In the time since I’ve started editing young adult fiction for the Kaleidoscope imprint at Twelfth Planet Press, I’ve learned a lot about what people do and don’t think about YA. In particular, I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss it as unimportant, insubstantial, all the same, and for kids. Essentially this is the exact same stuff people in the Science Fiction community complain about hearing from people who shove SF into the “genre ghetto.” It isn’t fair for SF, and it isn’t fair for YA, either. So let’s break down some of the big YA misconceptions, shall we?
1. All YA is the same.
Alisa Krasnostein and I define YA for the purpose of our books as stories that feature teen protagonists and that are relevant to teen lives. Other people define it as whatever teens like, or whatever a marketing department thinks might sell to teens, or perhaps anything that might be on a high school reading list at all. Case in point: in the YA section of my library, Moby Dick is cuddled up next to Twilight.
We settled on our definition because we wanted to narrow things down when reading all the short fiction we could get our hands on from non–YA–specific venues, and we wanted our readers to know what they could expect. We might choose stories that are gut–wrenching, funny, introspective, or action–packed, but if you open one of the Kaleidoscope imprint books, you know you’re going to be reading about teens.
But that’s just our definition. Not all YA out in the wild features teens, and even among the books that do, there is a vast array of style and subject matter to choose from.
2. Teens are just kids.
When I talked to Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown about their books Stranger and Hostage for the Outer Alliance Podcast, I mentioned that one thing I noticed and liked was that the teens in their post–apocalyptic Los Angeles were treated like equals by the adults. They had respect and responsibility and they were trusted to be smart and competent. They rightly pointed out that this is not really a new thing.
For a long time in a lot of societies, there was childhood and adulthood, and teenagers usually ended up in the adulthood side of things as soon as they were mature enough to handle a full workload. It’s very modern, Smith said, for us to have this notion of teens as a separate group in their own post–childhood, pre–adulthood box.
I think this sectioning off of teens hurts all of us because it discourages us from seeing each other as people. And it often stops adults from realizing that stories with teen protagonists can be as insightful and satisfying as stories with older protagonists.
There are people out there who won’t pick up a book because it says YA on the cover. Even worse, these same people might try to shame those who do! But does this actually mean the stories aren’t relevant or satisfying for older readers? Judging by the amount of pieces in The Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction 2013 and 2014 that come from places like Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and Uncanny, I’m going to have to go with no.
3. YA is escapist fluff.
Sure, I will grant that not all YA consists of astonishing works of literary genius. I mean, sometimes a reader just wants a vampire boyfriend, or to be a wizard. Those are totally valid things to want and if they’re restricted to those of us under twenty, I need someone to explain the success of authors like Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher.
We don’t dismiss all fiction aimed at adults as inconsequential just because some of it is fluff, so it seems a bit silly that we’d do that for YA.
If you believe this myth and let it stop you from picking up a YA book, you’re missing out on great literary adventures like Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand, in which an art student in 1970s Washington, DC, and Arthur Rimbaud meet up for a time–travel–fueled night of intense creative discourse. It’s beautiful and strange and not quite like anything else.
4. YA is dumbed down and easy to write.
This is a persistent one. YA is marketed to a younger audience, which means it’s obviously not going to be written at the same level as stuff for adults, right? Wrong! There’s a lot more chance of this with middle grade books (the marketing category for the age group just below YA), where stuff like building vocabulary and reading comprehension is still a big deal.
Consider Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, which are constantly teaching the reader words by using them and then defining them in the text of the story. Snicket does this in an entertaining way, but this is not what you can expect out of YA. By the time a reader is mature enough to want to read YA, that reader is advanced enough to handle whatever literary tricks the author might want to throw into the mix. This means that YA writing can be anything from breezy and accessible to deep and challenging. It can also be light and fluffy or dark and disturbing (or really anything in between).
When I polled a group of YA writers about the misconceptions they face, the top response was that YA is super easy to write. People often think that YA writers “churn out” books in order to cash in because since it’s for teens, it must be super simple. I mean, it’s all vampires and romance and dumbed–down writing, right? As we’ve seen above: no.
Putting aside the fact that writing satisfying stories for people who are still learning to read is actually quite hard, let’s talk about craft in YA. Here’s the big secret: It’s a lot like craft in adult fiction. YA writers work hard to make sure their stories are satisfying on multiple levels, and their audience, which is made up of people who like to read, expects solid writing.
5. It’s shameful for adults to read YA.
Aside from satisfying and well–written stories, another thing YA readers expect is intensity. Perhaps this is one of the reasons it resonates with so many adults. Rahul Kanakia pointed out on his blog that many things written for adults have a cynicism that comes from having learned not to take things like love as seriously as teens often do.
Teens have a lot of experiences for the first time, from falling in love to finding a job to grieving, and beyond. In YA the focus is often on these experiences and how they change a person. Adults can find these fundamental experiences and life changes resonant, especially if it’s the sixth time they’re facing the prospect of changing careers or ending a relationship and everyone around them seems to expect this not to be as intense and difficult as it was the first time.
On top of this, I think we process our experiences from earlier in life in different ways as we age. Revisiting our past is one of the ways we shape our future selves. Looking at the experiences of people who are facing challenges for the first time can give us a fresh perspective. I see absolutely no shame in that, and I think this is why some of the best YA stories stand up to rereading over the course of many years.
So, to sum up: teens are smarter than adults often give them credit for, books about teens can be insightful and beautifully written, and no one should be ashamed of reading great stories. Period. Now go forth and read what pleases you! Personally, I’m really looking forward to Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, and Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher–Stace.
© 2015 Julia Rios