Put A Teen In It and Call It YA

The character is 13 to 19 – but is that enough to call the novel a YA book?
The dialogue is ridiculous with teen slang – does that make it YA?
Descriptions are smothered with brand names and trends = YA?

As if! No way! Not even! Kill me now, please!

As someone who has written over 35 books, mostly YA, I cringe when I read a book that’s supposed to be a YA but is actually an adult novel in disguise. If you’re read a lot of YA, you know what I mean:

  • The character is 16 but talks formally and spouts lectures like a parent.
  • A 17-year-old isn’t concerned with appearances, friends, music, school, fitting in, standing out, passing tests or getting into college.
  • Every other word is slang…but from two decades ago. Radical, huh?
  • The style and rhythm is wordy, heavy-handed, pages of description, etc.
  • The teen is a background shadow while the adults carry the story.
  • A teen isn’t aware of everything electronic: iPod, Phone, Xbox, etc.
  • The ending lacks hope. Even if everyone dies, there should be a glimmer of hope on the final pages.

As Ellen Hopkins, author of CRANKED and other bestselling YA novels said in a recent interview:

Teenagers want to see themselves reflected between the pages of a book. It isn’t enough to mimic the voice of a teenager; to hook the young adult crowd, you have to climb inside their skin and channel their unique energy.

That’s sooo true! And that’s why I really get annoyed when I read a book that has a teen character but is not a YA. I recently read a science fiction YA book with a character who was supposed to be 14. Okay, this was a futuristic society so slang and trends weren’t an issue. But as I kept reading, I realized the author who was known for brilliant science fiction novels just stuck in a teen for the sake of reaping teen readers in a hot YA market. When I finished, I realized you could have put in a 40 year old guy in the SAME role at the 14 year old girl, and the story would have read the same. This was not a character teens could identity with—even though the book was good. Teens and adults would enjoy the book, but teens won’t get that extra connection; a sense of seeing themselves in the main character.

One book that may at first seem like an adult novel more than a teen novel is THE BOOK THIEF, which has Death as the main character. But if you keep reading, the novel is about a young girl growing up in war-time who learns about herself through bravery and a love of books. The essence of this book is a coming of age novel. And it’s brilliant.

But I’ve read many books which make YA an “age” not an “experience.” Some books were still great and I finished reading, but others didn’t pass the 50 page test and were discarded. And I’ll admit that if I recognize the name of a writer who is known for adult books, I analyze the story more, testing to see if they sincerely get what YA is about or they’re just following a marketing trend. I won’t name names…but I’ll bet you can think of a few who have succeeded and failed.

So is there anything wrong with adult books that masquerade as YA’s? Kids won’t know the difference, right? And most will just enjoy the story. But what about the teens that close the book, sensing that something is off, not connecting with the characters? What if they decide YA books just don’t excite them anymore? What if they lose interest in reading?

Have you read any YA books that you felt were adult-novels-in-masquerade? What are you thoughts on this topic?? I’d love to hear from you!

Linda Joy Singleton (who has been reading over 100 YA novels a year for a very long time)

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7 responses to “Put A Teen In It and Call It YA

  1. briercan

    “But I’ve read many books which make YA an ‘age’ not an “experience.’”

    Very interesting distinction! I’ve definitely seen this in books. Even if the story is good, it leaves me wondering if it’s YA only because of potential sales. If you can change the age of the character and not have it affect the story at all, I think that’s a pretty good indicator that something is amiss!

  2. annastan

    Oops, that last comment was mine. I didn’t realized I was logged in with my husband’s account. :-)

  3. Hmm. I agree in principle, but without specific examples, I might quibble a bit over some of your criteria, or at least raise the idea that they’re a little stereotypical about what the teen experience actually is.

    Because I think one of the weaknesses sometimes evident in kidlit these days is that the stories of kids who don’t grow up urban and high-tech — and from socio-economic classes similar to those that most editors and agents have experienced — tend to be missing. (But maybe I’m just thinking about this b/c I just read Dairy Queen… which I would say flunks two of your criteria, but is a terrific and well-regarded book/series with a teen who seems much more real (in the world I know) than some of the more typical YA books I’ve read.

  4. “I realized you could have put in a 40 year old guy in the SAME role at the 14 year old girl, and the story would have read the same.”

    I think that’s a good point. A YA book should be so YA that only a YA character will work.

  5. I am a teen and I come across a lot of books that are called YA and are either supposed to be JF or A. Just because the charector is my age doesn’t mean that the language is at a level that makes sense for that age group. Lots of YA is simply set in genre in an attempt to increase sales. I’ve found that school libraries are espesially fond of marking up JF to YA to make their collections look bigger. Teens don’t want to read overly complicated plots or language and we don’t want everything to be simplified. We’re not stupid we just don’t want to have to deal with real world yet.

  6. lindajoysingleton

    Exactly, Underdeepwater! I’ve been writing YA for many years, even when there was almost NO YA being published. Now that it’s popular everyone seems to be doing it. There’s some great stuff out there, which I love to see. But there’s also books written by people without a passion for teen books. Astute teens like you will know the difference.

  7. I’d have to say that there’s a piece of this that’s being missed here: Young Adults don’t read just YA books. There’s a broad spectrum of expectations, and therefore a broad spectrum of what should be considered “YA.” I also have to disagree with underdeepwater that “Teens don’t want to read overly complicated plots or language”. I know I wasn’t the only 15 year old reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time!

    I guess what I’m really getting at is that there are a lot of different kinds of teens, and there are a lot of different kinds of YA books. Just because it may be too sophisticated (or not sophisticated enough) for one group of teens, doesn’t mean that it isn’t appropriate for others.

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