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What do Young Adult readers want? A teen’s open letter to YA writers.

Dear YA Author,

Firstly, thank you for enriching my world and filling it with such wonder.

I’ll start with a short introduction. I am 15 years old, and I study in Grade 10 in an international school in Singapore. I read voraciously, and I have too many favourite books to name, but “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak is definitely somewhere at the top. I am also an intern at the Himalayan Writing Retreat, which is why my writing finds its way here. I love some YA books, and really hate others. Someday I hope we write them myself. Until then, I am trying to explain what I like and what I don’t for your (and my) benefit.

Before exploring what makes a ‘good’ YA novel, it’s necessary to first understand what ‘Young Adult’ means – the type of characters you need, your audience, etc. Young adult means an audience that is in high school. It follows that the protagonist of YA novels is of ‘high school’ age, ideally between 14-18. Strangely enough, even though YA is directed towards audiences who are presumed to be pre-teens, or between 14-18, most YA novels (especially in the US) are bought by adults, or by people aged 18 or older. The feeling of being a teenager is timeless. I think a good YA novel is one that is open to all ‘age categories,’ something that is neither too mature for a 14-year-old to grasp, neither too tedious for a 45-year-old to read.

This maybe the reason why Young Adult fiction has grown to become amongst the largest genres of fiction. That makes it an attractive market and draws so many of you to this Genre. However, it’s hard to write about topics that hundreds of other writers are writing about, and that too, write something that is unique, fresh, distinct — something that is so clearly ‘yours’, something that no one has ever written before.

There is a prevailing wrong perception of YA fiction that most people seem to have. Until recently I was also a part of this ‘most people’ category. I thought of YA as childish. But given that my favourite book – ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak – is anything but childish, I realize the error in my judgement now. I somehow thought YA fiction was limited to  ‘Twilight,’ ‘The vampire academy’- I didn’t even consider novels such as ‘The hate U give,’ or ‘The Outsiders,’, ‘The fault in our stars’ as Young Adult Literature. The stereotypical Young Adult seems like an easy genre to write, with predictable themes like young love, coming of age, loss of innocence, blah blah.

The main reason why I enjoy the YA genre so much is that although it is not usually similar to anything I am going through (I’m not a 16-year-old who is living in post-apocalyptic dystopian Chicago, like Tris in Divergent) but their thoughts, passions, fears are very similar to mine. This makes them ‘relatable,’ (sorry about the very overused word). For me, a good YA fiction novel is one where the protagonist is someone who is in touch with their hopes and emotions, someone who I have seen grow and evolve. The protagonist of your YA novel should be someone who has a strong voice, someone whose head you can really dig into- extract everything about them and lay it out onto the blank piece of paper in front of you, and let the words take hold.

Of course, this is all a matter of opinion- I am far from being you – someone who is actually experienced in writing, but through the good (and the bad)  fiction novels that I have encountered, this is what I have discovered.

What bores me remarkably while reading YA fiction are the ubiquitous cardboard cutouts that the author calls “characters”.  When something becomes widespread, it gradually becomes overused- it becomes a stereotype. For a while, I enjoyed reading the typical high school romance about, say, the ‘popular guy,’ and the ‘shy girl,’ but after a while, the characters become monotonous, tired. It’s easy to predict what comes next, and that is never enjoyable in a novel. A good YA novel, in my opinion, would be one that may still have the ‘stereotypical’ characters- but more in focus.

That is to say, make your characters unpredictable, make them appealing. Don’t make them shadows of one another. The reader will not see what you see in your character- a confusing notion, but let me explain.  Your character may seem complete in your eyes, and according to you the character does not need any more detail. Think again. You believe so because you know your character – he or she is a figment of your imagination, so you know everything there is to know about them. Your reader does not. Give your characters depth, dimension. Make them human.

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I think while writing, it is important not to feel the need of using ‘sophisticated’ language unless that is what your characters demand. If your protagonist is a 15-year-old girl, let her talk the way a 15-year-old would talk instead of forcing words down her throat in an effort to make your writing seem more disciplined. Your writing doesn’t need to be disciplined. I think that is something else I enjoy about YA- the relentless need of sounding ‘smart’ in comparison to writing adult fiction isn’t there. I think a good YA novel is one that is simple. It is a simple story that grows to become something more as you continue to read.

YA is not always generic. It doesn’t always take place in the hallways of an American high school, with characters like ‘Jason,’ and ‘Bob,’ and ‘Steve.’ YA is Starr, a 16-year-old girl in Angie Thomas’s brilliant novel ‘THUG’ (The Hate U Give) who witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend Khalil. The entire book revolves around the violence, and the racism black people face on a daily basis. Even though it is told through the perspective of a 16-year-old girl who attends high school, that is what makes the novel so compelling. Starr is innocent, she is learning- and we are learning along with her.

Show, don’t tell. This golden rule applies even more to YA – we have lesser patience. We need something to feed our vivid imaginations. I think good YA novels show the entire journey of their character, their failures, their triumphs, everything about them, instead of merely ‘telling’ a story. Some YA novels tend to be associated as ‘advice’ novels, i.e., novels that offer valuable wisdom, they’re a piece of forbidden fruit, they open a gateway of knowledge. They may have morals. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have a moral in your story or try to shove one down your reader’s throat. If you have a message to send across, show it through your characters. Don’t tell. If the message is a good one, it is something your readers will gather by- well, reading. It won’t be required to tell them. They’ll know.

Perspective. Perspective is so, so important. To write a young adult novel,  you need to be a young adult. Not literally, of course, but rather imagine yourself as your character. Really, really, REALLY put yourself into his or her shoes, and don’t be afraid to reveal what you find there. A teenager’s head is a mess of everything, a whirlwind of emotions. You are writing a novel from the perspective of someone who is growing up- you cannot make them wise, and knowing of everything in the future, you can’t mold them into something that they are not. They will fail, and that is something that is important for them to do, in order to succeed. They will cry, they will get angry easily, they will be foolish, and you shouldn’t try to stop them. Rainbow Rowell didn’t know her book was YA until she finished writing it- the widely acclaimed Eleanor and park, which is a teenage love story, was set out in her mind at least to be an ‘adult novel.’ What labeled her book YA, however, was the perspective- the story was distinctly told by a

teenager: “The perspective was so firmly rooted inside of these teenagers,” Rowell says. “You’re not looking back or looking down. The narrator is not observing things the people themselves are not.”

I’ve spoken mostly about the characters- I think they constitute a significant aspect of what makes young adult literature young adult literature. Growing up is something that everyone has in common. We will all have to face it at a certain point, or perhaps we have already encountered it. To kill a mockingbird- although some may oppose it being called a ‘young adult’ novel, it is a coming of age story and defines what it means to develop your character. The narrator, Scout, changes drastically as the book progresses, and the ability of the writer to help the reader see from a different perspective is what makes Young Adult- or any genre, for the matter, any book, unique.

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YA is a very special genre- I could go as far as to call it exceptional. Everything in a teenager’s life is exaggerated and magnified – we are going through a period in our lives, which is very confusing, and everything is a jumble of thoughts. When someone takes a pen and writes down what precisely a teenager is feeling, the feeling of growing up and undergoing all these different experiences- when someone is able to do that successfully, I think that’s what I would call a good YA book.

If this article has helped you in any way, dear YA Writer, please do leave me a comment.

Thank you

Tara Lohani

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8 Responses

  1. Hey Tara,
    Thanks for writing.

    You have expressed with such an enthusiasm & energy that we can feel Protagonist’s character already, who is passionate to be YA Writer. :-).

    One of the important take from your writing, which I loved the most by example given about To kill a Mockingbird –

    “The narrator, Scout, changes drastically as the book progresses, and the ability of the writer to help the reader see from a different perspective is what makes Young Adult- or any genre, for the matter, any book, unique.”

    Motivating reader to see through different perspective is a great skill of Writing Craft…. it’s applicability further continued even to other extended mediums like Play / Films.

    Hope you are already in process of pen down YA characters, stories.
    It will be surely fresh & unique with real time experiences, feelings, expressions by YA Author.

    Trust you will not delay it much.

    Wish You All The Success Ahead….. 👍

    Mann MadanTilak

  2. Thanks Tara, those are great suggestions for any writer, not just those you aspire to write YA fiction. It’s great to get an “insiders” perspective – keep up the good work! All the best for future writing

  3. Great enthusiasm & energy in writing. It’s difficult to believe that this is penned by a 15 year old teenager. Great future ahead. God Bless.

  4. Hi Tara,

    This is great writing. Thanks for transporting me to the world of Young Adult 🙂 It has been almost 20 yrs since I crossed that wonderful phase of life. Fiction is relatively new to me in comparison to non-fiction, but I am learning and your piece definitely was an eye-opener. I agree with you on the point that writing for YA audience is a lot tougher than other segment. I wish you to write lots and lots of best-selling works.

  5. What an insightful piece of writing!
    It’s so good to know if a teenager who is a voracious reader and is actively engaged while reading.
    You have a bright future as a writer, Tara!

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