent?

{ maybe genius } at: June 30, 2010 at 12:07 PM said...

aspiring_x: A good point. Others have argued because teens are at the point where they're discovering that people, including their parents, are inherently flawed, it leaves them jaded about adults and their family life. Also, (good) parents are inherently driven to protect their children, which means sheltering them rather than turning them loose on the world.

There are certainly parents out there who try to strike a balance between taking care of their child and letting them make mistakes to learn from, but it's a delicate balance. If a parent gives a child/teen TOO much freedom, it's argued that they're negligent. Too little, and their ability for adventure is limited.

Mentor characters are often not parents, as you said. Because they're not parents, they're not charged with the child's safety and well-being the same way a parent is. Their goal is to give the child the tools to succeed, and then letting them do it. Like Dumbledore - he gave the students the tools they needed, and then he stood aside. He wanted them to find their own power. As arguably the most powerful wizard in the world, he easily could have solved these problems himself, but he didn't.

Parents are automatically given toward wanting to solve problems themselves; it's parental nature. It's difficult to write believable parent that lets their child run into danger. Not impossible! Just incredibly difficult. Which is why I think the tendency to take parents out of the picture is so popular.

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