//the truth about YA lit

First off, these are my opinions based on my own observations and I’m in no way making suggestions for how readers should review books. For the record, I believe a book review should focus on the readers opinion of the novel no matter what. But sometimes a little insightful, open-minded thinking can broaden our opinions.

Something I’ve noticed lately in reviews of many current YA novels (yes, I scour reviews when I’m deciding on what to read next) are comments like: this story line is so cliche, the characters are acting stupid and immature, I know it’s YA but it feels too teen, character was so rude to his/her mother/parents, he/she did

[INSERT BAD ACTIVITY] when he/she knew they weren’t supposed to, the main character was selfish, MC was self-destructive, handling of the love interest was awkward, plot was predictable, ect…

the breakfast club gifs

There was a period of time when YA authors had to defend their genre, when writing YA novels was viewed as a lesser talent than writing adult novels. Even in the beginning of my publication career I was asked many times, well do you think you’ll ever write books for adults? As if that determined my credibility as an author.

During that same period of time, adults who loved YA–assuming they didn’t have a good excuse like being a high school teacher or teen librarian–had to sneak around the teen section in the book store or library and hide their selections.

the breakfast club gifs

To quote the amazing YA author, David Levithan, “I write books about teens, not necessarily for teens.” 

Luckily with authors like David Levithan, we have moved past both of these inward ways of thinking and viewing teen literature. But I’m beginning to wonder if this milestone came with a tiny price. When 34 year old adults, like myself, read and review YA literature we are straining the book through a completely different filter than say, a 15 year old girl. For the most part, this doesn’t really appear to pose a problem. Except when you’re one of those YA authors who reads reviews, who takes feedback seriously, and who at times says, “huh. Maybe my hero is being mean to his mom. Maybe he is being a jerk to his girlfriend?” and then before you know it, all your teenage characters are in business suits and ties, speaking in very grammatically correct sentences, treating the girl they’re into like a beloved marital prospect.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the large percentage of YA characters who are obsessed with reading classic literature in their spare time. How much of the world’s teenage population can be Rory Gilmores? 5% maybe less? Definitely not the 40-60% I’ve calculated from recent YA reads.

the breakfast club gifs

As someone who learned about puberty and first periods from Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret (and the sex lessons of course came from the library’s worn out copy of Forever), I don’t always create these types of stories and true-to-life teen characters for my readers, but when I run across them in another author’s book, I get it. I appreciate that they exist and that they accurately display the sometimes selfish, often stupid, almost always awkward teen years. Adults reading YA will often accept a watered down version of teen angst or if it’s justified in a big way like, if X character has a tragic childhood then they can be a little bit selfish.

the breakfast club gifs

Me, on the other hand, I love the subtle YA plot that doesn’t revolve about this one great big “thing” to explain off all normal teen behavior. I don’t need that in every book, but I feel a strong connection to a book like this. So when I publish a book with an 18 year old genius doctor who learns to be normal and finds a forever and ever love and it’s put up on a pedestal, and another novel that has that raw trueness found in many 18 year olds is given some of the comments I mentioned earlier, it bugs me. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. Because I know, in my heart, that one of the most authentic, true-to-life teen characters that I created was Jackson’s character in Tempest. He was criticized enough that my male leads since then have all been significantly different. Significantly “better” is more truthful.

the breakfast club gifs

Truth is, real teens are selfish, self-centered, dramatic, idealistic, self-conscious, insecure…I could go on forever. When you finish a YA novel and think to yourself things like: why didn’t they just tell their parents the truth! Why couldn’t they go to the police! Why did they refuse to apologize! Hmmm…could any of these questions be justified with the answer: because they’re teenagers? Yes, I believe they could (if you don’t believe me, check out the Serial Podcast)

the breakfast club gifs

I know you can say whatever you want about a novel, but all I ask is that you think about your perspective, your personal filter, and whether or not the feedback you provide, the wording you choose, could potentially take away a teen’s opportunity to see themselves in a book. Or their older teen sister, or their bff, or boyfriend, or the bully they’re attempting to escape from…

the breakfast club gifs

The solution can be as simple as rephrasing your review. Instead of saying, “these characters were too immature” you can say, “characters were too immature for my taste” or the behaviors were not ones you could relate to personally, but others may relate.

I can promise you that YA authors will continue to write exceptional, unusual, out-of-the-ordinary characters and plots. These books will never vanish, I swear to you. So please don’t contribute to or support the extinction of real teens being present in YA lit. And that’s why I titled this post, the truth about YA lit because I want the truth about teens to remain in the genre forever. And if I’m being completely honest, I want you to want that too.

Okay, now it’s time for you tell me what you think…agree or disagree? Thoughts?

UPDATE: At a reader’s request, I did create a list on Goodreads of YA books with what I consider to be great representations of true-life-teens, it’s not all of the books out there under this umbrella but it’s some of my favorites. Please make suggestions for more additions if you have any MY LIST


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  1. beck nicholas February 10, 2015 at 2:54 am - Reply

    Great post!!
    One review for my YA set in a high school was that it was too… high school. Not sure what they expected.

  2. Julie Cross February 10, 2015 at 3:19 am - Reply

    and that feedback is totally fine so long as they say…"too high school for me because I'm 34" or whatever.

  3. Diana Dial February 10, 2015 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    I am 48 years old and I prefer to read YA. Why? Because YA is more fun. I find the dialog that often occurs between YA characters refreshing and very entertaining. In my opinion the action happens much more quickly and with more intensity than Adult books. I often get bored with all the detail in Adult fiction, especially the sexy sections. Bottom line, when I read Holly Black, Sarah Dresden, Maureen Johnson, John Green book I can not put them down, I laugh, I giggle, and I cry. When I read an adult fiction, I often skip pages at a time, put them down after an half our or hour and do not come back to them for days. There are some exceptions of course like John Scalzi and Neil Gaiman but as a general rule. I peruse the YA first and than If I have read everything of interest, I will check out the Adult Fiction

  4. never enough bookshelves February 11, 2015 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    Really? I must be reading different reviews from you because in those I read people are more likely to criticise YA for not being teen enough because of coming from an adult mind. Depends who's doing the criticising presumably. The whole point about YA, the reason it's fresh and interesting to read (and write) is that it's about people finding their way, learning how to be in the world and making mistakes and life-changing decisions that matter utterly to them. If that's not what people want to read about, maybe they ought to be reading something else.

  5. Julie Cross February 11, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    There are definitely those reviews as well. And I agree with you completely about the essence of YA. I think the definition of mistake is different for different aged readers, rightfully so, but I do want to hold onto those very normal teenage mistakes in YA lit, not in every book but in some, at least.

  6. Julie Cross February 11, 2015 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    I agree with you completely! I felt this way long before becoming a writer (I didn't start until age 29) and I kept trying to force myself to read important adult books and eventually I decided that with 3 kids and a full time job, reading was my entertainment time and I should be entertained. I'm glad someone else is out there preaching the good word too!

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