After someone asked me the other day, “Why do you write YA and not, say, mysteries, romance, or literary fiction,” I realized I’ve never addressed this question on my blog. I’ve written about how I became a writer in a general sense, but not why I chose YA fiction. And it’s a great question. Why does one writer choose one genre and someone else chooses another? What attracted me to young adult fiction over all the other forms and genres I enjoy reading?
I’m sure that the reasons any writer chooses their form/genre are intensely personal and somewhat unique to that person. They enjoy the genre, they have experience in some aspect of the genre (a former cop writing mysteries, for example), they view it as easy or challenging, or there’s some outside influence saying, “You’d be great at such and such.”
For me, it was none of these things.
I do enjoy YA, but it’s certainly not a lifelong passion. And there’s a reason for that, and that reason is why I now write YA. (Did that makes any sense? No? Okay. Moving on.)
YA fiction as we know it today didn’t exist when I was a kid. Harry Potter, Twilight, Divergent… None of that existed. What we had was divided (loosely) into five categories. (If you ever want to dive down the rabbit hole of 80’s YA, you should spend some time over at CliqueyPizza. The site’s a time capsule for any 80’s reader.)
Categories of 80’s YA
- The “classics” that also happened to fit a YA audience like A Wrinkle In Time, Call of the Wild, Anne of Green Gables, or Lord of the Flies.
- After school special-type books. These were the precursor to todays realistic YA, except they were a lot sappier and everything ended up well in the end. They dealt with issues like eating disorders, suicide, bullying, etc., just in a far more sanitized way than authors do today.
- Horror/Mystery. The RL.. Stine craze began just as I was leaving high school, but before that we had V.C. Andrews. Nancy Drew was still pretty popular and younger kids had Trixie Belden. I’d also lump the Choose Your Own Adventure books into this category, although they were a bit more of their own beast. Again, all pretty great books, just much more sanitized than what we have today. (Well, except for V.C. Andrews. That was something you hid from your parents.)
- Romance. Oh, god, the romance books. Sweet Valley High, Couples, Babysitters Club, and other never-ending series’ of small books that could be gobbled up in a couple of hours. Then there were the same sort of series, but with a historical twist. And there were plenty of standalone romances, as well. These things dominated the shelves and I don’t know how much allowance money I blew on them. (If you were a boy, there wasn’t a whole lot on offer for you in the 80’s.)
- Judy Blume. Yep, she gets her own category because she was doing YA before it became cool. She wrote everything from funny books like Superfudge all the way to issue-driven books like Deenie and Blubber that dealt head-on with body image long before anyone else dared to touch the topic. If you want to see where YA originated, read her work. She’s the truest precursor to today’s realistic YA.
So that’s what I grew up with. Fantasy and sci-fi for young adults? Didn’t exist. You read Lord of the Rings and maybe some Star Wars/Trek tie-ins. Or you went to the adult shelves and learned to read bigger books and bigger words in a hurry. (And you tried not to get caught by the librarian or your parents for venturing into the forbidden section of the library.)
And now? Now there’s a whole world of YA to read. Kids aren’t an afterthought in publishing, and publishers no longer assume that they can only handle small, lightweight, heavily sanitized books. (The sheer number of banned and challenged YA books attests to this.) Kids and teens today can read things that rival the best adult fiction, and they don’t have to venture into the forbidden sections of the library to do it. They can read books about real issues where things (like real life) don’t always work out perfectly in the end.
I envy the youth of today. If you’re young and a reader today, your choices are limitless. And you can have way more interaction with the authors you like. The best I could do was send a fan letter to an author and, maybe, get a form letter in response. Now authors are approachable. They’re on social media and at conventions. Had that been the case when I was young, I might have thought of writing as a viable career path long before I did. Seeing authors in person and understanding how they work is just as eye-opening as any other career-day presentation in terms of showing kids what they can aspire to do in life.
Before I became an author, I spent a lot of time reading all the latest YA. I suspect I was making up for my youth. “Why couldn’t all this have been around years ago!” I cried. I was a voracious reader as a kid and this would have been like living in my best dreams. Instead, I read whatever garbage publishers served up and made up the difference by reading adult fiction.
So that’s why I write YA. I understand what it’s like not to have a ton of choices available as a kid. I know what it is to be a voracious reader stuck between two worlds. While I don’t think kids today are quite as reluctant to head to the adult shelves as we were, I know that making that leap isn’t always easy, especially when your friends aren’t making it with you.
And that’s the other thing about today’s YA. Reading is a far more social experience. Now there are books that everyone is reading and conversations develop around those. There are book clubs for kids, and websites dedicated to getting the conversation going. It makes being a reader far less isolating and more mainstream than it used to be. What I wouldn’t have given not to be viewed as an oddball because I liked to read.
I write YA because I love it, and because I want better for kids today. I want them to have everything I missed out on. Plus, I enjoy showing kids that writing is a viable career path and talking with them about books. The world needs more readers and if I can help make even one kid into a reader, then I’ve done my job.
(Photo courtesy of kaboompics, forstefany, Matt Henry)