What Do Young Adults Want to Read?
I’m the most privileged young adult author on the planet. It took me ten years to write my first book, Dead Inside, but during that ten years, I taught high school English. Cha-ching! I used my work-in-progress as a textbook. Translation: my 958 beta-readers were real, live teens, I got feedback from them five days a week, and they trusted me enough to be honest. Whoa, Nelly, were they honest. I’ve boiled their lessons down to four key points on how to write killer-engaging YA; read on to let my students school you.
Lesson 1: Make it real.
If you want your book to be the one that teens scarf down in one sitting, talk to their friends about, and consider a part of their actual life, you’ve got to give them the dirt most adults won’t touch. Real language — meaning cuss words, if you can deal. Real sex stuff, instead of cutting the scene when the going gets going. Real substance use, if that’s how your characters would spend their Friday night.
This is a scary prospect. It feels like it violates some sacred oath: “Protect the children!” But here’s the thing: the children aren’t protected. They’re doing this stuff — the cussing, the sex, the drugs and the booze — or if they’re not, they know that their peers are. It’s ourselves we’re protecting, by pulling down the blinders.
In avoiding these topics, we get to feel like righteous role models. We’re able to maintain the sweet myth of innocent childhood. In the process, though, we’re leaving teens to their own (developmentally immature) devices to deal with life’s strongest influences. Because you know, and I know, and D.A.R.E. and Planned Parenthood know, that teens find, and do, whatever they want.
What we don’t know, unless we have direct contact with forthright teens, is this: teens are desperate for this information. They’re dying to understand how sex and substances work, to know how their peers are faring with them. And possibly, quite possibly, to learn that they don’t have to participate, because they’re not the only one who doesn’t want to.
When we cloak the taboo stuff under the guise of “protection,” teens turn to their peers for information, the same peers who will do and say anything to appear #cool…