Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why I write YA

Whenever I talk to my extended family (the adults) or my parents' friends, they tend to make certain assumptions about the trajectory of my writing career. They automatically assume that someday I'll "graduate" to writing adult fiction. As if YA isn't "serious" literature. As if all children's writers are simply honing their skills, hoping, someday, to finally be able to write for grown ups.

I tell them they're wrong. I explain my intentions to remain a YA/MG author even when I'm no longer a teenager. They give me a patronizing smile, as if I'm a silly little child, and spout something along the lines of, "Oh, you're so young. You'll change your mind when you get older."




*refrains from shouting expletives*

Condescension really isn't attractive.

Here's the thing. I've read plenty of literary and commercial adult fiction, just as I've read literary and commercial YA. Some books are high quality. Some are less so. There are just as many quality YA books as there are quality adult books, and YA can be equally complex. Take His Dark Materials or The Bartimaeus Trilogy or The Adoration of Jenna Fox. All well-written, stunningly complex books, one YA, two MG. As the talented Madeleine L'Engle (we share an agent) once said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

YA can be dark and frightening and real and thought-provoking. It can also be light and funny and irresistible. The main difference between YA and adult fiction is the necessity of story. I've read many adult books in which plot takes a back seat, with characters meandering through the tasks of their everyday lives. The writing may be beautiful and the descriptions gorgeous, but in the end this type of book won't hold my attention. I have no reason to care about the characters. I feel like there's this common misconception that an action-packed children's novel automatically sacrifices character development, beautiful writing, and themes, as if plot and depth are mutually exclusive. So many good children's authors refute this sentiment. Once again, I'll use the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud as an example. The plot is fast-paced enough to hold the attention of young children (I read it first in elementary school). There is action, adventure, and danger. However, Stroud does not sacrifice complexity and beautiful writing in order to appeal to children. There are times when I stop in the middle of a paragraph, just to admire Stroud's deft skills, a particular turn of phrase, or the placement of a word. His prose is stunning. Each character in the trilogy is fully fleshed out and vocally distinct, and the emotional journeys they undergo are heart wrenching. To this day, Stroud remains the only author to ever make me cry. The series also delves deep in its exploration of slavery, the slave-master relationship, the corruption of political power, and colonialism in the Americas.

I'm not saying all adult fiction lacks plot, but YA requires it. A good YA book has everything: a well-paced story, believable characters, complex relationships, emotional arcs, beautiful writing, and underlying themes that can (but don't necessarily have to) be explored by the reader.

I write YA because I want to produce books that kids like to read. I've known many people who've read the "classics," but not many who truly enjoyed them. Reading should be engaging as well as meaningful. Again, this is just my opinion. There are those out there who prefer adult literary fiction, and that's wonderful, but I simply detest the academic snobbery that surrounds YA.

But the real reason I choose YA, why I will probably never graduate to "grown-up writing," is because of the characters. Because they are so dynamic and unpredictable and interesting and capable. Adolescence is a universal and fascinating time in one's life, when the mind and body are constantly shifting. Characters with such potential for change create fascinating protagonists. They are poised on the edge of adulthood, but their world is still so colored by their own perception, by a kind of interiority not found in adult characters. Like children, teenagers view the events around them through a hypothetical lens. But whereas children are wholly selfish in their evaluation of others, teenagers have started to branch out and look at the bigger picture, becoming more empathetic in the process. The hard and fast truths of childhood are dissolving. Teenage characters begin to discover the multi-faceted nature of truth, and the fact that their own truth may not be the same as the truths of the people around them. It's scary, and thoroughly engaging. Adolescent protagonists are more heavily influenced by the events that occur in a story. They are emotionally vulnerable, and as a writer the exploration of a teenager's mind makes for fascinating work.

I know I'm still a teenager. I'm still changing, and making new decisions, and shaping the person I'm going to become. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage; as a teenager, I'm better able to understand and empathize with my teenage characters, but I lack the perspective of my future self. In twenty years, will I have a more balanced perspective? I'm sure. But for now, I'll work with what I've got.

Lastly, the audience. I believe that YA, more so than any other genre, has the potential to change lives. Just look at Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Teenagers deal with so many issues and don't necessarily have the maturity to handle heavier problems on their own. During such an impressionable period, YA books can have a huge impact on a teenager's mind. I know books have changed me for the better.

So those are my reason. This is why I write YA. And this is why, ten years from now, I'll still be writing for children.


  1. Me too... minus the part about me being a teenager.

  2. Very well said. I agree with all of the above :)

  3. Great post! I argue endlessly with people who make assumptions about the "childish" nature of YA books.

  4. This post just fills me with so much love. I wish I could link every one of the people who've scoffed at me for writing YA to this post. I also love it that you mentioned Madeleine L'engle and Jonathan Stroud--who were definitely two of my FAVORITE authors while I was in elementary school. (OH MY GAWD. BARTIMAEUS. NATHANIEL. <3 Those books simultaneously blew my mind and tore my heart out.) Thanks for this post and good luck with revisions! I'm rooting for you, Kate. :)

  5. Oh those silly people. They just don't know what they're talking about.

  6. A lot of times I find Grown-up Fiction sillier than Childrens'/Young Adult Fiction...I still read so-called adult fiction, but the more modern ones seem really bland and dry compared to older classics.
    On the other hand, I can list dozens of YA books that would make it on my "best of" list any day. I think 'serious' authors should consider writing for younger audiences once in a while...they may find themselves smiling more and drinking less.

    Nice post, as always!

  7. This is my all time favorite blog post! I write YA for the same reasons. You should print this and frame it on your wall so years from now you can look back and remember you knew back then how special writing YA really is.