The Story Behind Young Adult Books

I put this post together for those of you interested in learning what YA (Young Adult) books are, and why people read and love them, including adults. I was recently at the Mountains to Sea Literary Festival, and have drawn some answers from the panels of YA writers. Plus my own reasons for loving these books, as an adult.

What is a “Young Adult” Book

General consensus is a YA book is one where the protagonist is a teenager. That doesn’t mean that it’s only for teenagers. It’s not a secret that more adults buy and read YA books than teenagers. Some writers do keep their teenage audience in mind and direct their story towards a teenage reader, whereas some don’t think about the reader at all, and simply let the story flow exactly as it comes to them.

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Why do People Write YA

This, as with any genre, is always going to be personal. I’ve heard a few writers (myself included) say they never planned to write YA, it’s just what came out when they started writing. Every writer has to find their own writing voice, and sometimes they can suffer disappointment when they realise that they can’t actually write like their favourite author or style of book. (I was rather disappointed when I realised that I am never going to be a Maeve Binchy for teenagers). But once they persist, they will find their own unique voice. It could be in YA, or fantasy, or Literary fiction. Until you start writing, you won’t know where your own voice leads you. So really, if you’re a YA writer, YA picked you.

Normalising the Abnormal

A common theme I noticed at the event, was the amount of writers who talk about how hard being a teenager is. How everything seems so difficult, and every little problem explodes. That teenagers often feel abnormal and isolated. YA books can help to normalise these feelings, to shed some light on a teenager’s problems and hardships, and make them see that they’re not alone. To say “I hear you” to the reader. When I was a teenage reader I loved reading books where the protagonist clearly had a much harder time than me, so I could reassure myself that no matter how bad I had it, someone else had it too. Or had it even worse, meaning if they could get through it, so could I.

Why do Adults Read YA

There were a few answers to this. But ultimately a book is only as good as it’s story and writing, and I personally believe that there is an abundance of excellent YA books around at the moment. A good story will always tempt adults into reading them, whether written for teenagers or adults.

YA books are shorter in general, they get to the point quicker, meaning you don’t have to make a daunting commitment to a block of a book. I love small books. It means I finish it quicker and can feel that wonderful glow of satisfaction at reaching the end sooner. I also like fitting as many books into my reading time as possible, so would rather read three shorter books (meaning three complete stories) than one long book. There are always exceptions to the rule, I know.

There is also a theory that some people (ahem) don’t ever feel like they’ve fully grown up, they still feel like a teenager at heart and therefore love reading about a character who they can connect with, and live a little through their experiences.

Truths and Lies

Every YA book panel or talk I’ve been to, there’s always a question around how the writer decides how far to go, how much truth to put in. Are young adults able to deal with the heavy issues being dealt with in so many YA books nowadays? I think the answer to this will always be personal. Everyone has a different opinion, because it IS an opinion.

But one thing I did take away, is that teenagers are very good self-censors. I’ve heard writers talk of their own reading experiences as a child and as a teen, how they often read advanced books (being the book worms that writers are), but they knew what to take, and what to leave behind. Teenagers know when a topic gets too heavy for them, and if a book is making them squirm then they will stop reading that passage.

There is also a big difference between reading about a heavy issue in the comfort of ones safe bedroom, and experiencing it first hand, or even watching it on screen. I am still haunted by images I saw on videos (yes, videos, I’m showing my age) as a teenager, but I have absolutely no haunting images in my head from books I read. Perhaps I didn’t read particularly heavy books then, but I believe it’s more to do with the fact that a reader creates their own images. The writer can explain, and describe, but every reader will imagine a different picture. Your imagination doesn’t wish to traumatise you like a Hollywood director.

Summary

A good YA book is well worth reading, same as any good story. They’re not all fantasy or sci-fi, but unfortunately they do tend to get shelved together in book shops, despite covering a range of genres. There are plenty of contemporary, funny, dystopian, and terrifying YA books to be found, and they’re all as different as adult books of different genres. So if you haven’t already read a YA book, give a teenage protagonist a go. You might just find yourself hooked.

Writing for adolescents… and the challenges it brings.

I never intended to write for a teenage audience. It just happened by itself. Now I question why I was drawn to this genre? As an adult who does not usually read young adult fiction, it was not the natural choice for my pen. The market is small and unprofitable (obviously making exceptions… Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault In Our Stars ). But then, what joy would there be in writing only for money? Writing for teenagers is not as easy as it sounds. For one, teenagers are harder to please than adults. Teenagers are stereotypically prone to mood changes, hunger for information, hunger for love, anger at everything that they thought they knew but then realised they didn’t.  Perhaps I thought I could make a difference.. Perhaps I romanticise the thought of helping a teenager through the challenges that adolescence brings. Or perhaps there is no reason and I just wrote what came into my head.

The first thing I noticed in myself as the writer was being hyper aware of morality; what a challenge. Teenagers don’t want to get a lecture in a novel. They don’t want to be made feel guilty for their thoughts or behaviour, especially when the thoughts confuse them. They want to identify, they want answers. They don’t want to be patronised. I can’t imagine Louisa May Alcott having these issues as she wrote “Little Women”, which is basically a morality code for young ladies. But if that classic was written in this day and age I wonder would she have the same good response. Because morality has changed and I can’t keep up. And because I can’t keep up I cannot focus on it in a novel and I certainly can’t preach it. I did have a smug initial thought of writing a modern day “Little Women” and quickly realised it was a hopeless idea. Teenagers simply would never agree nowadays on what is right and what is wrong, Whether it’s right to have sex at fifteen or not, whether to take drugs or get drunk, whether you should get on with your parents or hate them. Behaviour has become individualised and therefore there is no handbook to refer to.

The second hardest thing to deal with was how to tackle life changing issues like death. How far do you go, how much do you tell? To get an idea of how far to go I began to read other Young Adult fiction and was frankly shocked. Both by the way the stories got under my skin and by how much the authors made the reader completely immerse themselves in the issue and experience it for themselves (The books I read and recommend were The Fault in Our Stars, Infinite Sky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower). It made me realise that in fact a novel is a perfect way for a teenager to discover the hardships of life… heartache, death, abuse, family problems etc. Because they can feel the emotion for the first time, hopefully, and then put down the book and walk away. But in the process they have learnt to empathise and become a tiny bit more prepared to deal with these issues should they ever experience them.

The common theme in Y.A novels is romantic love. It appeared in every novel I read to varying degrees (I am still searching for a Y.A novel that does not look at this issue at all. I am open to suggestion). It became clear to me that to write a Y.A novel without some concept of love and lust would be a pointless battle. Thinking back to my teenage days, I was obsessed with love. If I was not in love I was dreaming of being love. Everything else came second in my mind list of priorities of life. This raised more questions for me because everyone experiences love differently and everyone has different beliefs about what love should be. One girl will love the idea of a guy who opens doors for them, makes the first move, tells the heroine how beautiful she is a hundred times a day. Another girl would hate that and want the relationship to based on complete equality, the girl asking him out as much as he asks her.

All these questions and challenges made me realise something vital. A writer can never please every reader. And a young adult writer can never please every parent. The book is not for the parents approval. And it is not for every teenager. I can only write what I feel and what I know. The reader chooses what to take on board and what to leave behind. When I started to believe that, it made it easier. In fact, it made it wonderful.