The other day, an exciting thing happened to me, and it has been on my mind almost constantly since. A discussion with a younger reader brought up many issues with young adult fiction written by adults. One look no farther than my reviews of A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah. J. Maas to pick up on the problems—lurid sex, graphic violence, toxic relationships. The list goes on. Does this happen in the lives of young adults? Maybe, but it’s not the norm.
Let’s begin by looking at the YA audience first since I think that’s the first problem. Ages 12-18 (roughly, give or take a year). When was the last time a 12-year-old wanted to read the same thing as an 18-year-old and vice versa? They are in vastly different stages of life, which makes it challenging to write to both in one genre. Impossible? No, but it takes some hard work.
The second problem is readily fixable—listen to your readers. Rule number one when writing to a specific market is to write (duh) to that reader. So many YA writers are adults, which makes sense given the time it takes to hone skill and the costs involved in writing and publishing. So, if we are writing books for teens, why aren’t we listening to teens? I’m guilty! I try to write appropriate content, but I often forget what the world looks like for young adults today is different from when I was a teen a long, long time ago (not that long, okay?)
So, how do we fix these problems? First, we listen. We hear what isn’t working, focus on what does, and build from there. We remember that having a main character who is eighteen does not make our work suitable for young adults. Equally, having an older character doesn’t mean a teen won’t be interested in reading your book. It’s about content and relatability. Nail those two things, and we delight some young adults.
As for me, I took a break from my adult fantasy to focus on this situation. Will I change the world? Um, probably not. I’m not a 17 year old from the slums wearing a cape and busting his butt seven days a week to make the world a better place (see where I went with that?) But I do care, and I want my audience to feel comfortable and safe in my books. Not just the sweet YA romance, but books with deep world-building, flawed characters, impossible situations, and fantasy worlds that don’t follow the rules.
But how do we know where the line is? That’s an impossible question, really, since everyone’s comfort zone is different. Some teens don’t mind a little violence as long as it isn’t glorified. Some don’t mind a healthy, romantic relationship, but some don’t want romance at all. It’s a matter of taste at that point, but here’s the focus—make sure what you DO include is age-appropriate… for them.
For example, yes, some teens have sex. This is not the foundation for a good relationship, especially at that age. Either fade to black or just leave it out! No need for fifteen pages of sex that make this 40-year-old woman blush!
Is there a war? A battle? Even a fight? Let’s not describe how the blood sprays across the wall in arcs while the bad guys are ripping things apart (sorry if any YA blog followers are reading that, I’m trying to make a point…)
Is there romance? If it’s toxic, SHOW that it’s toxic and that the character should walk away, grow, and learn. If a character makes a mistake, make them own it. Show how a healthy, functioning relationship should look. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it should be realistic and exhibit bad behavior in a way that is identifiable as wrong, not glorified (*cough, cough* bully romance.)
There are plenty of places for authors who want to write bully romances, graphic fantasy, and so on. But it’s not YA, at least in my opinion. What’s next? Explicit sex in middle grade? Elementary readers? Our under ten crowd will read about this at this rate, and for me, that’s not okay. Society is pushing an agenda on these teens (and younger), and it’s not fair. We expect age-appropriate maturity and responsibility, then we confuse them with things that are well beyond their brain development.
What are we, as writers, doing? If we are going to write, then we need to understand we are shaping the future of our readers. Of course, many can discern between what is good and bad in a book, but what about those who can’t? What about those who read so much, their idea of right and wrong distorts? I’m not okay with that, and I hope you’re not either.
The conversation with my friend gave me an idea, one that I hope can grow and reach many young readers. What do you call a list of “clean” young adult fiction that is shareable with your friends? You call it “Laundry List” because why not? And that’s the plan… a laundry list of clean, fun YA for those who want the adventure without all of the smut, gore, and bad relationships.
Laundry List will be an e-magazine hosted from my website for now. It will have its own Instagram account and email, so people can submit recommendations and ideas. For now, I will release it every three months since I need time to weed through the suggestions, read them, or get reviews from trusted sources. As it grows, it might get its own website. I don’t know. We’ll see.
I’m excited about this new project as well as my current work in progress. It’s a secret for now, but if you follow my Instagram, you’ll see some snippets and hints about it soon. I’m not sure what YA will look like in ten years, especially from traditional publishers who transform the markets and control the marketing for many published authors. I like my indie space, where I get to decide how I market my books, but that also comes with great responsibility. I hope this adventure teaches me more about the genre and what I can do to preserve it for years to come!