What a terrible phrase. Of the many failings that adults have, I find the in-group mentality and our pattern of forgetting who we used to be among the most upsetting. It’s tiring, really. There are records of people complaining about “kids these days” dating back thousands of years, and I guarantee that we’ve been regurgitating permutations of the phrase in the form of grunts since even before we developed language. And of course, things were so much better “back in our day,” weren’t they? Our parents raised us right!
You can read this page for an archived list of “kids these days” quotes from journalists and Greek philosophers alike, but here’s the quote that best communicates the message I want to convey here, spoken by Man of the Year Carl Reed back in 1985:
Kids aren’t so different from adults that we can’t relate to them, and young adult fiction isn’t so different from fiction written for adults that you should shy away from the challenge. “Young Adult” is really more of a marketing niche than it is a genre, as Young Adult fiction can incorporate just about any theme and express any genre trope adult fiction can. The only common difference is in the protagonist’s demographic and maybe the language used. Young adults (again, like, um, old adults?) like to see a little of themselves in the characters they read about, which is why protagonists in YA novels tend to be young adults themselves. Other than that, you’re pretty free to tell your story.
In fact, why not tell your story? Even if you’re not a young adult now, you once were, and you’ve had formative experiences that you’re only more capable of communicating with time and perspective on your side. Adapting a real event, or using it as inspiration, will also lend your story authenticity and help you avoid pandering. There’s a minefield of tropes in YA fiction that can make your audience’s eyes glaze over, but I think not being able to leave your ego at the door and not being able to resist talking down to your audience will kill a YA story faster than a poorly executed trope. I know when I was younger, I hated being talked down to more than just about anything else. I still hate that, now that I think about it.
You can look up YA tropes and incorporate themes of rebellion, autonomy, love triangles, and chuck in an outsider protagonist, but the core of YA fiction is the unique way a young protagonist develops. That period between childhood and adulthood is when young adults work through personal problems on their own and take responsibility. Parents are often absent or useless in YA because if they could help, they would, and a story where the parents just swoop in and clear everything up is no kind of story at all. Their struggles can be as large or as small as in any story for adults.
The best way to write for a YA audience is to not write quite so much like it’s for whatever you think a YA audience is. Don’t shove young adults into a box labeled “KIDS” and curate content that marginalizes their perspective, protects them from reality, or—god help you—parodies them. Showing and not telling is more important than ever when writing YA fiction. Avoid author intrusion like the plague. A writer can be an effective teacher, but not when they’re using their voice to give a thinly veiled lecture between the lines. Be honest in your writing, and just like with other genres, don’t try to write about something you know nothing about. Remember, you were that age once, and that kid you remember didn’t morph into an alien as they aged.
Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.
And I started a Twitter! Follow @proseopiate for announcements about posts and contests. Maybe we can develop our own community. Spread the word so we can have more contestants and greater diversity of submissions.