Okay, let’s just say it: YA books tend to be a controversial topic. There’s controversy over what’s “appropriate” for young adults, what defines young adult, whether or not YA is a genre or an audience, or just a way of saying “hey the MC is between 13 and 20!” and even that age range is debatable. And a question I often hear from people who don’t read YA is “why would an adult want to write for teens?” Usually, there is an implication that YA is less-than adult fiction, or that the author has some serious hang-ups about their glory days.
I’m not going to address any of that because I’m certainly not an authority, and frankly I hate labels so I’m not going to defend or define any of them. What I will discuss is how and why I came to write stories of the YA variety.
First, let’s start with a little history of my writing. I’ll fast forward through a handful of years of unintentionally plagiarizing other great works while I was in elementary school–okay. Now I’m in 5th grade, officially in middle school as far as my school district is concerned. I’m devouring (adult) science fiction novels and writing a sprawling, epic space opera called Light Shadows (how original :p). It seems to be about the adults, because that’s what I’m used to reading about, but it quickly becomes about a child they discover in the wilderness and her mysterious connection with one of the adults. Her connection to the MC shapes the next three novels, also about young people in relation to the original main characters.
Deeming myself “not quite ready” to take on the epic after several failed drafts, at 20 years old I write a different novel for National Novel Writing Month–my first novel in first person. I’m caught up in narrative technique and experimentation, and though I’m focusing on unreliable narration and the art of ambiguity, what I end up with is a story about fraternal twins growing up during and post WWII, and the ways in which their various caregivers spectacularly fail them.
At 21, I decide to tackle the first book in that space opera saga, Renaissance. It ends up being about the original MC at 15 years old, and I rename the saga The Lotus Children.
That summer I go to a Renaissance Festival (ironic?) and have my palm read by a woman dressed like an old gypsy fortune teller, and she tells me that whatever work I do has to do with children. She says I don’t work with children exactly, but I do indirectly. Whatever it is I’m doing, she says, keep it up. I’m good at it–I’ll be successful.
I have no idea what she means, until I tell my best friend (YA author Sarah Diemer!), and she says “well, she means your writing, obviously. You always write about kids. Didn’t you realize that?” No, I had no idea. But looking back, she was right.
So, basically, I write YA because I’ve always written about young adults (although at that point in life I had no idea that YA even existed, let alone had its own section at the book store). Plain and simple.
The not so plain and simple? I am a huge defender of respecting the autonomy and intelligence of young people. I’m almost ten years past my high school graduation, but I still feel the same way now that I felt all throughout childhood: young people do not get the respect they deserve, and are unfairly asked to demonstrate respect for figures who have done nothing to deserve it. (If you want me to cite real life examples, let me know and I’ll do a whole other blog post that is sure to amaze and entertain. I HAVE STORIES.)
So I write about young adults who overcome great obstacles, and who demonstrate passion, wisdom, and complexity of reason, because I know that young adults are equally, if not more so, capable of those things as adults are.
Fact: authority, like respect, is given, not taken. I have never been what I’d consider a troublemaker (because if you never get caught you never get in trouble!), but I have always had a problem with the idea of “authority.” I was a moderately well-behaved child, and I had and have a healthy respect for my elders, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t talk back when I thought they were wrong. The same thing went with teachers at school. If you’re going to punish me for something I didn’t do, you’re damn right I’m going to protest, and hell no I’m not going to keep quiet and be obedient. Obedience is for dogs. If you want my respect, you earn it, and part of that is showing your respect for me and my peers.
The great lie that schools and parents often try to perpetrate is that adults are better than children–that adults know more, have experienced more, are always correct, and should always be deferred to. That’s some bullshit right there. All an adult is, is a child plus more years. Don’t more years equal more experience, you might wonder? No, it means different experience, which can be found in people of the same age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc., and makes none of those people more deserving of respect than the others.
And that’s why as a child, and now as an adult, I hate/d to see young people discriminated against, portrayed as problems to be addressed rather than human beings to be considered.
Now, I’m not saying that kids are perfect and don’t need supervision or guidance. What I’m saying is that young people deserve the same respect that they’re asked to give. Treat them as individuals, not clay to be molded into a preferred and pleasing shape. And in books meant for the young adult audience, don’t think so hard about your readers being “young” and worrying about what’s “appropriate.” Stop trying so hard to send the right message. Obvious life lessons/moral stances are obvious.
Admittedly, when I sat down to write The Hierophant (what I suppose is my first “official” YA novel), I did have two intentions in mind: I wanted to write a book with a female protagonist that didn’t annoy me or piss me off, and a book that I would have loved to have read as a teenager. I wanted to tell a story that entertained fantasy while highlighting some of the very real struggles we go through as young adults, struggles that can often continue on into adulthood, if not the rest of our lives. Ana, the main character, is trying to accept the fact that she sees the world differently from her peers, and she can’t change that. She wonders what wisdom her extended family might have passed onto her, if she had known them. And she’s trying to reconcile her desire for connection and belonging, while at the same time feeling the need to protect herself, and spare the ones she loves, by being alone. Now more than ever, in a world where we are both more connected and more separate than ever before, I think her struggle is something many of us can relate to–even if we don’t see demons lurking in the shadows.
But ultimately? I wrote The Hierophant because I loved it. I fell in love with the characters, with the worlds they traveled between, and the stories they lived as everything unfolded in my mind and on the page. And that’s the same reason why I write anything, regardless of the age of the protagonist, or the age of the intended audience: because I love it.
The Hierophant – Book I of the Arcana Series – is coming June 18, 2013!