First, there was this now-infamous article in the Wall Street Journal. It could have had some valid points, but if so, they got obscured in sweeping generalizations. (BTW, I shop at Barnes & Noble all the time, I live in the YA section, and I find all kinds of books that aren't dark or about "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation." In fact, I regularly walk out with books that just about any parent would find appropriate for a 13-year-old.)
Then there was this rather odd article titled "Writing Young-Adult Fiction" by Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix (co-authors of The Magnolia League). Their backgrounds are in literary fiction and journalism, respectively, and they got tagged to write their YA novel. The article seems like it should be about what it says—writing YA fiction. By the end, I wasn't sure what it was about, other than their book.
I began to feel like something strange was going on with this line:
It would be creepy if we included explicit sex scenes with glistening young skin and heaving young bosoms, but we keep it on the clean side. This isn't Twilight. No slutty werewolves here.Um, I've read Twilight—the whole series, in fact. As I recall, there's one off-page sex scene in the fourth book. So I began to suspect that these authors haven't read the books. If they haven't read those, do they know anything about the YA market, really?
Then they mention how odd it is that they're "being paid good money to be literary predators and come for people's children." Now I get the feeling they don't know many (any?) teenagers in real life, either.
Overall, it seems their experience of writing a YA novel was a lot of giggling and silliness and hurry-up-and-get-it-done-ness. Writing their own wish-fulfillment fantasy, the "high-school experience we never had."
Okay, that's their experience. Good for them.
I haven't gotten paid for my YA writing yet, but I think I've done enough now to speak to my own experience. Here's what YA writing is like for me.
I live in fear of letting my students down. My students range from 14 to 21, and they read almost exclusively YA (aside from what their English teachers assign them). They are my little microcosm of the YA market, from voracious to reluctant readers, straight-A students to strugglers, jocks to theater geeks—with a ton of overlap within and between categories.
I've had students literally slam a book down during silent reading time. They hate it when characters do stupid things just for the sake of the plot—and yes, they do notice. They hate feeling talked-down to. They loathe dialogue that feels like a trying-too-hard adult wrote it.
You know what they like? Some actually like a clever turn of phrase, a well-crafted description. One girl asked me to recommend a book that would help push her vocabulary and comprehension. (I recommended The Monstrumologist.) Some want to be writers themselves. They like characters that are complex and twist stereotypes. They like stories that feel real, even (or especially) when they involve fantastic elements.
So I work my butt off. I draft, revise, run it by readers (both students and adult YA readers/writers), and revise again. Whatever I can do to make it real. If you didn't figure it out already, I talk to teens (students, cousins, whatever) about books. I talk to them about life.
I talk to them like they're people ... because they are.
There's the key, I think. I've known some (well-meaning) teachers who talk to teens like they're still in elementary school. Teens aren't adults yet, but they also aren't children. I've found they'll usually live up to high expectations ... or down to low ones.
The best YA authors (and I'm certainly not placing myself among them) have high expectations for their readers. The read can be light or dark, funny or intense, about mermaids or cutting.
Just respect your readers. They're pretty smart cookies ... even the ones who don't like math class. ;-)