Why I Write YA

I read in Writer’s Digest’s latest issue an interview with Sarah Dessen, YA author of—count ‘em—TEN books now. One of the interview questions that particularly piqued my interest was “why do you write YA?”

My family has been asking me for years why I write YA, and I’ve never been able to come up with an acceptable answer other than “I just do.”

For this post, I’m going to dig a bit deeper and come up with a real answer. Not that I want to and this story just happens to have a YA protagonist/theme aren’t valid reasons. They are.

But I want something that really satisfies the question. I want to know what it is about YA stories that is so special I have to write them myself.

Turns out (according to the article) that Sarah Dessen sort of walked into YA through the back door, having submitted a novel for adults that her agent thought would be better suited for a YA audience. But her answer to this question “why YA?” intrigued me. She said that YA was the genre in which she first connected to characters she cared about, the one in which she first discovered she was not alone.

I felt exactly that way when I first read SECRET OF THE UNICORN QUEEN at the tender age of twelve. I couldn’t put the damn thing down. I lived every minute with Sheila as she fought demented sorcerers, freed captive unicorns, and earned a place with a band of heroic warriors. I was her, and she was me. And when I closed the back cover, I almost wept at the loss of my new friends.

To experience the high again, I picked up another book, and another. And before I knew it, I was reading classics and sci-fi and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I was raised by those characters more than my own parents (though my parents were great, and I love them—hi, Mom!). They and their adventures taught me what it meant to be a good person, a hero, and a friend.

Isabel Kunkle, another YA author, lists several reasons she prefers YA, but the last one resonated with me the most: YA stories end well, even when they’re sad—people move on and grow and deal, and she likes people who deal.

I couldn’t agree more. As a teenager, your options are by definition limited by your station. You are (generally speaking) loved, but you’re also caged. You’re considered sub-human by your own society.

Having to deal within the confines of that situation is rich story fodder, and (as long as you-the-author don’t blow it) you can earn your protagonist an almost instant feeling of kinship from the reader. Everyone knows what it’s like to struggle against a repressive regime at least to some extent, because no matter how permissive your parents were, you still couldn’t drive until you were 16.

So you-the-teenager are stuck on the cusp of adulthood with everyone still telling you what you can and can’t do, and you have to deal with it. You have to put up with the frustration of it and swallow your objections and learn how to bargain. You’re essentially powerless, disenfranchised in even the most literal sense. As a YA author, I get to work with that. I get to play with characters already at a disadvantage. This means the stakes are automatically higher, because teens have to work that much harder to achieve their goals.

I like writing about teens, because I like how cagey they have to be, how observant and opportunistic, just to get a ride to the mall. I like how vulnerable they have to stay in order to keep their lives in order and their loved ones happy. They’re the ultimate martyrs, really, and oh, how I love to sacrifice them on the altar of…er, *cough* I mean, bring to light the inner depths they’re capable of when the shit really hits the fan.

Kristan Hoffman writes that she prefers YA as a genre, because (among other reasons) it’s one of the freest genres she can think of in terms of audience appeal. And she’s absolutely right.

YA is not just for twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. Harry Potter broke that barrier along with every other barrier, including (and I’ve heard this from a reliable source, so you can quote me) the sound barrier, the light-speed barrier, and the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to the Boy-Who-Lived (and a few other notables before him), adults are just as hot to read YA as teens and tweens are.

This of course means a wider potential audience for our own YA stories. But beyond that, it also means that we have read and enjoyed these stories ourselves. Recently. And if we enjoyed these YA stories, why not write them ourselves when left to our own devices?

Ultimately, we want to write what we like to read, right? And if we are lacking a good YA story of an evening, and we start tinkering with a situation or a character in our minds while waiting for the next big YA thing, what’s the harm? Maybe the character dribbles out a little onto a piece of paper. Oops—there he goes. And he looks so cute, sitting there all moodily. But then he’s lonely… And just like that, they start to multiply like tribbles until you’ve got a cast. At this point, you can’t let them down. So you give them a setting and a problem and deep emotional wounds, and then you play havoc with their little hearts. And then all of a sudden, you have a YA novel.

All joking aside, YA is a powerful genre, one which invites all our richest, most daring ideas, one that is accepting of all our whimsies and what-ifs, one that challenges us to grow up before our time and yet be strong enough to hold onto our innocence and belief in magic. No other genre can say that. Not one.

And if by writing YA I can capture and hold onto just a smidge of that belief in magic, just for a moment…then it’s worth the inevitable question: why do you write YA?

So why do you write YA? And if you write some other genre, what is it about that genre that draws you?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, and her evil overlor--er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING, a YA mystery, will be released by Delacorte in Fall 2014.
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15 Responses to Why I Write YA

  1. Bluestocking says:

    I’m the same way. When I think about all the books that really resonated with me, the are almost all children’s or young adult books. I write for adults too, but if I can give back just one story worthy of young adults that affects someone the way the YA books I read growing up did, I’d be happy.

  2. “You’re considered sub-human by your own society.”

    Teenagers and children both, I fear.

    It is a tragic fact that while “child protection” plays so obsessive a role in modern western society, and sexual, physical and emotional abuse are being confronted and, hopefully stopped, children and teenagers still rarely are respected.

    But of you don’t respect children, tweens and teens you can never successfully write for them.

    We all love to mock Steph Meyer for Twilight, but, as with my own favourite pre-adult writer Enid Blyton, Steph captivated her intended audience because she knew and respected those she wrote for.

    By the sound of it. ME, you do too. I look forward to reading yours in the future.

    • mesummer says:

      Thanks, Mark! I completely agree about how respecting the audience has a huge impact on connecting with that audience. Great point, and one that is not often addressed, I think. Thanks for the comment. 😀

  3. Mallory Snow says:

    I don’t write YA and I don’t often read YA but I have to say the ones I have read seem to have made the biggest impact on me than any other genre. Two out of three of my favorite books/series are YA. I think it’s that caged bird aspect that makes me connect to the characters so much more. It reminds me of when I was a teen and oh, weren’t we so emotional and free with our feelings back then? 😉

    P.S. Just remember all this when your baby is a teen! Lol!

    • mesummer says:

      Oh, lord. I will try. I was fairly moody as a teenager, so I’m sure my daughter will be, too. Karma, and all that. 😉

      The impact of YA is pretty amazing. I think that for a good portion of us who call ourselves Readers, this is the time in our lives when the love of reading truly grabs us and won’t let go. Not that we don’t like books earlier, just that the “like” becomes a deep and abiding love. And by “love” I mean obsession. I used to sleep with a book under my pillow. I’ve graduated to about 5 on my nightstand.

  4. I love YA and I suspect that just as many adults read YA as Young Adults! Everything you said is sooooo right!

    I’d like to add just one more thing: for me, YA is about self quest. You’re poised on the brink of adult life, lots of dos and donts facing you, and you’ve got to figure out your way through the maze, and bottom line, figure out who you really are, what you can do and what you can get out of life!

    Of course that kind of question is ever present for anyone at any age who stops his/her daily routine and thinks for a moment – and probably that’s why YA lit is such a success with adults…

    The other thing you pointed out is most, most important: showing respect for that self quest! You may not know exactly who you are, and you may make lots of mistakes on the way, but you deserve respect for trying!

    • mesummer says:

      I love this idea of a “self quest.” Absolutely! I’d add that not only are you figuring out who you are, but you’re also changing yourself, which is a very malleable quality for a character. It makes the arc a little more flexible, I think–you can bend it a little sharper, making the character development a little more pronounced, perhaps. It’s always go big or go home with YA. :-) Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  5. Ashley says:

    Awesome post! Wow, your reasoning makes so much sense. It’s so much fun to take these already caged beings and push them. I had actually considered changing my MCs to college aged students, but I realized I needed that set of rules and restrictions in place to create tension.

    Claude above makes a good point about the “self quest.” I think oftentimes the plot in YA can BE the self quest– and this is what makes them end so well, too. The character gets to the end of their self quest and are better for it no matter what happens.

    • mesummer says:

      Agreed. How you leave a character at the end of their growth is so important. If the character hasn’t changed in some way, even if only subtly, then what was the point of the story? And with YA characters, so much of what they’re all about is personal development in the context of societal limitations, so the story almost writes itself. Haha, okay, not really. But they characters are certainly fun to work with. And boy do they have their own opinions! :-) Thanks for your comment!

  6. Great post! I agree with Ashley and Claude about the “self quest” being such a key feature to YA. While that quest never ends, it certainly gets its rocket boost in that YA age range.

    I don’t write YA yet, though I’d like to eventually. I certainly read a ton of it. I write adult, though just out of YA, urban fantasy, and I guess what I like about that is exploring what a person does once they’ve formed that self-identity in the face of future conflict or turmoil. A person/character has figured out, to a reasonable degree, who they are or want to be, and now it’s time to test their mettle, not only to see if their resolve in their identity is firm, but also if there are any hidden nuggets about themselves–the idea that adversity can bring out the best (or worst) in people when they didn’t even know they had it in them. I like how people have the power to change, and in adult fiction, it seems like a character’s own worst enemy might be himself; whereas in YA the character is still vulnerable to outside influences as they try to discover who they are in spite of those.

  7. Jolene Perry says:

    I love that there’s so much CHANGE. There’s so much discovery and so much to experience. WAY fun.
    Also – I LOVE Portland – my brother lives there.

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