Saturday, May 5, 2012

I Love YA...but

Let me get this out from the start, I love Young Adult.  In fact, the best books I read each year are usually YA.  Go read Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me or Chris Crutcher's Deadline and tell me they're not great.  Heck, the novel I just finished writing and the one I'm working on now are both YA, so I'm a YA fan, got it?

But, a few things bug me, and they show up so regularly nowadays that I have comment:

1. Commonness.
Most YA these days is geared toward teenage girls, is fantasy-based, and follows a pretty common plot -
A girl who:  A. discovers she has a magical power, B.  realizes her ancestors weren't fully human, C.  is sent to some weird place where weird things happen, D. must fight: i. supernatural or mythical creatures, ii. against a clique who is out to get her, iii. some stalker dude, E. must solve a mystery following clues ala The DaVinci Code.
That's about it.  Most of it's fantasy, and I'm hoping there's a shift soon.  I definitely see a place for this, and some of it I love, but the YA shelves are saturated with these novels, and I'm hoping to see more variety.

2. The use of the manic pixie dream girl.
I LOVE this term,  coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, of female characters who are overly full of life, eccentric, sexy, and odd.  (Think Zoe Deschanel in everything she's in.)  They listen to music no one listens to, do spontaneously crazy things no one would ever do, and boys easily fall under their spell, leading them to doing strange and crazy things themselves.  The manic pixie dream girl is always written by men in YA, and my theory is that it's the author writing the girl he wishes he knew.  It's the dream girl of every once-high school nerd.  Hell, they're the girl I wish I'd known.  But of course they don't exist.  They're a nerd ideal.

3.  The use of past generational music.
Pull out ten YA novels that reference music, and I'll guarantee you that 80% of them don't reference any band of the current generation.  In fact, the music referenced will be in direct correlation to the year the author was in high school.  If the author graduated in the 80's, you'll get a main character who loves "retro 80's music".  If the author grew up in the late 70's, you're going to get Springsteen references.  (Crime novelists are the most guilty of the Springsteen reference, and believe me, I get it.  Springsteen is the greatest songwriter of the last 35 years - argue with me if you want, but you'll lose - and he's the one real vice I have when it comes to spending outrageously high amounts of money for great seats at his shows, BUT man, do all detectives need to drive around listening to "Jungleland"?)  I understand why this happens - any lost any real hold I had on 'good' music once I graduated from college - but if you're going to write YA, wouldn't you at least want to be up on what music is good to them now?

(And I completely forgot, the novel I just finished writing, I named it after a Springsteen song, so I'm guilty, too)

((And an additional note - most of the music today that kids listen to is terrible.  And that opinion proves that I am officially old.))

4.  Ideal dialogue.
Look, kids are smart, I get that.  I teach 15-18 year olds 180 days a year.  And they're damn funny and perceptive, too.  (Sometimes).  But do YA authors have to have them speak like they're all self-actualized?  Because here's the thing - they're not.  Give me a classroom of 30 kids, and I might get one kid who really talks like a character from Dawson's Creek.  (Like that past generational reference?)  Again, though, it's like the author's are writing ideals, not reality.  I'm not looking for common dialogue, but at least show some understanding of how kids really speak and think rather than how you wish you'd spoken back in high school.  (Maybe this is all John Hughes' fault.  I'll have to  give that some thought.)

Still, I love YA.  If you're looking for some good places to start, and are looking for novels that don't fall victim to what I've described above, here are some really great (or at least very good) novels I've read in the last couple of years that aren't the usual YA fare:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
Marcello in the Real World  by Francisco X. Stork
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
My Abandonment by Peter Rock
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie


  1. Some thoughts...

    1. Commonness - I notice this every time I wander through the YA section at the bookstore. Feels like it's all been done before. But I suppose that's true of any genre - there are only so many stories to tell. I blame HP and Twilight for the proliferation of much which you address right now. But I also think fantasy offers opportunities to deal with YA issues without getting preachy or hokey. Too bad many YA authors don't get that. My biggest issue right now is everything has a love triangle - which one will the main character choose? Most of the time it's distracting to the main story and if the triangle is the main story, then please, shoot me now.

    2. MPDG - I suppose this is problem if you're writing "realistic" YA fiction but most of the time the MPDG shows up in escapist YA lit. As a character, the MPDG offers something for all your readers - girls want to be a MPDG and boys want to date one. Is this realistic? Nope. But I'm not sure most teenagers read YA lit to immerse themselves in the realities of adolescence - they're already stuck in it. Instead they're reading to escape it, to read about fantastic worlds or to read about how they wish their life was.

    Of course, my own MPDG dreams may be warping my view on this and I'm pretty sure this isn't the place to discuss unrealistic expectations and their effect on interpersonal relationships.

    3. Generational music - Music is such a powerful touchstone for memories and feelings that when writing for teenagers, authors fall back to the music that meant something to them at that age, not what speaks to them now. Sure, they could try to extrapolate those feelings to modern songs, but it won't be the same. Plus, as you astutely point out, the music teenagers listen to today is ear-gougingly horrible.

    4. Ideal dialogue - Here's the problem with realistic dialogue - if you write how teenagers really talk, your story will be boring and horribly dated before the first copies hit Amazon. I don't think it's a matter of being too idealistic or wanting your characters to talk like you wish you could (though I'm sure there's an element of wish-fulfillment there). Good dialogue captures the feeling of a conversation as much as the actual words. Movies and TV demonstrate this best - no teenager talks like Veronica and J.D. in Heathers or The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Actually, Whedon addressed this in an interview with Wired recently:

    "I realized, you can’t ape the way they talk. You can only ape the fact that the way they talk is going to change and is going to roll through some reference and then past it, or some phrase and then past it. And if you’re going to write teenagers that teenagers believe, you can’t write the way they talk, because of lead time. So I just talked the way I wanted to talk. And they’ll either recognize it as something alien but not pandering, or they’ll start to talk that way."

    (yeah, yeah, I know - tl;dr. Sorry. This is what happens when I get bored on a Saturday afternoon). Æ

  2. A Response to Your Response:

    1. "But I also think fantasy offers opportunities to deal with YA issues without getting preachy or hokey."
    I think YA fantasy definitely has this opportunity, but that not enough author's take advantage of it. Most YA fantasy I've read focuses on the story and the 'exciting' elements rather than themes teenagers could relate to. Maybe I'm reading the wrong things though.

    2. Ideal Dialogue.
    A writer in a workshop I once attended said, "People in books should talk how people SHOULD talk, even if they don't do that in real life." I agree with this. The problem I have with YA is when the characters show such high levels of self-actualization. They go on roadtrips and say things like, "We'll look back on this night and remember how pure and beautiful it really was." Yeah, maybe you will, but you don't realize that at the moment, and surely not as a teenager.

    But, as Brendan said at dinner the other night, if reading one of these books makes kids try to self-actualize, or romanticizes the idea of sitting in a Waffle House at midnight talking about Life, then that's a plus, I guess.