Getting in Touch with the Current YA

Wednesday, October 08, 2008
At my critique group, which seems to often be a topic of my blog posts, we had another lively discussion. This time it centered around my recent submission to my group members of the young adult novel I am working on. The controversy was over a recent scene I added where my wonderful, beautiful main character (okay, so I'm a little biased), who is a 17-year-old girl, is being pressured to have sex by her boyfriend of 2 1/2 years, and she doesn't have her shirt on. In fact, she likes making out with him, but she is not ready for sex, and she might not be until she is married.

One of my critique group members, who I love dearly, said he thought I should take the whole scene out because my main character was acting immoral. I said I thought teens who read the book should see that they can say NO at any point, and it is okay. It is hard, but it is okay.

This led to a discussion of the current YA market, and I asked how many YA books he had read in the past year. He said he didn't need to read YA books to know what was moral and what wasn't, and I agree with that. (I don't think she is acting immoral, but that's a whole other discussion.) But I think if you are going to write for teens, you have to know how to reach them where they are at today--OR they are not going to read you. They are not going to believe you. And they are not going to relate to your characters.

I am no expert---I've just read a lot of YA books for my blog, "Read These Books and Use Them" ( I have to admit at first I was a bit shocked by some of the language--the "f" word--and the sex and the drugs and any of the other teen issues that pop up in YA books. But now I've read and listened to many, many current YA books, and when I recently read Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, I was refreshed by the fact that two teens chose not to drink and have sex in an all-night adventure. Instead, they had an adventure--plenty of the "f" word to go around, but that was it.

I was lucky enough to hear Holly Black speak at a conference in Illinois in June. She is the author of the Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe series. I am going to paraphrase because I don't remember her words EXACTLY, but basically she said:

Don't write for the teen you wish or think you were, or you wish your children were. Write for the teen you were!

In other words, you probably weren't a perfect angel--did you ever sneak out of your house to see your boyfriend? Did you ever go to a party and drink alcohol before you were 21? And so on? And if you are reading this now, you made it through your teen years and turned out okay.

One last thought, if you are in your 30s or older, you probably remember the ABC After School Specials. Weren't they scandalous in our time? Society has changed, and those specials wouldn't relate to teens anymore. This doesn't mean there are no morals or good teenagers out there. It just means they are dealing with the same problems that we did or our grandparents did--drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, fitting in, looking at the future, dealing with peer pressure, and so on. It is important to be in touch with how today's teens face and struggle with these issues if you are going to write for them! YA books are fascinating. If you haven't read one lately, pick up one soon.

Happy Writing!
Margo Dill


Anonymous said...

OK...I am a mother of 3 teens. I tried to raise my teens as my parents did me...back in the 80's. The reality of it all is that no matter what we would like to "dream" the perfect teen is...they are human. They are going to do what they want to matter how much we lecture to them or give them the consequences of certain decisions they may make. I feel that in the year 2008, teens grow up waaay too fast...but that is reality. Why write a book for YA based on the "Leave it to Beaver" days? This is not going to help them at all. I feel that the YA books SHOULD address the REAL issues of today's teens. If done in a tactful way (free from the "f" word) I feel that it would reach the YA's and help them to learn that the issues they face everyday in life are REAL issues and are important. They just want to be validated and not judged. Yes, I remember when I was a mother didn't judge me. She taught me the way she knew, then left it up to me to make my decisions. I could talk to her about ANYTHING and she would do her best to answer me honestly. I have never been arrested, I do not drink, and I do not do drugs. I have a full-time job and 3 kids of my own, and I thank my mother everyday (rest her soul) for being open and honest with me instead of leaving me in the dark about REAL issues I would face when not in her presence.

Shelli said...

I love your post, and I think you should definitely keep that scene in your book! I recently had the good fortune to speak to a YA author on the phone (as a follow up to a bargain we struck at a conference), and she read some of my work. She said that the 15 year old I was is more like a 12 year old today and so forth - they are growing up much faster, and the books they are reading HAVE to appeal to them and what they're going through, or they aren't going to read them. Nick and Norah's is a great book - I would have loved to have read it when I was teen! Good luck with your work! Follow your own instincts!

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