How Teenager-ish Should a YA Book Be?
I love book bloggers. I am grateful every day for these guys and (mostly) gals who spend their free time reading books and posting their thoughts about them on the internet. Without these wonderful people, we authors who are with small publishers (and the self-published ones) would have a much harder time getting the word out about our books. When I ask a blogger to review my books, I am ever hopeful it will be a good review, but I know it has to be an honest review, which isn’t always the same thing. Interestingly, with my YA titles the biggest discrepancy between book blog reviewers seems to be whether or not they like the teenager-ness of the books – the struggles with parents, friends, teachers and other teen drama. Is it too much? Is it too little?
Some like it. “Something I like about these books is that even though Juniper has these extraordinary things going on in her life (mermaids, talking trees) she also experiences average teenager problems – boyfriend dilemmas, overly dramatic friends, school complications, and clashes with her parents. I admire Juniper’s courage and determination – she knows who she is and where she wants to go.” – Books & Such about Whisper of the Woods.
Some really don’t. “I didn't much care for all the high school drama when I was in high school. I like it less now. It's only because of that aspect of the book that I wouldn't outright recommend it to my adult friends.” Behind the Willows about Cry of the Sea. (Although she goes on to write: “But, I think back to myself as a teenager, and I would have loved this, drama and all. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to the young adults it was written for!”)
When I first wrote Cry of the Sea, my original draft was only 45,000 words and solely about Juniper’s discovery of the mermaids and struggle to save them. When I did my major revision of the manuscript, I added the high school characters (Haley, Regina, and the evil vice principal) as a subplot to help fill the book. In adding those characters, I wound up changing the main plot of my book too (when Haley shares the video online to gain popularity and subsequently causes a huge problem for Juniper, her parents, and the mermaids). Frankly, the story was very short and plain without all that extra high school stuff, and the book never would have been published.
So, how teenage-ish should a YA book be before it gets annoying? Well, in my opinion, if the teenage aspect of the book is annoying to you, then you probably shouldn’t be reading YA books. Why? Because the main characters are teenagers. For them to act any other way than like teenagers is unrealistic. You’ll find the teen characteristics in all YA books, but some have more and some have less.
Let’s look at some examples.
In the Harry Potter series, while dealing with the fight of good versus evil through amazing storytelling and fantasy, we also see the three main characters dealing with first crushes, first loves, jealousy, bullying, schoolwork, pressures at home, and even issues over clothing and appearance. All teenager-ish.
In the Percy Jackson series, while dealing with the terrors of Greek gods and monsters, Percy and his friends are also dealing with strained relationships with their parents, popularity, self-esteem, first loves, and competition, among other coming of age issues.
Want to go for the serious issue books like Speak, Faking Normal, 13 Reasons Why, The Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor and Park? It is the drama of being a teenager trying to understand the difficult world of growing up with pain and learning how to handle it that underlies each of these stories. Contemporary YA drama is so popular because it is realistic. To adults it can seem over-dramatic. To teens it is eye-opening and gives them a place to feel sympathy.
Historical novels like Between Shades of Gray and The Book Thief rely on the character being in their teens because teenagers still have the hope that adults have lost in tragic situations. A story like this might not have regular high school drama, but it is the fact that normal life doesn’t exist anymore for a characters like these that we care all the more. Look at Anne Frank. The fact that her “normal” teen life was taken from her is what made her story all the more compelling.
Now, there are stories like Divergent and Hunger Games where I’ll admit the fact that the characters are teenagers seems a minute detail. Katniss could just as easily be twenty-two and the story would still work. We don’t see much of the normal life kids today relate to in these dystopian novels. Yet Tris and Katniss are teenagers, and because they aren’t full grown, it makes the horror they experience more intense and tragic. It makes these characters seem that much more courageous than if they were more mature. It also explains why they are much more impulsive, doesn’t it?
Of course, there are lighter YA books that are simply about being teenagers in today’s world: Gossip Girls and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, for example. I recently finished reading Exit Stage Right by Gail Nall which was literally about high school drama – well, a high school Drama program. A lot of YA books are read by adults, but these titles are truly targeted toward teenage readers (and people like me who write YA and therefore read lots of YA).
So, I will never take offense to a reviewer saying that a book of mine is too teen for adults. It wasn’t written for them. However, I certainly get a thrill when a reviewer says something like: “It is promoted as YA fiction because both the main characters are still in high school, but actually this is a love story for all romantics.” (A Woman’s Wisdom review of Passing Notes).
What are your thoughts about teenage drama in YA? Love it? Hate it? Have a favorite example? Please feel free to comment.
1/31/2016 12:43:28 pm
I am finishing my first attempt at a YA novel and am finding the teenage aspect of it challenging. My publisher told me that I need to have more about the relationships and interactions because that's what YA want to read, but I worry that it sounds too forced. As a teacher, I deal with teens every day, but I find it a struggle to remember the normal aspects of being one. If you are able to make a book seem very teenager-y, then I admit that I envy you.
1/31/2016 03:54:35 pm
Thanks, Christopher. Being a teacher should help. I've got young adults in my home, and that helps tremendously. Mostly, though, I call back on my own feelings from high school. I remember the times when my friends and I struggled to get along and the times when things were great. I also highly recommend reading as many successful YA books as you can to see how expertly it can be done. You've got a publisher already, so that's pretty awesome!
I'm 31. All I read is YA. The teen voice? I love it. Being a grown up sucks. We have bills, and mortgages, and jobs and crap we don't want to do. Makes homework seem a lot more appealing! I look back on all the high school problems and issues and as much as I NEVER want to experience it again, I love reminiscing through the characters in the YA books I read.
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D. G. Driver
Award-winning author of books for teen and tween readers. Learn more about her and her writing at www.dgdriver.com
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