Okay, time to start a conversation that will make all the lit trolls on the interwebs lose their freaking minds. Sounds like fun, yeah?
Today I’m going to take a few moments to discuss writing and reading YA Fiction as a 25-year-old (and counting) adult who essentially came of age during the rise of the genre. For the sake of this post (and my own sanity) I’m going to define YA fiction as being fiction told from the perspective of an adolescent (12-18 years old) without much or any interference from an adult perspective. In other words, the events and occurrences our youthful narrator is interacting with and reacting to are frozen in time: readers get a kind of screenshot of the true feelings and thoughts of the narrator and those around him/her/them within the parameters of their maturity and life experience up until that point. Even if we are getting a “past” narrative style, the story is still engrossed in the current events taking place.
While the “Coming of Age” genre has been around since the mid-1800s, I will argue that the books that shaped what we now know today as the Young Adult genre are those belonging to the Harry Potter series. I’ve mentioned several times by now these books had a huge influence on me, as they did many, many, many others. A little boy forced to live with his cruel aunt and uncle finds out he’s a wizard and gets whisked away to a magical school, where he goes on adventures great and terrible and ultimately has to save the world he he has barely spent half his life knowing about and living within.
There are lots of amazing things about these books, but the most amazing thing (and probably the reason for their absolutely ridiculous success) is that they are told from the perspective of that little boy and that little boy alone. We see him at age 11, sad and alone, but still hopeful that maybe his current situation will get a little better somehow. Then we see him at 12, terrified the events of the past year were only a dream, that there’s been some mistake. Then, 13, where he’s getting a little more confident that all of this is really real and – oh, wait, there are lots of people trying to kill him. Yay~
Insert a lot of teenage angst and “oh my god Harry I love you but will you please shut up,” and you’ve got the rest of the books.
But what made this story believable, what made it appealing to children and adults alike, is that Harry’s perspective is unique to his age, and therefore universal. Childhood, growing up, dealing with hardships, learning about yourself – these are universal experiences. And whoever said these things magically stop happening when you become “an adult” is just plain wrong. We’re all still in the processes of figuring shit out, be we 13 or 35 or 75.
The honesty and integrity behind the characters in the Magical Wizarding World and the writing of J.K. Rowling meant there really was something in it for everyone, and that is amazing. This same honesty and integrity of narration can also be found in many of the Young Adult fiction novels and stories out there today. This is why both people who are roughly the same age of the characters within the novel and those who are older can relate to and enjoy the story and should be allowed to do so without judgement.
Why? Well, two reasons: first off, if what someone likes doesn’t cause bodily harm to you or someone else, you should shove off and leave them be. The second reason is that Young Adult fiction, like the Harry Potter series and all that came after, are written by *gasp* adults!
And I will even go as far to say that, usually, the best Young Adult stories are written by people who are no longer young adults themselves.
(NOTE TO YOUNG WRITERS: I am NOT saying you cannot write Young Adult fiction. PLEASE DO SO IF THAT IS WHAT YOU WANT TO DO, and if you feel that what you have is ready to be shared with the world, then by all means, share it. You don’t have to “wait” to write a book, but keep in mind that as you do get older, your perspective on things will change, and you’ll be able to look back on some of the things that have occurred in your life with a different kind of understanding. Whatever you write at 15 or 16 might be wonderful – but you’ll probably hate it by the age of 20.)
So, we’ve covered why adults should be allowed to continue to read and enjoy Young Adult materials alongside their teenage counterparts. Let’s now talk a little about what it means to write Young Adult material as an adult.
As I mentioned in one of the above paragraphs, the experience of growing up and dealing with shit is essentially a universal one. When I was a teenager (and mourning the fact there would be no more Harry Potter books) I devoured YA fiction. I feel in love with mysterious bad-boys with curling black locks, sharp cheek bones and blazing blue eyes. I saw myself in the heroines who squashed their fear as best they could so they could pick up a sword and fight for what they believed in. Now, as an adult reading these stories, I still experience many of those same emotions. But it’s different. And I cannot believe how much my writing of young adult characters has changed when I went back to it just last year, as an adult.
While I was a young person struggling to write Thorn’s story (see last post for details), Thorn was always older than me. I was struggling to get into the head of an 18-year-old at 13-14, and *surprise surprise* I couldn’t do it. At least, not very well. I could read about older teenagers no problem, but writing them? There was something I knew I was missing, even back then. I just didn’t know what.
When I came back to the story after several years of not writing, something dawned on me: My characters knew too much. Young Adult stories are about making discoveries, and I would always get stuck at the same place in each and every draft I’d tried to write before because there was simply nothing for my characters to discover about their world, themselves, the bad guy, etc.. I feel that I could have only made this realization after I had surpassed my teenage years.
As a teenager, I was still making the discoveries I needed to make in order to get to 24, and then at 24, I had had enough life experience to begin to see the pattern and then put it into the story. I made my character Thorn much younger. While she’s still roughly 17-18, (it’s hard to say because my faeries don’t track age the same way humans do), there is a lot she doesn’t know. She thinks she knows, but she’s proven wrong almost immediately, and therein lies the conflict that will carry through the rest of the book and the two more that will follow it.
So, basically, by learning about learning about things I didn’t know, I learned something.
And if you think about that sentence for a minute, I PROMISE it will make sense.
A writer of YA fiction needs to have experienced the full extent of young adult-hood in order to successfully write from the young adult perspective to an audience of young adults. And here is where I will add that successfully writing within this genre for this age group is still really, really hard and should have more respect within the literary and writing communities.
We are not writing “baby stories,” nor are we writing “below ourselves.” Our writing is very “real” and our work is worthy of the same credit as fiction for adults. Maybe some of you have forgotten, but being a teenager sucks, and having to go back and dig through those old emotions and memories in order to find that younger voice is a really difficult task, emotionally and physically. Then, we have to have the ability to pay a-fucking-ttention to our own intuition, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and learning experiences and how all those change over time – and by time I mean literally every day – in order to channel those into a successful young voice who is also going through drastic change.
Writing (at least, good writing) takes a lot of introspection, just like any other craft. I’ve mentioned creating is a deeply personal task and each person needs to be left to their own devices if they are to create something successfully. But writing for young people? As you yourself get older? It’s exhausting. But it’s also very rewarding because, again, there is a kind of universality in growing up that isn’t really found anywhere else. Mostly because we’re all still doing it, and only those that are aware of that can write for young adults.
Writing for young adults is reverent. It’s important, and it should be done with vigor and with skill. Young adults need our voices. They need to see these characters that accurately an clearly represent them face and overcome demons, they need to see there is life and hope even after great loss. They need to see characters like themselves struggling with the same things they’re struggling with and learn to make peace with and learn from these struggles.
The genre exploded because Rowling provided a lens into just how disenfranchised and distraught a young person can due to their age and status in society. Feeling alone, helpless, and without voice is something that we all can relate to in some form or another, and the universality of these feelings if what (I hope) will bring humans together at the end. Empathy, compassion, understanding, courage, hope, love – these are all things we learn as readers from reading. The young adult voice has been silent for too long, and we are now seeing the repercussions from that. We need their perspectives, their honesty, their clear-cut worldviews, and we need to make sure that nothing stands in the way of their speaking out against the world’s injustices that the rest of us old geezers have simply accepted as the norm. Young people will find their voice on their own, but sometimes they need a little push. That’s where we, the authors of young adult fiction, come in.
© 2019, Rebecca K. Fisher