Monday, June 28, 2010

What I Want from YA: Fun, not Twisted Morals

I'm a lifelong reader--of young adult books in particular. I started with Lord of the Rings as a bedtime story, fell in love with Anne of Green Gables, graduated to Jack Weyland novels some time around fourth grade, and never looked back.

Why do I read YA?

  • It's exciting, like my journal entries from that age. Everything means something, and when I wrote those journal pages, I had the time and compulsion to record every detail along with what I thought it meant. Whether my date led me into the dance by the hand or by the small of my back, or he walked five feet in front of me the entire evening--I had just learned the skills to decipher this behavior. I eagerly tried my hand at amateur psychology, detailing my first dates, first boyfriends, and myriad groundings and lectures.  

  • Novelty. Even though it was a time of angst, it was also a time of wonder. Everything was new back then. If I went on a date, chances are that something happened I had never experienced before, sometimes things I never expected to happen. This wasn't always good, but it was always an education. 

  • Nostalgia. I like to read YA now, in part because it's like reading my journal, without the embarrassment. I get to discover the world with somebody else, reliving his or her mistakes instead of my own. 
  • I enjoy the unique voice of each book, meeting new friends and getting to know them one Truth or Dare at a time. 

  • And I LOVE fantastic elements that aren't full-blown high fantasy, which sometimes feels too much like a history class for me to enjoy. YA fantasy tends to be shorter, bringing out only as much of the world as is relevant to the main character's journey. It's a moving, enticing way to enter another world. Through the character, the magical world stays with me long after I close the back cover. 

But what I want from YA is the same as it has ever been, and it's fairly simple to deliver.

Listen up, YA writers.

  • I want vicarious living, not high morals. (That goes for both ends of the moral spectrum.)
  • I want an active main character who thinks and acts like a teenager (which isn't far from what adults think and act like, but with flourish and attitude). 
  • I want quirky character flaws, not full-on sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll delinquency. More on this...

The latter may be okay for one book in twenty, but lately I'm finding book after book filled with somebody else's idea of an acceptable coming of age. It's disturbing. I read on the writerly blogosphere that edgy YA is somehow more realistic--and therefore more desirable. I don't believe either claim. It is no more realistic than the story of a sweet girl who can't play sports to save her life and is suddenly forced to play the most brutal of them all: dodge ball.

These types of YA are worlds apart, and I'm more inclined to think of the edgier sort as an adult book dressed up as a seventeen-year-old. If you must write edgy YA out of a need to record or process your own edgy upbringing, so be it. But I wonder how many authors go to YA with the false conception that they must be edgy to compete. The truth is that not all teenagers are going to parties, getting hangovers, and having sex with everything on two legs. And the ones who don't are being washed with images of the ones who do, not only on television but also now in literature.

I can just imagine myself at fourteen picking up one of these edgy books. With my earnest desire to be cool, would I have experimented with alcohol after meeting some cool, aloof characters who know the difference between rum and schnaaps? Would I have felt antiquated and ridiculous for maintaining virgin status past the age of sixteen?

Hell yeah. Before you write, please ask yourself if you're writing something edgy just to please a twisted market, or if you're writing it because it's really the story in your soul that begs to be told. If you're doing it to fit in, stop. Teens get enough peer pressure at school. They don't need it from the twenty- and thirty-somethings writing YA purely for shock value. In truth, edgy YA is just as preachy as spiritual YA. It's preaching from the other end of the spectrum.

If you write the F-word every other sentence and have your characters in and out of beds, back seats, and basements, I may accidentally buy your book--referred by some misguided friend who doesn't know how much I deplore the charade. But I'm not going to keep it in the house for my sons to stumble upon.

Not any more than I'll leave the butcher knife down low where they can reach it.

*Note: I'm sure many people disagree with my sentiments, and that's fine. But what I'd really like to see in the comments (if you have them) are book recommendations for a mom who is tired of the F-word.


  1. I totally agree with this. The preachy and twisted ends of the spectrum seem to be the only kinds of YA I can find anymore, which is one of the main reasons I avoid the genre. The YA I would like to read -the kind you described -is becoming harder to find, and that is sad. YA readers don't need to be inundated with smut any more than they need to hear a sermon from an author. Both are unnecessary and tiresome. Just tell me a good story. That's all we want, as readers!

  2. I rarely read books dubbed as edgy, but not because I don't want to. It's because they don't fall on my radar as quickly as other funnier, quirkier books. I totally get what you're saying, though. It's tough for some writers to understand what teens are all about. They just think if they write something for them, it will sell.

    Yeah. Right.

    Cool post!

  3. Bailey - Hear, hear! I'll toast to a good story any day!

    Amparo - I need more of your funny, quirky book reccs!

  4. Comments from awesome tweeps:


    @katrinalantznov I loved your post! Lol mainly because I agree with you and I was basically the squeaky clean girl forced to play dodgeball


    @katrinalantznov Great post! I'll add to your list: I want MG/YA that doesn't insult the intelligence of children.

  5. I am IN LOVE with this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, which mirror my own. As a parent, and as a reader, I enjoy the story, not the shock value.

  6. I don't mind edgy YA -- I just don't tend to read them, because I seldom can identify with the protagonist, not when I was a teenager a few years ago, and not now. That's one of the reasons I don't read paranormal/contemporary YA much and stick to fantasy: I find the characters in YA fantasy much more relatable.

    There are definitely kids out there who can identify with edgy YA protagonists -- and thus, edgy YA does occupy an important niche in the genre. But there are also teenagers like me: boringly normal ones. :)


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