Someone on my fandom tumblr just asked me why I write YA and what the primary characteristics are. I, of course, LOVE to nerd out about this very topic and yet have NEVER put into words what I love about YA. So, here:
First, let’s define YA fiction as best we can. Terminology: YA is not a genre, it’s an age category. Genres are things like romance, mystery, sci-fi. Age categories are things like middle grade, young adult, easy reader, adult. So, any given book will have both a genre and an age category. Next, misconceptions: YA is not only for teenagers. YA is not dumbed down, shallow, or lacking complexity. You cannot make any assumptions about quality, and very few assumptions about content, based on the fact that a book is shelved as YA.
So, what is it? Most YA books feature a protagonist aged 14-15 for lower YA or 16-19 for upper YA. The book is written in a teen’s voice and through their point of view, which is influenced by where they’re at developmentally. This authentic teen voice is critical: Not all books with teen protagonists are YA books. YA fiction is published for and marketed to ages 12-18, but is very widely read by adults as well. There are a few limitations on content. YA fiction can absolutely tackle tough topics like rape, drugs, sex, lots of swearing, violence, etc. The only real limit is that torture and rape can’t be gratuitous (nor should they be in adult fiction, but that happens all the time, ugh), and there can’t be any really explicit on-page sex.
So, why do I write YA?
The simple answer is: I write YA because it’s what I love to read. Any writer needs to read extensively in their chosen age category and genre, so it really helps if you actually love it. My other job is being a YA librarian, which means both my careers are heavily teen-centric and YA fiction-centric. They jive.
But you’re looking for something deeper than that, and there’s plenty. WHY do I like to read and write YA? Oh, so many reasons. In no particular order:
1) There’s no shame. Read romance, read sci fi, read literary, read horror—the culture of judgment just doesn’t exist in the YA world to the same degree it does in the adult world. Oh, it’s definitely still there, especially among awards committees, but the perceived gap between a YA literary novel and a YA romance novel feels far less than that between a National Book Award winner and a bodice-ripping adult romance. NOT, let me clarify, because the YA literary novel is not of equally significant quality and value to the National Book Award-winning adult book, but because the YA world has much more of a read-and-let-read mentality.
2) Teenagers are at the greatest point of change in life, and that makes for fascinating characters to explore. Throw someone who is growing and changing and forming their identity into challenging circumstances and watch the magic happen. Many adults are quite set in their ways. Teens are more likely to be adaptable, fierce, open-minded.
3) Teens are (in general) less bogged down by “life stuff”. They haven’t had 30, 40, 50, 60 years of friends and family dying, failed relationships, lost jobs, destroyed homes, and all the other bad shit we accumulate in life. There’s a freshness that I find appealing in a character, and I enjoy being able to mold a character as I see fit without having to work around the giant elephant of their history and baggage. (That said, there are absolutely teens who have had extremely rough lives, and there are YA novels that tackle that, too.)
4) I think teen voices are vastly undervalued in our society (at least, in American society, can’t speak to elsewhere). I respect and value teens and by writing them I get to put a little power back into their hands.
5) The YA world is where the charge is being let for large-scale change in the publishing world. Check out the We Need Diverse Books movement, originated by YA authors. YA authors are making real change in the publishing world, working for authentic, sensitive, and equal representation of marginalized groups in fiction. While the rest of the world cries about lack of diversity in the media, YA authors are Getting Shit Done.
6) That energy permeates the entire YA fiction world. It’s an electric place to be.
7) LGBTQ+ content doesn’t preclude a book from being a major financial success in the YA world. LGBTQ+ rep is becoming increasingly common and welcome. YA agents are actively seeking it. YA editors are more and more open to it. It’s beautiful.
8) It’s fun and I love it.
I’m juggling three adult projects right now because I contractually can’t sell a third YA novel until late next year anyway and I’m having a great time with them. I’m not saying YA is BETTER than adult. But, I am saying the COMMUNITY around YA fiction is better, and that it’s a different experience that I really enjoy. I’m also unabashedly trying to convince all of you that YA is legitimate and is not in any way less than adult fiction, because every loser who writes an inflammatory column in the New York Times about YA lakjsdhflkashd okay this is a whole other thing that makes me really angry so I’ll stop now YA IS GREAT OKAY BYE.