What Is YA?, a guest post by Hayley Krischer
In the beginning of September, New Yorker writer Helen Rosner added to the already agonizing conversation “What makes YA, YA?” when she posted this on Twitter: “If the protagonist is a girl between the ages of 17-25 the only difference between YA and adult fiction is marketing. I will die on this hill.”
The conversation started another intense discussion on Twitter about a topic that has been covered for at least a decade. Authors and librarians have weighed in heavily on this: YA books make the world less scary and bewildering; YA makes us safe to be who we are and YA should only be written for teens, and teens alone.
Despite what some might believe, YA is not just a marketing tool. Just because a book is about teenagers, it doesn’t mean that it is meant for teenagers. Or that it will have the teenage perspective needed to attract teenagers.
As a first time YA writer, I found myself in this situation when I was writing my second book The Falling Girls. My story had been partially based on the Skylar Neese murder. Skylar Neese was a 16-year-old from West Virginia who was killed by her two best friends; when one of the girls was asked why they did it, she responded: “We just didn’t like her.”
I was fascinated by the concept of turning on your best friend in such a horrific way. I wanted to understand these girls and their relationships before the murder took place. Who were they when they were together? What did they mean to each other?
From that place, I created Shade, my main character, who becomes completely intoxicated by Chloe Orbach, the dazzling head of the cheerleading team who has a dark side. Shade’s best friend Jadis isn’t happy about this new friendship. Neither is Chloe’s best friend. One of the girls is killed at the homecoming dance, and Shade needs to find out what happened.
Shade does a lot of self-searching—she has to not only take a lens to herself and her desires, but she has to understand how her relationship with Chloe impacted her intimate relationship with Jadis. By the end of the book (without giving away too much), Shade is able stand on her own two feet. She’s had a damaging experience, yes, but it also made her stronger. Shade found the path outside of that dark place.
And that’s the difference between YA and adult. An adult book does not need to see a path out of a dark place. An adult book doesn’t need a solution. It doesn’t need to make the main character stronger.
Look at The Girls by Emma Cline, a dark coming-of-age novel about 14-year-old Evie, who gets drawn into a cult based on the Manson family murders. Evie gets sucked into the destruction of the cult; she’s fascinated by the dank school bus, the dusty dirt road, the ragged children… but she is most captivated by Suzanne, one of the cult members. Evie never finds that stable footing—not as a teenager, or as an adult. Evie isn’t necessarily looking to grow. She’s following her instincts, she’s following Suzanne’s lead, which are all skewered and troubled.
And that’s the real difference when you’re writing for children. You must depict growth.
As Oblong Books manager Nicole Brinkley recently wrote in her newsletter, Misshelved: “YA books are supposed to offer a unique literary space where teens can engage with content created specifically for readers at their stage of neurological and psychological development, about characters who are their age, and that offer them the opportunity to read and escape and grow.”
Back to Cline for a moment because The Girls is a good example here. Cline isn’t interested in teaching her readers a lesson in growth. She depicts the story about a lost, vulnerable girl on the edge of something horrible, something she always lives with and never quite gets over.
YA encompasses so many stories about growth, but it also gives teenagers the ability to connect and understand themselves, especially the confusing sides of themselves in different ways. Which is why representation has become an enormous part of successful YA.
As Angie Thomas explained in an interview: “I was not used to seeing books about people like me in circumstances like mine, specifically when it comes to young adult literature. As a teenager, I hated reading… but now I can look back and say it wasn’t that I hated reading, I hated the books that were being presented to me.”
And here is the crux of the YA experience. It should give young adult readers a new perspective that feels familiar to them, but also gives them a diagram about life. This doesn’t mean YA needs to shy away from difficult topics. There are a number of YA authors who write very grown up situations for their characters. There’s Tiffany D. Jackson who portrayed a 17-year-old groomed by a famous sexual predator in Grown. Or like Kathleen Glasgow who wrote about a girl who self-harms in Girl In Pieces.
The main characters in these books are harmed, they’re traumatized, but they come away with a lesson about life. We leave these books knowing that these characters will, at some point, be okay. Their souls have taken a beating, sure. But they’ve made it through.
That is the true hallmark of YA. That you can make it through tough times, because you have a whole big beautiful life ahead of you.
Meet the author
Hayley Krischer is a journalist and author of young adult fiction. Her debut novel, Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf, was on the shortlist in the New York Times, a Book Expo buzz book pick for 2020 and selected for the 2021 Rise: A Feminist Book Project List from the American Library Association. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times and has written for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Marie Claire, The Rumpus, Lenny Letter and many other outlets. Hayley Krischer lives in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, with her husband, two kids, one dog, and three cats.
About The Falling Girls
Perfect for fans of Kathleen Glasgow and Nina LaCour comes another searing, affecting novel that follows one girl caught between two toxic worlds from the author of Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf.
A compelling, crushing, and spot-on story about toxicity, feminism and friendship” —Kathleen Glasgow
Shade and Jadis are everything to each other. They share clothes, toothbrushes, and even matching stick-and-poke tattoos. So when Shade unexpectedly joins the cheerleading team, Jadis can hardly recognize who her best friend is becoming.
Shade loves the idea of falling into a group of girls; she loves the discipline it takes to push her body to the limits alongside these athletes . Most of all, Shade finds herself drawn to The Three Chloes—the insufferable trio that rules the squad—including the enigmatic cheer captain whose dark side is as compelling as it is alarming.
Jadis won’t give Shade up so easily, though, and the pull between her old best friend and her new teammates takes a toll on Shade as she tries to forge her own path. So when one of the cheerleaders dies under mysterious circumstances, Shade is determined to get to the bottom of her death. Because she knows Jadis—and if her friend is responsible, doesn’t that mean she is, too?
In this compelling, nuanced exploration of the layered, intoxicating relationships between teen girls, and all the darkness and light that exists between them, novelist Hayley Krischer weaves a story of loss and betrayal, and the deep reverberations felt at a friendship’s breaking point.
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 10/05/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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