Does YA Fiction Make Too Many Excuses for Young Adults?

Y is for Young Adult...

Y is for Young Adult…

I’m going to be honest here – I am not aboard the young adult train. I rarely read it, and I don’t write it at all. (I have tried to write it. It always manages to turn into adult fiction.)

But it’s taken the writing world by storm.

Young adult books are in high demand – they are at the forefront of every bookstore I walk into, and it’s not just ‘young adults’ who read them. I know more middle-aged women who read young adult books than I do young adults who read young adult books.

And I find it baffling.

So many of the newer young adult books are… the same. Take a high school, throw in a female protagonist, one male protagonist, one male antagonist, and some sort of superpower/terrible secret, and ta-dah! One YA bestseller coming right up! Don’t forget the love triangle!

I know some of it is the expectations of the genre. Young adult is about ‘coming of age’, and personally, there’s only so much of that I can take. The plots are all the same these days, it seems, just switch the settings around a bit.

Dystopian? Check.

Vampires? Check.

Mermaids? Check.

Angels? Check.

Werewolves? Well… I personally haven’t read any werewolf YA, but I’m sure it’s out there. Oh wait, Twilight! We can knock of vampires AND werewolves (sort of) with that.

What I do enjoy is EPIC young adult fantasy, and YA historical fantasy.

Because I’ve found out one thing in my time as a writer and a reader: Fantasy blurs the lines – literally. The expectations of the (non-paranormal) fantasy genre are the same, no matter which age group it is targeted at.

And historical and epic fantasy have two things in common: they are more likely to deal with issues outside of a high school student’s daily concerns. The stakes are larger than just getting the guy/gal, and making it out of high school.

And I think that’s been my problem with YA – I don’t relate to normal high school. Partly because I was homeschooled and never actually attended a public high school, and because during the time I was in high school… I had vastly different priorities than most students, because by the time I was 15 I’d watched my father nearly die, my brother nearly die, and I was beginning a major health battle of my own.

You see things a bit differently after living through things like that. Especially when you’ve lived through them back-to-back.

I relate more to the daily struggles of a young person who is not only expected to be an adult at an early age, but actually act like an adult an early age, because that’s what I’ve lived. I knew how to balance a checkbook by the time I was 16, and I’d done my share of planning and making meals for the family. I singlehandedly cooked the entirety of Thanksgiving dinner the year I turned 18 because my brother was in the hospital and there was no one else to do it.

I had no coming of age, no struggle to figure out who I was. I always knew who I was, and while I didn’t always know what I wanted to do with my life, I knew where I fit – not with the popular crowd. Part of that is the life of being an introvert.

And sometimes I wonder if young people these days are so lost (because look at the reports of suicides, the reports of bullying, and the way so many of them just don’t seem to care) because we’ve catered to the idea that they ‘have to find themselves’ by royally screwing up. Because that’s what almost every YA book I’ve picked up is about.

Maybe, just maybe, we need to accept young adults as who they are from the very start.

Instead of continually asking “Are you sure that’s what you really want?” we need to say “Okay, if that’s what you want, what is your plan to accomplish it?” instead of opening the door for them to doubt their own decisions. Let’s give them a reason to make good decisions in the first place.

Let’s change the trend.

Instead of giving them stories about teenagers fixated on romance and gossip and the newest supernatural creature fad, let’s give them stories about teenagers who make good decisions despite trying circumstances. (And yes, I know these do already exist, but c’mon, it’s like health food – if you have the option of a piece of chocolate cake for dessert, how many of you are really going to pick fruit instead?)

Yes, they can still make mistakes, but let’s show them how to take care of mistakes responsibly. Let’s show them healthy family relationships – even if it’s only with one parent, or a sibling instead of a parent. There is still normalcy, and love, even within a dysfunctional family. Believe me, I know that from personal experience.

Teenagers are extraordinary: most especially because they have their whole lives ahead of them. So let’s show them the opportunity, instead of just trivialities.

Also, just as writers, let’s take a little bit more pride in our work and create something unique, instead of making YA Mad Lib novels. Please.

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13 thoughts on “Does YA Fiction Make Too Many Excuses for Young Adults?

  1. I can understand where you are coming from, yet, I still enjoy YA reads. I always knew what I wanted to do, but I still had to learn who I was in the context of the world around me. I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, so it did not have the typical YA book profile. I was generally sitting with my nose in a book than at the dance or whatever game was going on. One of the things that I like about YA is that often the protagonist is an introvert trying to make it through in a world where introverts aren’t understood very well (even though there are so many of us!) I don’ t think it is a matter of getting rid of the genre, but rather broadening the topic base. Perhaps you could write the YA book that gives a new perspective! 🙂

    • YA protags do often seem to be introverts, but I partly wonder if that’s because YA authors have a tendency to put a little more of themselves into the main character, especially since often times YA is First POV.

      And like I said, there’s still some YA I really enjoy, but sadly I’ve been disappointed more times than not.

  2. YA Mad Lib Novels indeed. I agree with… most of your post. I’m tired of the rehashed same-o, same-o. I’m tired of reading the same protag and antag and setting with a different set of spice. Well heck, I’m the one who wrote the vampire post this month on ‘Here’s all the things I read BEFORE there were 3,000 vampire novels on the shelves mucking up the concept’.

    I can see why you don’t relate with regular high school. I can see why you don’t relate with many protags. And you need to relate in some fashion.

    That being said on the side of ‘being lost’, I’m sure media has contributed to this. For some kids more than others. But it’s also not the sole reason. Being lost is something that just happens to a lot of people, more frequently in the teenage years but it can happen at any time. The fact that you knew who you were, in any form, is a blessing. It’s something many of us are not granted.

    I firsthand know how it is to be a disaster. To be a mess. To be nearing the end of ropes way too far down the well. I know what it is to not know who I am. To fear what I am. To mourn what I am. I know both the joy and the terror of that thought. I know what it is to be out of place, to be lost, and to feel like you can’t go home. I know what it is to feel like home is something else than the home you know you have (even if grateful for what you have). I know what it is to watch myself shatter. I know what it is to watch myself fake it. I know what it is to be proud of everything I am. I know what it is to be tossed around and around and around in that hurricane.

    And media didn’t do that to me. In fact, media often HELPED me. It’s what kept me from sitting all the way at the bottom of the well. Books gave me hope. Yep, those regular high school YA lits. I saw girls (and boys) who know who they were. I saw teens who didn’t. And my heart is still a teen, thinking of those days and those friendships and those adventures, lost in those fears, and that’s just one of many reasons I still treasure YA.

    YA isn’t for everyone. Some YA probably does contribute to certain problems teens have today. But when done right YA is a positive force. Being done right doesn’t always mean it is only showing the love and strength and possibilities of growing up either. It can be a broken story full of terrible things, but still done right. Sometimes THOSE stories help more than the ‘look at this perfect life or about-to-be-at-least-pretty-darn-good life’ ones, because sometimes when we’re hurting and lost the most, we don’t want to see the shiny gates at the end. We want to see a small, intermediary step that we can survive. Something manageable that isn’t part of a 10-step program.

    I’m not bashing your distaste for YA, because we all have things we like and don’t like in the many worlds of medias. I very much respect your feelings on it. But I am also quietly(ish) waving a flag for it on this end. =)

    • I think… a lot of my frustration with YA comes with the fact that I *do* know what it is to be broken, and be a mess, and to ‘fake it’, and I do know what it’s like to be near the end of your rope and not know how you’re going to keep going, but I never experienced it with… small things. My life has literally been life-or-death for either me or family members for as long as I can remember.

      And so when I pick up a YA novel and ‘the world is ending’ (in a figurative sense, usually) for a character over their latest crush? I don’t relate. I can’t.

      The world ends when you’re 15 years old and have been told you need a pacemaker, barely a month after your younger brother nearly died. Not when your crush doesn’t like you back.

      And the only books I could pick up and find that could relate to me on that scale, at that time, was fantasy. Not YA about kids dating and trying drugs and having sex in a public school setting that I’d never experienced. And I especially couldn’t stand the stories about young adults fighting illness because 9 times out of 10, they DIED. And I was in a battle for my life, and I couldn’t read those. I still can’t read them to this day, because it puts my head in a very dark space.

      So, we are all definitely products of our circumstances, right? XD

  3. I have to admit, I really like YA. I read a ton of it–oddly, more so now that I’m an adult than when I was a teenager. (My teenaged years were filled mostly with Stephen King, and whatever insipid, egocentric novel I was assigned to read for class). I like it now, as an adult, for two reasons. One, YA tends to have very succinct, clear grammar and pacing for quick reading. I can finish a YA novel in about a weekend, and that’s if I’m just reading leisurely. (I can finish a 300 page YA novel in one day, if I’m really devoted to it.) And I like that, because I’m incredibly busy right now, so I like the fact I can get an entire story in less time.

    The second reason is that sometimes I just like to read young people screw up. I did a lot of dumb stuff as a kid, and I’m still doing a lot of dumb stuff now. There are times now, as an adult, where I don’t necessarily feel lost but I feel stalled somehow. And YA helps to… I don’t know… make it all seem not as bad. That someone else can get into a mess more terrible than the situation I’m in right now and still somehow find a happy ending. It gives me hope that I can figure out a way through my problems, too.

    • It IS definitely easy to get through a YA novel in one sitting. Unless you pick up Seraphina by… er… accident. Yeah, let’s go with that. Accident.

      Guess what? Life is all about the dumb stuff. I’m nearly 29 and STILL doing dumb stuff, so unfortunately we never outgrow that, it seems, lol.

      Maybe my problem is that YA pretty much can’t top the circumstances I’ve lived through? XD

  4. I agree with some of your points and yes, there are a lot of YA novels around the same, tired scenarios. But I still see an importance in “coming of age” stories, importance in seeing how to overcome the mess you’ve made yourself. As an almost middle-aged woman myself, that’s exactly why I read them: seeing those examples makes me feel like less of a screw-up 🙂 If a teenage can solve her problems, then surely I can, too. Right? Hope so! 🙂

  5. “Instead of continually asking “Are you sure that’s what you really want?” we need to say “Okay, if that’s what you want, what is your plan to accomplish it?” instead of opening the door for them to doubt their own decisions.”

    Oh holy cow. YES to that!! *claps loudly*

  6. Reblogged this on Rebekah Loper and commented:

    In light of some of the controversy and discussions going around the internet about young adult fiction (and also because it’s been a doozy of a week/weekend and I really don’t have any posts prepped this week), I’m going to share a post I wrote back in April on the Ferret blog. It’s both a rant about my (personal) frustrations with YA fiction, and some things I think would make it better.

    YA does serve a huge purpose in the publishing world, and in people’s lives, and I’m not belittling it. But there are some major trends in it I see as… taking the easy way out. I know that not nearly all submitted novels get published, and publishers are likely to take what sells over what’s influential, but they are responding to the market.

    So perhaps the market needs to change?

  7. I love YA fiction, but not all of it. Some of it is pretty unbearable due to very whiny characters or a completely unrealistic characterization about what it is to be a teenager. I’ve read some really bad YA fiction, but I’ve also read some really good YA fiction. The trick is finding authors who treat the genre with the same level of intelligence as adult fiction writers. One of the main problems with the genre is that some view it as a throwaway category because it’s “just kids” reading it.

    On the same point, there’s some pretty awful adult fiction out there, too. What I try to remember is some people treat reading as a complete and total escape that offers a brain break. That means ridiculous and stupid stories are exactly what they’re looking for – young adults are no different. 🙂

    What I think is promising about the genre is how diverse it is getting in terms of YA sub-genres. Fantasy is splintering into fascinating subsets and so is realistic fiction. Authors are starting to get brave enough to tackle serious and very real issues facing young adults in this generation. If writers continue to be brave, I think the genre will continue to evolve and grow.

    I should state that I am a YA writer and I love reading YA fantasy. The storytelling and world building that takes place is simply incredible and I’m hoping to contribute to the YA fantasy genre in a meaningful way.

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