Monday, January 4, 2010

YA ... Why Not?

I’ll confess: I wrote my first Young Adult novel by accident.

I wasn’t new to writing. For close to a quarter of a century I’d been a writing “apprentice” in the truest sense of the word. I had boxes of scribbles, drafts and old journals stacked in the basement. Plenty of essays, articles and stories … some published, some not A little bona fide writing income of various sorts. But no complete work of fiction, with a beginning, middle and end.

Then, I heard her voice.

This fourteen-year-old kid, in my head, telling her story. Improbably, I knew her. I liked her. I saw her. I laughed out loud at the funny things she said … which tended to be a little embarrassing when others at the dinner party didn’t know what the hell I was laughing about … and I cried, tears pouring down my cheeks as I pecked away at the computer and she shared her saddest moments with me. Before I knew it I was writing a novel. Spending whole days, weeks, and months alone in my basement office with make-believe people. Receiving no paycheck. Unable to account for myself when people asked what I’d done all day.

I got a little weird during this process. My family would tell you I got very weird. When it was over I had a stack of pages filled with teenagers flying up and over a story arc. I got lucky, and a publisher decided those pages could be a hardcover book with an ISBN number. Today I find myself smack dab in the middle of a genre, with the career I always wanted but the audience I never expected.

I also find myself a tad surprised by the … do I dare say it? … lack of respect my beloved genre receives. It startles me, because more than a few of the best books I’ve read in years are “young adult” novels. Nevertheless, many adult readers, writers, and so-called keepers of the literary canon don’t seem to view the genre as bona fide.

One acquaintance, who is having trouble selling her “adult” novel, remarked to me that she might just need to bang out a YA and sell that, since it’s so much easier to do. At a recent gathering of my book group, where we had just read The Book Thief, one member sniffed that she certainly hoped we weren’t going to start reading teen books now because she didn’t have time for that sort of thing. And when I recently visited the website for my “alma mater” Bread Loaf Writers Conference, I was stunned to discover that they not only exclude YA writers from their faculty, but do not accept YA manuscripts for consideration for scholarships.

Newly-minted, mid-list writers like me aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. Margo Rabb, the author of the bestselling Cures for Heartbreak, describes in her essay, “I’m Y.A. and I’m O.K.” that when she told a writing friend that the book was going to be published by Random House in the Children’s division, the reaction was: “Oh my god. That’s such a shame.” National Book Award winning author, Sherman Alexie, reports similar sentiments: “I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing Y.A.”

To be sure, a YA novel is different from an adult book. The pacing is quicker. The amount and type of description is different. Thematically, one is aware of the appropriateness of the material, and particularly with first person-narratives the voice has to be authentically “teen.” Of course, even as I write this I’m thinking of the proliferation of “crossover” books snatched up by young and “old” adults alike. Blockbusters like Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now … I could go on and on … not only appeal to teens but in some cases are also marketed as adult books.

So, what is YA? Does the definition matter? And is it real writing?

Luckily, I have a live-in YA consultant who helps me sort through all this: my 16-year old daughter. She has little patience for all the literary hand-wringing, and, as she does with all things, cuts right to the heart of the matter.

“If you want to write YA you have to understand how kids feel,” she tells me.

Ah. Feelings. There’s the rub. Because if there’s one thing that distinguishes YA readers from adult readers it’s the response to the work. Teens respond to books the way they respond to everything: emotionally, the intellect nowhere in evidence. Your typical teen reader is not excited by beautiful imagery or lovely description. Thematic complexity is a big bore; even plot, to a certain extent, takes a back seat to the heartstrings. Teens read in order to get on board the roller coaster of feeling, and the job of a YA novelist is to take them on that ride.

When I talk to kids who have read my book, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, they can’t wait to tell me how certain scenes or characters made them feel. “Ohmygod I can’t stand Jeanne Anne!” they exclaim. “I love Mr. Beady!” they confide. “Bob is so hot!” they agree. Note: the book contains no physical description of Bob. They have conjured his hotness purely from their own emotional, hormonal imaginations. Such is the YA reader.

When I recall the books I’ve loved in my life, inevitably the list draws from the novels I read as a teen. They are burned into my imagination. From day to day I can’t remember what I need to pick up at the grocery store, and I stumble when asked to recount the basic premise of an “adult” book I’ve read within the last year. But I can picture in my mind’s eye the look on Mercy’s face when her beloved, long-missing John burst into her house in Wethersfield and buried his face in her lap (The Witch of Blackbird Pond). I can smell the burning flesh, see the boy staring stupidly at his hand, coated in molten silver (Johnny Tremain). I recall my heart pounding as Jan crawled through gutters and tunnels to evade the Nazis (Escape from Warsaw).

There’s something extraordinary about the love affair we have with our books when we’re young, and as a YA author I feel so lucky to have stumbled back into that world. I’ve had to open my heart again to the experience of “firsts”: first love, first betrayal, first loss. I’ve had to pare the words down to their most evocative and most true, because kids don’t want and can’t handle too many words. (Note the blank looks that come over their faces as we blah blah blah at them in tones reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s teacher.) I’ve had to listen, really listen, to how kids talk to each other, because YA readers love dialogue, and if you get the voice wrong you’ve lost them. I’ve had to revisit that time of life when, for better or worse, you lead with your heart and check your brain at the door.

And as any writer would agree, the best stories begin at the heart.

So, to my utter surprise, I think I’m here to stay. Coming of age, a work in progress, an apprentice for life … but completely committed to creating the best novels I possibly can for young adults. Because whether or not I’m a real writer, they are real readers.


  1. I'm working on a YA for the first time--all my books are historical fiction--and your personal essay resonated with the sorts of things I'm grappling with as I work through a first draft. Loved the Charlie Brown bit about the teacher's blah, blah, blah voice. You've inspired me, and, hey, I'm used to the condescension; my books are MG. Sherman Alexie got it right!

  2. Maria, what a pleasant surprise – welcome to blogging! I bet the people/conferences that don’t appreciate YA, haven’t read it. There are so many good books (including yours) published in this genre recently, and not only kids are reading them. Everyone, especially on line, has been so supportive and enthusiastic about my writing YA. Perhaps the times are changing.

  3. So interested to discover your blog via Sarah ( above).
    YA as a genre has sprung up since my youth but is such an exciting field.
    Yes, voice is the most important thing of all.

  4. Robert Heinlein's YA books set the course of my life, and I loved having the opportunity to share them and other YA books with my own child.

  5. I'm not much of a sci-fi reader myself, but if you can attribute your career at NASA to Robert Heinlein ... then I'm off to the library to pick up a few of his books!