Sometimes I still feel a little embarrassed to tell people that I'm writing a young adult book.
"Oh!" they say. "That sounds...easy."
Does it? I want to say. Well it's NOT. Teenage audiences are VERY. DISCERNING. They have their favorite things which they adore and they think everything else is GARBAGE. And I cannot try for even ONE SECOND to be cool because they will see RIGHT THROUGH IT. It is a MINUSCULE LINE between being RELEVANT and being a JOKE. WHERE MY HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS AT? YOU GET IT. YOU UNDERSTAND. YOU'RE THE REAL HEROES.
But I don't say any of that out loud. Obviously. I don't want people to think I'm an insane person. Instead, next time someone asks why I write what I write instead of "real novels," I can point them to this handy list to explain WHY YA:
- DRAMA. There's a reason why Romeo and Juliet are teenagers--because who else would pretend not to be biting their thumbs at each other even though they totally were; fall in love with someone else when they were seriously JUST making out with poor Rosaline; disregard their families' weird blood feud or whatever; speak only in iambic pentameter; get married in secret after five minutes; and then, like, LITERALLY DIE, except not, except then yes? Teenage life is all tension. It's visceral and terrible and magnificent, expanding and contracting all at once. When we're young we feel everything, even if we don't understand or want to feel it, and all this internal struggle makes for some real compelling characters. I don't mean drama in a negative sense here, either; I think great stories feature people who care deeply (which is why The Catcher in the Rye can sod right off). Young adults care deeply about the world, their friends, their passions. Maybe it's easy for older people to dismiss young adults because we think they're hormone-addled nut jobs who will eventually grow out of their idealism and look back on their teenage years in shame and horror, just like the rest of us. Or maybe we're embarrassed to remember how tragic and foolish we seemed at that age. Despite how brutal and messy those years can be, however, it's a mistake not to respect teenagers--their lives, their stories, their potential, their eminent worth. Their problems are real. Their stories are important. They deserve to hear that.
- SELF-REFLECTION. I spent all of my teenage years (plus most-to-all of my twenties) intensely confused--about what I wanted, who I was, and pretty much everything about the world around me. The lessons teenagers are supposed to learn are so complex that I (and most adults I know) still struggle to internalize them--universal lessons like how to become a decent human being, or how to recognize your own worth, or what to do when the bassist of your band, Snakes for Feet, is fighting with the lead singer, and it looks like the band might break up but you really just don't have time to deal with this right now because you have to give a speech tomorrow for which you are wildly unprepared. Much of contemporary YA fiction features characters with a HOOK: they're dying, or their friend is dying, or they have to solve a murder mystery in space. Much of it deals with Very Serious Topics like bullying, or drugs, or pregnancy, or violence, or bullying pregnant girls into doing drugs but then they hit you. This makes for vital, gripping fiction that gets young people excited about reading and helps them deal with big issues, which is obviously SO GREAT. However, there's also the kid over there who looks sleepy and a little lost, and he's all like, "So I woke up today...and I have all these feelings...and I don't think I'm emotionally equipped to handle...well, much of anything, really. I certainly couldn't solve a murder mystery, even if it happened on Earth. I just want to be able to eat a taco at lunch on Tuesday without spilling the taco fixings all down my front." Them's m'people. Your concerns are valid, too, and I write for you, you sweet, awkward, confused, little chipmunks. Please teach me all the new slang, and in return I promise to use at least seventy percent of it wrong so you can laugh at me forever.
- FRIENDSHIP. Let me tell ya, there is nothing goofier, funnier, or more formidable than a group of teenage friends. I'm obsessed with the way teenagers use and change language, and the quality of their friendships feels unique within society: So supportive! So expressive! So chock-full of stupid jokes and dumb ideas, like "Wanna see me try to do a front flip over this railing?" Friends I made in high school (middle school, really, but that's a different genre of books) are still some of my closest people, so writing about teenage friendships feels a little like hanging out with them again. So do I write YA because I'm lonely? I'd prefer not to answer that!
- INSPIRATION. The other night at an event I met a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending her summer helping out at the campaign of a congressional candidate she believes in. She wants to take a semester off school to keep helping them through November (she is of course the only one who thinks this is a good idea). Let me repeat: she's fifteen. When I was fifteen, I was trying to memorize all the words to "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies (side note: I succeeded! It's good to keep your dreams attainable, friends). My youngest sister just graduated high school, and she gives speeches. In public. To people. She's a talented writer with an inspiring blog, and she (unsurprisingly) wants a career that will let her help people. Every teenager I talk to is so smart, so self-assured and focused and shockingly mature. They seem to all want to change the world, work hard, and help others--and what's more, they already have a plan to achieve their goals. They're not waiting until they're older; they're starting now. So, of course I admire young adults. They're funny and smart and creative and enthusiastic and sad and messy and way overly dramatic--why would anyone not want to write stories about such an awesome group of humans?