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.

The Draw of Picture Books

The more I read picture books, the more I question why some work and others don’t. When talking about novels, people almost universally agree on what it is that keeps the reader reading; the voice, the characters, the pace, the story etc. Sometimes you’re hooked from the first line, sometimes it takes time to warm up but you keep reading because you’ve heard it’s a great book, or you love the author’s other work.

But picture books are short, they need to capture their audience in an instant. There can be no opportunity to lose them. They need to leave their mark to make sure the young audience will ask for the same book again and again. But with such short word counts, is it still the characters, the voice, and the pace that makes the reader keep reading? There is not always time for character development. The word count controls the pace, to an extent. So is it all up to the voice? Or perhaps it is a very careful balancing act to get the story across. Not forgetting the illustrations, which are often what attract us to the book in the first place.

I have heard many parents say that their child loved a particular book, and they couldn’t see why. What seems like a mundane story to an adult can be a comfort to a child. What seems like an amazing story to an adult, can lose a child’s interest on the second page, with those dreaded words “This is boring.” I have often been surprised by buying award-winning picture books, only to find my daughter wandering off half way through and coming back to me with an alternative book that gets shoved in front of the award winner. This I find intriguing. Is it always an adult who judges these books, or are they handed out to children to see their response?

I recently borrowed “The Monster Machine” by Nicola Robinson (author and illustrator) from the library. I picked it out because we were due a book about making monsters less scary, and the illustrations were fun. But to my three year old, this was no ordinary book. We read it five times that day, and then almost every day for the 2 week loan allowed by the library. I cannot tell you why she loved it so much. Something about it just gave her that special feeling that made her want more and more of it.

That, I think, is the key to a good picture book. Not just the story, or the pictures, but the feeling you get when you read it. More importantly, the feeling the child gets when they are read it. Childhood is the beginning of feelings, with new feelings arriving almost on a daily basis, with each new experience. A book than can make a child understand, re-live or experience a new feeling is, to me, a success (especially if that feeling is warm and fuzzy).

I read an interview with Julia Donaldson, who said she didn’t write to teach children what she thought adults wanted them to know, but she writes to give children a good story. Story is fundamental to picture books. Without a story that stands out, the child won’t want to hear it, and the parent won’t want to read it a hundred times. But I do believe in teaching through stories. When I first read Polly Dunbar‘s “Flyaway Katie”, I thought it was sweet. My daughter, 2 at the time, loved it, so I had to read it again and again. I no longer think it is just sweet, I now think it is marvellous. It took me awhile to realise all that is going on in that short book of so few words and pictures. Not only does the book teach colours, but also emotions, creativity, positive thinking, imagination, and sounds. All with the added bonus of fantastic illustrations. Now my youngest daughter, just turned 2, has discovered this book, and I can honestly say that I am delighted to be re-reading it all over again.

To capture such feelings in so few words is not easy. I first wrote a picture book thinking it would be simple, sure anyone can do that. 300 words? No problem. But it is not as easy as it looks. I have decided that is actually easier to write a 50,000 word novel than a 300 word picture book that leaves the reader with a warm feeling every time they read it. So I take off my hat to Polly Dunbar, and Julia Donaldson, and Martin Waddell and all those other picture book authors, who can create a world, a magnet, and a feeling in an instant.

Baking your stories: Thoughts on Writing

Have you ever tried to create a cake recipe from scratch? I don’t mean if you were lucky enough to grow up in a house with Darina Allen. I mean those of you who grew up in a house where the only buns were lined up in a neat plastic tray from the local shop, and the only flour that came into the house went into the bin un-opened, two years out of date. Then, imagine you get this sudden urge to bake; to invent the perfect cake. It becomes an obsession, occupying your daily thoughts. Just like writing is to an aspiring author… i.e. me.

To begin with, you need to read recipes that already exist. Learn the rules, and follow the amounts carefully. You need to master how to bake those recipes.

When you’ve read and read and read, you hit a point where you feel that you now understand how it works. You understand why you need to mix the eggs in slowly so the mixture doesn’t curdle, and why you have to grease the tin before you pour in your batter so it doesn’t stick. Surely you’re now ready to invent your own recipe. Right?

You begin one optimistic day, with a new apron, and a sparkling spatula. You take a little bit of this recipe, a little bit of that recipe, and mix it all together. You wait eagerly, watching the oven, and bing! It’s ready. At first it looks okay, and you leave it cool down. But when you come back in ten minutes, you realise it’s still raw in the middle. Back into the oven. This time the outside is burnt and the inside is hard. What went wrong? You tell yourself you just need more practice.

You try again, with a new recipe, something more manageable. Again you wait patiently, watching the oven. This time it even smells good. It comes out of the oven and looks reasonable. It even tastes reasonable. Definitely not the worst cake you’ve ever tasted. And so you share it with your family. They each take a bite and politely refuse the rest. Except your child; they tell you it’s the worst thing they’ve ever tasted and spit it out again.

So you go back to reading. You read and practice, not understanding why you’re not as good as all these other bakers, who make it seem so easy.

After much time and patience, you eventually make a masterpiece. Everyone in your family likes it. But when you put it on-line, it being too good to waste on just you, you don’t get much feedback. Why don’t they love it? Why haven’t you won the best cake of the year prize? Why are PR agents not knocking on your door?

And so you keep trying. Month after month, slowly getting better, steadily producing nicer cakes. Each one more delicious than the last. You fall in love with the baking and creating, experimenting and tasting. Out of the blue, you make the perfect cake. Even your kid, who is by now a stroppy teenager, eats an entire slice. And asks for more. People start sharing your recipe, and soon it goes viral. Other people are finally appreciating your creation.

I believe it’s the same with writing. You have to love the writing process enough to do it without needing the world to love your words. Then, when you’ve mastered the craft, someone will find you, if you really want them to. I’m still waiting, but my day will come, and by then I’ll be a better writer than I am today, and will have read more than I have now. Each book I read teaches me more than the words I write. It is an act of patience, love and enjoying the delicious journey.