YA is Ultimately for Teens, and That’s Okay
The other day a parent came up to me and we engaged in some good old fashioned Reader’s Advisory. Her daughter was 11, a young 11. And she wanted some recommendations for some YA titles, but she was very worried about content. In the end I told her that after talking with her, I thought she would be comfortable with her daughter reading a variety of really excellent middle grade titles. What I heard her saying was that she wasn’t really comfortable with her daughter reading YA, and that’s okay.
At the same time, there has been a variety of conversations online about adults reading – and reviewing – YA. It’s especially an issue when adults continue to criticize main characters in YA literature for acting like, well, teenagers. The truth is, the best YA are those titles that feature authentic teen main characters. That means they have to feature teens that are reckless, impulsive, inconsistent, and changing. Because that’s who teens are.
Don’t get me wrong. I read YA literature. I don’t just read it because I’m a Teen Librarian or for TLT, I read it because I enjoy reading it. I have favorite authors. I have favorite titles, series, and genres. I am an avid YA reader. But I also recongize that ultimately, YA is not written FOR me. I enjoy it, but part of what I enjoy about it is that it is written for and about teens – and that’s very important.
We live in a culture that has strong negative feelings about teens. Local malls put up signs dis-inviting groups of teens from their properties. We enact curfews. We scoff, side eye and demean normal teenage behavior. We joke about how we would never want to go back to middle or high school (and to be honest, I wouldn’t). Every day in so many ways we communicate to teenagers that we loathe and judge them for who they are. Which is part of the reason why authentic, well written YA literature is so important. It communicates a very different and positive message to teens: we see you, we value you, we respect you, we hear you. That’s an important message that teens need to hear.
So what makes YA literature good?
A YA book has to respect the teen reader
Trust that teens can and do have the ability to read and understand a book. They don’t need to be talked down to. They don’t need your message telegraphed to them. If you assume your readers are unintelligent and write in ways that make that clear, you’ve already lost your audience. Teens know when we are talking down to them, and they resent it. If you don’t respect teens, don’t write or work for/with them.
A YA book has to reference things teens know
I grew up watching Doogie Howser, MD. I’m 44 years old. Your book should probably not have a teen character that references Doogie Howser without some really good reason for doing so. For example, in The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez one of the supporting characters is obsessed with the Rat Pack. This character explains to you why they are invested in the Rat Pack, who the Rat Pack are, and what they know about them. It’s an obscure reference that teens won’t know, but it is given in a context. Without that context, teens don’t understand what is being said or why. If you name drop obscure references from your own teenage life, you are no longer writing for teens but are writing for yourself or author adults your same age.
See also: Slang. Pay attention to the terms you use and slang you reference.
A YA book has to have teens that act in authentically teen ways
Teens are not mini-adults. Brain science tells us that the teen brain is functionally different than that of an adult. They are often bad at decision making, impulsive, and emotional. Yes, they absolutely are submerged into a world of incredible hormonal influx and wrestling with what those hormones mean. Like adults, many teens are unlikable. That’s just human nature. They should be complex, richly developed, and well-rounded. If you are an adult who complained because Harry Potter acted like a moody, entitled, emotional teen in the later HP books, then you probably don’t remember or don’t respect teenagers. I was a moody, entitled teenager who slammed down the phone, slammed doors, rolled my eyes and both raged and bawled my eyes out. It’s all normal teenage behavior. PS, many adults still do all of these same things. I mean, even I am prone to rolling my eyes.
There are always outliers, and they deserve to be reflected in YA literature too. But old soul teens who speak like college professors or act like mini-adults should also be outliers in YA literature, not the norm.
A YA book has to reflect the diverse world of teens
My teenage daughter is a cis-white female who has just finished the 8th grade. She knows and is friends with 4 trans people, many other GLBTQ people, people with disabilities, and a wide variety of people of color. Her white best friend is dating a black boy. She goes to church every Sunday and then goes to school on Monday and talks about her weekend with her Muslim friends. She does not live in an all white, all straight, all Christian world. Even in the community that I work, which is 96% white, my teens live with and want diversity. They are aware that they are a small part of the world. In fact, I find daily that teens are much more open and kind and craving of authentic diversity then previous generations have been.
A YA book has to reflect the diverse interests of teens
The Bestie is a cheerleader who plays volleyball and goes to book festivals. The Teen is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do who also loves musical theater and science; she is also an avid reader. The teens I know are interested in comics and anime and sports and art and movies and . . . . well, a little bit of everything. And not a single teen I know is defined by any one thing, just as adults are not. I am a wife and a mother and a librarian and a friend that loves science fiction and sharks and dinosaurs and robots and the water and cake. We are all multitudes, as are teens. Stop writing about jocks and cheerleaders and nerds and band geeks and loners and stoners in stereotypical ways. And stop writing one-dimensional characters. Again, respect the teen reader and respect their complexity.
YA is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Younger readers can read YA, but there is also lots of glorious middle grade out there for them to read. I love and read MG, too. Adults can read YA, but there are also lots of glorious adult fiction out there for adults to read. And in the middle there is YA, which can and should be ultimately for teens. Teens need good, quality YA written for and about them by authors who understand, respect and value them.
If you are an adult who reads YA and finds yourself complaining about the teens in YA literature, YA literature may not be for you. And that’s okay.
YA is Ultimately for Teens, and That's Okay//
YA is Ultimately for Teens, and That's Okay
Filed under: Teen Fiction
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network
Notes on May 2023
That Time I Asked Chris Rufo a Question
School-Live!: Letters | Review
Barbie Fun for Everyone!
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving