Why YA?

5 February 2013

Whenever I’m out and about, trying to sell books or talking to kids about pursuing a career in writing, the question inevitably arises about why I write YA.

I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I didn’t specifically set out to write YA. My first novel had young people in it, and as a result, became branded as YA. To be honest I had never even heard the term before then, but rather assumed that books marketed towards the teen market were simply that – teen books. I grew up devouring L.J Smith and R.L Stine after all. I had no idea they were called YA.

I don’t mind being a young adult author – I’ve grown to love the genre. There are some books out there that I love, and others I don’t quite get, but the absolute best thing about YA, is the escapist aspect of it. I’ve re-read the Harry Potter books about a hundred times, and each time I’m transported to a different world that sucks just a little less than this one.

I suppose that’s a good reason to not only to read YA, but to write it as well. The world is an ugly, exasperating place. Books take us out of it for a little while to places where girls can get mixed up in ancient vampire politics, and boys discover their innate magical abilities. Kids even fight to the death in specially built arenas, and kill zombies. It’s easy to slip into someone else’s life, especially when it’s a little more exciting than your own.

But I don’t write about angels, or witches or vampires. My work is far closer to the real world, which is quite challenging, especially when it’s the real world your readers are trying to forget.

This is why writing YA is tough. You want to write novels that are engaging and relevant, that don’t talk down to your readers. In fact, your characters have to be pretty convincing teenagers themselves or else you’ve failed dismally. There are parents out there who would love for me to write books about good, wholesome boys and girls who do their homework, and who don’t get into trouble. I’m sure those kind of kids exist somewhere, although I’m not convinced anyone wants to read about them.

Contemporary YA fiction is often filled with issues. That’s simply because the real world is also filled with issues. As a writer I have a huge responsibility to create an unbiased medium that offers kids solutions to their problems. That’s not to say I’m actually going to do it. I like to think of my characters as real people. If they get into trouble they have to pick themselves up and try to figure out how to get out of it, just like in the real world. I think that’s what makes a good read, it’s that nasty touch of realism that makes it gripping. It’s one of the reasons why I loved Christopher Pike and R.L Stine as a kid. Someone is killing off all the popular kids and the police aren’t doing anything? Find the killer yourself. Someone read your English essay and is now killing people in exactly the way you described? Well, sort it out then. The books were about taking responsibility for your own life, and finding your inner strength to solve your own problems. I always felt a little better about myself after reading them, which is that magic quality all writers aspire for.

So instead of creating how-to guides on how to be a good little young adult, I’d rather write dark, entertaining novels about real kids with real problems. In The Goblet Club I wrote about kids who murdered their headmaster. In Fuse I wrote about a boy that builds a pipe bomb. Not once did I at any time ask my readers not to do these things. (You shouldn’t though, it’s bad) Thankfully I didn’t receive a single angry letter from a disgusted parent. In fact, I had a few come up to me to say they read the books and enjoyed them. One librarian called them “necessary” and “brave.”

I think YA should be dark, and thrilling, but also beautiful. I experimented quite a bit with my new novel Sharp Edges. I fiddled with time and tense, themes and voice. I wanted it to be a little more than just a novel. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still contemporary – the novel is about six friends who attend a music festival and get up to all sorts of mischief, but I wanted it to be more than just a story. I guess what I was trying to achieve was capture a little bit of that magic that I felt after reading YA books as a teenager.

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