Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the YA Section

I have a confession to make.  Even though it has been a while since I myself was the Y half of YA, I really enjoy reading young adult fiction.
I started out innocently enough a few years ago, dutifully reading books my niece had suggested for me and somewhere along the way I realized that I am totally addicted to this stuff.
For one thing, a series like Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras fills a void that had been lingering somewhere between the 12-year-old me who couldn’t get enough Nancy Drew and the 18-year-old me who was immersed in John Keats’ love letters.  Okay, sure, there were a few things that teenagers could sink their teeth into when I was growing up (I still have my map of Narnia), but it wasn’t until the last 15 years or so that YA had its very own section in bookstores.  It’s a huge market now and if you don’t believe me, just ask J. K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer (although they may be too busy answering fan mail or counting their money to reply).
At any rate, I recently began to wonder just what it is that appeals to me so and I think I’ve figured it out.
YA is like comfort food.  No matter the struggle, no matter the crazy parallel universe, good YA all follows roughly the same recipe.
Now, before you get all defensive, allow me to explain my theory.  I’m not insinuating that there is a magic formula or that writing YA is easy.  On the contrary, I think the readers’ very specific expectations make it one of the most difficult genres to master.  Of course I know that there are certain themes that dominate regardless of the age group.  You will always have Good vs. Evil, Coming of Age, Prodigal Son, etc.  But I’m not talking about theme; I’m talking about framework.

Consider the following:
1.    Teenage protagonist
2.    Supporting characters are mostly teens, but with at least one
good, trustworthy adult. 
3.    Bad guy(s) usually an adult (but with possible teen army)
4.    Unreal elements of the world, or at least the one they are
thrown into
5.    Protagonist did not ask to be in the position they are in (of
power or leadership, usually)
6.    Protagonist usually has some power that "normal" people don't
have and they are only just finding out about it.
7.    Love triangle
8.    Real danger
9.    Quest or journey (whether running from or running to)
10.   Finding the truth about something or someone that goes against
what they have been taught to believe
11.  Oblivious or nonexistent parents

Now imagine yourself trying to come up with a story that not only meets all of these criteria, but is also original, exciting and relatable.  Now write it in a voice that makes your reader believe that you are a fellow teenager and not a 40-year-old with two kids and a mortgage.  It takes incredible talent to do all this and do it well.
In addition, I know that I am experiencing these books in a different way than I would have if I had read them at the age of 15.  For instance, I now tend to root for the underdog (Go, Team Gale!) and I relate more to the adults (Love me some Sirius Black!), but that is nothing if not a testament to the timelessness of a good book.
The truth is, good YA has the ability to pull you in regardless of the date on your birth certificate.  And the next time you are in the bookstore, don’t be afraid to wander over to the YA section.   I promise you won’t be alone.


  1. My to-read list of YA books is a mile long. It thrills me that my kid is now old enough to read and enjoy a lot of the same YA books. It thrills me to walk in and find her reading one of MY books and then wanting to 'discuss' what she's read.

  2. I love your colors. I've brightened my blog up a bit, as well.