25 Things You Should Know About Young Adult Fiction

As always, this is not meant to be my bold-faced proclamations about This Particular Thing, but rather, twenty-five hopefully constructive and compelling talking points and thought bullets about the topic at hand. It is not meant to be gospel etched into stone, but notions — sometimes controversial — worth discussing. Let us begin.

[EDIT: It’s 28, now. Because, reasons.]

1. If You Say The Word “Genre,” I’m Going To Tear Gas Your Mother

Young Adult is not a genre. I hear that often — “the YA genre.” You’re wrong. Don’t call it that. Stop it. Young Adult is a proposed age range for those who wish to read a particular book. It is a demographic rather than an agglomeration of people who like to read stories about, say, Swashbuckling Dinosaur Princesses or Space Manatee Antiheroes or whatever the cool kid genres are these days. Repeat after me: Young Adult is not a genre designation. See? Not so hard.

2. And That Age Range Is…

“Teenager.” Young adult books are generally written for teenagers. I’ve seen 12-18, but really, just call it “teenager” and be done with it. (The age range before it is “middle grade,” which runs roughly from 8-12.) This is where someone in the back of the room grouses about how when he was a young reader they didn’t have young adult books and he read whatever he could get his hands on, by gum and by golly — he read the Bible and Tolkien and Stephen King and Henry Miller and Penthouse and he did it backwards, in the snow, besieged by ice tigers. “In my day we didn’t need teenage books! We took what books we had and liked it! I once read a soup can for days!” I’ll cover that in more detail, but for now, I’ll leave you with this lovely Nick Hornby quote: “I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.”

3. Young Adult In Fact Runs Giggling Over Many, Many Genres

Young Adult can be whatever you want. It can be epic fantasy. It can be space opera. It can be (and often is) dystopia. It can be elf romance. It can be funny cancer. It can be ghosts and fast cars and serial killers and Nazi Germany and one might even say that it operates best when it karate-slaps all your genre conventions in the face, when genres run and swirl together like paint and make new colors and form new ideas and change the way you think about stories.

4. It Should Feature A Teen Protagonist

It’s not a completely bizarre thing to suggest that teen books should feature teenage characters. I mean, I guess it’s not essential, but I’m not sure that your book about an old man fighting raccoons in the park — young and sprightly as he may seem! — will really qualify. And here is where Cranky Old Crotchpants in the back says, “Them dang teenagers should read about more than just themselves! Selfish little boogers always stealing my flip-flops!” And here I say, the best thing about YA fiction is that it’s talking to what was once an under-served population: teenagers. It’s not saying, You will buy this book because you’re solipsistic little shitbirds but rather, it’s saying, I will write this book because finally someone’s going to start telling stories about all the things that are happening to you and your friends.

5. This Teen Protagonist Should Ideally Suffer From Teen Protagonist Problems

We write about teens to talk to teens. And you talk to teens by embracing their problems. Teen problems are — well, crap, do you remember being a teenager? Holy fuck was that ever a weird time. High school! Sex! Drugs! Drinking! Parents! First love! First breakup! Bullying! College planning! SATs! Pregnancy scares! The realization that your parents don’t know all the things you thought they knew! Even in a genre-based setting teen-specific problems can be reflected (quick plug for a friend’s book, out today: The Testing gets pitched as The Hunger Games meets the SATs). Young Adult fiction isn’t about selling books to teenagers. It’s about writing books that speak to them. And speaking to them means talking about their problems.

6. Sex, Drinking, Drugs

I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating here: sex, drinking and drugs are part of a teenager’s reality. This isn’t me suggesting every teenager has sex, or drinks, or does drugs — only that it’s there. It exists for them. And some adults may bluster — “Bluh, bleh, muh, not my teenager!” — to which I say, even Amish teenagers deal with this. The Amish. The Amish. So, I’m always dubious of any young adult book that doesn’t at least address one of these three in some way. Not saying they need to be drug-fueled drunken orgy-fests, mind you.

7. The Hormone Tornado And The Unfinished Brain

Read this: “The Teenage Brain Is A Work-In-Progress.” Their brains ain’t done cooking yet. They’re these unfinished masterpieces that are pliable in some ways, rigid in others, and whose emotional and intellectual development is driven by a drunken chimpanzee whacked-out on a cocktail of high-octane hormones. The teenage brain is like, NOW IT’S TIME TO KNOW SHIT AND DO SHIT AND HAVE SEX WITH STUFF AND KICK THINGS AND POUR YOUR HEART OUT AND DRIVE FAST AND AAAAAAAAAAAH. I’m not saying a teen protagonist has to act like a coked-up ferret, but it is important to recognize that the teen psyche is a really strange thing.

8. What Were You Like As A Teen?

Write What You Know is one of those roasted chestnuts of writing advice that fails to tell the whole story — it sounds like a proclamation, that it’s the Only Thing You Should Do, but it’s not. It’s just one of the things you can do. And given that most of the people writing young adult fiction are not themselves young adults it behooves us to not just study teenagers like we’re Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey (“I am hiding in the teenage human’s locker. This locker smells suspiciously of gym socks, weed, Cheetos, and desperation”) but rather to look back our own time doing battle in the Teenage Arena. Rip off the old gnarly Band-Aid and let the memories flow. What were your teenage years like? What did you deal with? Remember! And write.

9. The Prevalence Of First-Person Point-Of-View

YA fiction is often told in a first-person point-of-view. One could intuit reasons for this: first-person tends to be a faster and more forthright read, teenagers often embrace their own first-person narratives (from handwritten journals to, say, Tumblr), teens might be more inwardly-focused than adults. The first-person POV is not a necessity, to be clear — nobody will beat you with a copy of Divergent if you write in, say, close third.

10. The Preponderance Of Present Tense

YA fiction is also frequently given over to the present tense. One might suggest reasons for this: present tense is a snappier, sharper read (more “cinematic” as the saying goes); it also provides a more urgent read; the teen mind lives more in the present than in the past, and so narrative tense should reflect it. Again, present tense is not a requirement, just a frequent feature.

11. Shorter, Punchier Books

You won’t find many Young Adult books that are big enough to derail an Amtrak train or to bludgeon a silverback gorilla. The average Young Adult novel probably hovers around the 70,000 word mark — shorter if it leans away from genre and toward literary, I think. That’s not to say you won’t or can’t see BIG GIANT GALLUMPHING TEEN EPICS, but it isn’t really the norm. Particularly for the first in a series.

12. Pacier, Chattier Books

They also tend to be more quickly paced and with a great deal of dialogue. I’ve read some young adult books that read with almost the spare elegance of a really sharp, elegant screenplay.

13. The Role Of The Adult Character

Adults are rarely the main characters of a young adult book. Why would they be? They don’t have teen problems. They’re witnesses, at best. That said, adults can be the supporting characters (though usually still peripheral to the teen world — teachers, parents, older siblings) and they can certainly be the villains (which is true to the teen mold because sometimes, when you’re a teenager, the adults in your life can be giant, cankerous assholes). What I mean to say is, TEENS RULE, ADULTS DROOL *flushes Dad’s toupee down the toilet and sets fire to the house*

14. The Teens Sound Like Adults

Sometimes the teens you read in young adult books sound like adults. They speak with intelligence and wit. I’ve seen this as a criticism against YA fiction, but hey, fuck that. I write with the assumption that — drum roll please — teenagers are capable of intelligence and wit.

15. But They Should Always Act Like Teens

Just the same, teenagers in your young adult stories are best when they actually act like teenagers. Teens do stupid shit. I look back over my teenage years and it’s like… oooh, oh, wow, yeah, I made some poor life choices. Driving way too fast. Unprotected sex. Disputing authority even when authority might’ve actually been right. Doing things because they seemed “cool” rather than because it was actually a good goddamn idea. I once punched a locker based on misappropriated jealousy (still have the scar). I once accidentally shot a hole in our kitchen ceiling with a .22 rifle. I was once in a car with a friend who tried to circumvent like, five minutes of traffic by driving on the side of the road, thus breaking the car on a giant drainage block. I could probably do a lecture on all the really teenagey things I did as a teenager, and I didn’t even drink in high school (it took me till college to learn the love of the sauce).

16. Riskier Stories

Personal opinion time: some of the bravest, strangest, coolest stories right now are being told in the young adult space. It’s stuff that doesn’t fly by tropes or adhere to rules — appropriate, perhaps, since young adults tend to flick cigarettes in the eyes of the rules and don’t play by social norms as much as adults do. (Though teens certainly have their own social codes, too.) I wish adult fiction so frequently took risks on the material at hand, but it doesn’t. And as a person (relatively) new to the young adult spectrum, I used to assume it was all Twilight: generic pap. But then you read John Green, or Libba Bray, or Maureen Johnson — or holy shit, have you read Code Name: Verity?! — and your eyes start to go all boggly. Amazing storytelling in this realm. Amazing! I’ll wait here while you go read it all. *stares*

17. More “Adult” Stories

Young adult stories are encouraged to deal with some heavy shit when needed. Suicide, racism, misogyny, teen pregnancy, depression, cancer, rape, school shootings, and so forth. Don’t feel like it needs to be all cushy and cozy and given over to some Hollywood notion of what it’s like being a teenager. Sometimes YA books get called “children’s fiction,” which makes it sound like it stars characters looking for their next cotton candy fix while trying to stop the playground bullies from stealing their truck toys. Young adults still deal with some particularly adult things.

18. Very Hard To Compare To Film Ratings

A lot of young adult books hover somewhere between PG-13 and R in terms of how you might translate it to a film rating — but that’s ultimately a broken comparison because of, well, how broken film ratings happen to be. For example: if you were to film The Hunger Games as close to the book as you could make it, it would almost certainly be an R-Rated film for the depiction of violence. Some of the sex in young adult books would similarly earn an R-rating or — given our deeply Puritanical roots — something closer to NC-17 (GASP TEENS HAVE SEX OH GOD BURN THE BRIDGES SINK THE BOATS). The takeaway is, you can get away with some profanity and some sex in young adult fiction — though, I have seen talk of some libraries, teachers and booksellers refusing to promote certain books to teenagers because of edgy content found within. This is, as always, a YMMV issue.

19. Adults Like It

Adults read a lot of young adult fiction, particularly “cross-over” fiction that leans toward the higher end of that teen age range. One might speculate adults like it because it recaptures some part of their youth. Or that adults are frequently not as grown up as they’d prefer these days. Or that they get some vicarious thrill. Mostly, if I’m being honest, I think it’s because of what I said in #13 and #14 — some of the bravest, most “adult” storytelling is happening in the young adult space. They’re gravitating to the quality. Or so I like to hope. At the very least, those who claim young adult books are there to play off of adult nostalgia for the age have never read a young adult book. (“Teen suicide. Remember those good times? Like a Norman Rockwell painting!”)

20. Something-Something New Adult

Now there’s this other thing called “new adult,” which I think is maybe like “diet adult,” or “adult, now with zero calories?” I dunno. My understanding is that it’s maybe just a sexed-up version of young adult? Or that it’s the next age range after young adult for, say, 19-25 year olds? (Soon we’ll be writing books based on your birth month. “THIS BOOK RECOMMENDED FOR THOSE BORN IN JUNE OF 1984.”) I always thought that 19-25 year olds were just regular old adults by then, but maybe I’m that crotchety old crotchbasket on the lawn yelling at you kids to stop trampling his begonias.

21. As Always, Hell With Trends

THE TREND RIGHT NOW IS TEEN MUMMY UTOPIAS FEATURING SPUNKY CHARACTERS LOCKED IN TURBULENT LOVE RHOMBUSES. Whatever. Fuck trends. You can’t really beat trends. You can’t really write to them either. Trends are boring. Write what you want to write and make it as awesome as you can make it. Set the trend instead of following it.

22. You Are Reading Young Adult, Right?

If you’re gonna write it, you better be reading it.

23. Of Waning Snobbery

I was once a young adult snob. I was that old dude on his front porch yelling at the wind — “I don’t need your stinky young adult fictions! I read Ender’s Game when it was just a book and the author wasn’t a homophobic Tea Party sociopath! It’s just a marketing category! I’ll fill your hide with rock salt from my shotgun MARTHA GET ME MY SHOTGUN.” But I think that’s changing. In part because folks like myself acquiesced and actually starting reading what was prematurely condemned. I’m happy to be seeing fewer and fewer essays elsewhere about how YA is too dark or too puerile or how adult fiction is just fine, thanks, shut up — as if the presence of young adult fiction somehow eats away adult fiction instead of contributing to the overall health of a great book market. Go read that Nick Hornby quote again.

24. Teen Self-Publishing Squad

I don’t really know how self-publishing impacts young adult fiction or vice versa. I did self-publish an “edgy YA” (Bait Dog) which did well over Kickstarter and has since sold fine enough since (well enough that Amazon picked it and a sequel up to publish with Skyscape starting next year). Trends have been that teen readers preferred physical books as they did not often own their own e-readers — though, I’ve heard they’re inheriting e-readers now, thus opening them to the digital space more easily. Good for indie publishing types, I think.

25. You’re Not My Mom!

We as adults have a tendency to talk down to children and adolescents. “Eat this. Don’t eat that. Get good grades. If you pee in the pool, the pool filter will release piranha. Don’t do drugs. Definitely don’t steal Daddy’s drugs. If you masturbate too often, your fingers will turn white and fall off.” Don’t do this in your books. These books aren’t lesson plans. You’re not preaching from the Adult-Sized Podium. (This is true of all books, by the way — you should be telling stories while within your audience, not from outside it. I just think the tendency to get all teachy-and-preachy is stronger when writing for teens.)

26. Big-Ass Market Share

The young adult market is strapping and robust, like a young Russian lad thick on borscht and vodka. Last year sales in young adult were up 13%, and up 117% in e-books which is more than twice the digital growth in adult markets — plus, by most reports, young adult fiction yields bigger advances, too. And it’s these bigger advances right now that maybe suggests young adult authors are better leaning toward more traditional publishing than self-publishing (whereas in other areas, like in romance, the reverse may be true).

27. Genres Being Codified

I always poke around the Barnes & Noble YA shelves and I’ve noticed that the big bookstore has begun to lump YA into weird, clumsy genres. What I used to love about that shelf is that it was once just YOUNG ADULT. No “general fiction,” no “mystery,” no “SFF,” just — boom, here’s all the awesome books, please dispense of your genre tropes and judgments. That’s changing. Now it’s like, “Teen Adventure!” and “Teen Romance!” and “Teen Boondoggles With Drugs And Dystopias!” and blah blah blah. I don’t like it. I also don’t like that the shelving seems almost arbitrary, like someone let my toddler do it.

28. Good Story Is Good Story No Matter The Age Range

Young Adult is not just some easy space to jump in and make a quick buck. It’s a place for great storytelling and no matter what the rules are now or what they become for this age range, good story is always good story. I’m not so blindly optimistic to suggest that you can’t lose with a good story (nor would I say you can’t win with a bad one because, well, c’mon), but just the same: put your best foot forward with the best story you can tell. If it’s a story about teens or toddlers or geriatric dudes or koalas or space koalas or teenage space koalas, fuck it: slam your best effort down on the table. Write a killer story. The end.


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186 comments

  • Great article. As to why young adults purchase hard copies? It’s the thing to do. They make the books beautiful because teens are not only collecting these editions, but they are geeking hard over them. One need only look at Instagram, #shelfies, and what they like to call bookstagrams. Seriously, they will find the perfect pair of socks to pair with the latest plastic pop! figure and snap with a photo of their most recent hard bound obsession. It’s a thing.

  • My writer’s group said I should label my book women’s fiction because of the adult characters who play a pivotal role in the story. But my protagonist is seventeen. From what you said, it sounds like it should be YA, but it’s a three-book series and by the time the series end, she is 29. Can I still market the series as YA? By this time the content is decidedly adult. They are falling in love, having sex, getting pregnant.

  • Thanks for this blog. It really helped me out, exactly when I needed it.
    I am working on the cover design for my new novel, and getting a lot of cautionary feedback on
    one of the images. It’s caused me to rethink (i.e. second-guess myself on) just what the hell I’ve written really is.

    My first novel has enjoyed broad appeal among the 13 to 70 set, but I classify it as YA, because that’s who I really want reading it. I have a hard time writing to a certain niche. I have a story I want to tell, and I tell it the way I want to tell it. Is my book too dark, violent, and scary for kids? I dunno, is Nicole Kidman’s plot to eviscerate, skin, and stuff cute little Paddington Bear in a movie too scary?

    I had to pull John Green out of the bag to get my library system to reclassify my fist book as YA,
    pointing out that my book didn’t go anywhere near Looking for Alaska in profanity or graphic hanky panky.

    I’ve been so busy writing, I haven’t taken the time to think about the ramifications. Kind of like a teenager…

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Drew

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