Aside from “Is that your real hair color?”, one of the questions I’m asked most often is, “Why do you write for teens instead of adults?”
The answer to the first question is, “Yes.” The answer to the second is slightly more complicated.
I kind of skipped YA the first time around, when I actually was a young adult. I crammed my brain full of fabulous middle grade literature as a child, but by the time I was in sixth grade, I had moved on to adult literature, for the most part. Though I didn’t always understand what I was reading anymore, I thought I was too old for kid stuff, and tackling those big, fat volumes made me feel smart. I remember trudging through all 894 pages of Leon Uris’s Trinity in seventh grade BECAUSE I COULD, DAMMIT. (Let me tell you, that is not one of my fondest literary memories.) In high school and college, I sometimes picked up my old Anne of Green Gables or The Phantom Tollbooth for the sake of nostalgia, but I thought of them as guilty pleasures, and I always went back to my grown-up books afterward. I was totally unaware that the genre of YA was blossoming on the other side of the bookstore while I browsed through the literary fiction section.
When I first moved to New York in 2004, I lived with a friend who was a literary agent. Though she didn’t represent YA, some her colleagues did, and she was constantly bringing books home from the office. One night she tossed me Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and said, “Here, you should read this.”
“Why?” I said. “Isn’t this for kids?”
“Just read it,” she said. So I did.
And I felt like I was coming home.
I love nearly everything about young adult literature, but there are two main reasons I read it and write it:
1) Young adult novels never use flowery language to disguise the fact that they aren’t actually about anything. Teens, as I’ve heard it so eloquently put, have finely tuned bullshit detectors. They don’t care how beautifully Genevieve walked down the marble staircase, singing melifluously as the golden light of the stained glass window played over her pulchritudinous features, her gossamer hair floating behind her like wisps of smoke, if she doesn’t do anything interesting once she gets to the bottom. And as it turns out, neither do I.
2) An overwhelming number of adult novels have the take-home message of, “Life sucks, every relationship you’ll ever have will be dysfunctional, nothing you accomplish will matter at all in the end, and then you’ll die, and there’s nothing you can do about any of it.” And that pisses me off. Curling up with a book is my absolute favorite thing to do, and I don’t want to spend my precious reading time being told that my life is worthless. Young adult literature is hardly all sunshine and rainbows–hello, Hunger Games–but even in stories about the direst situations, there’s a spark of hope. Sure, YA tells us, there’s a lot of pain in the world, and life often doesn’t work out the way we want it to. But there’s a lot we can do to avoid dysfunctional relationships. There are lots of ways we can accomplish things that matter. And even if that doesn’t seem true right now, it very well might some day. In short, the genre of YA feels like a giant “it gets better” message. And that’s a reminder that I–and most people, I think–need to hear on a regular basis. Those are the kinds of stories I feel compelled to tell.
There’s an added bonus, too: everyone I’ve ever met in the YA reading/writing/publishing universe has been a kind, supportive person. When I took my first steps into the YA community, I was welcomed with open arms, and I was shocked. Weren’t writers supposed to be competitive and secretive and antisocial? Not these people. They rave about each other’s books. They count down to each other’s publication dates. They offer encouragement when revisions seem impossible. After I had my first meeting with an agent last January, another writer I’d met just the day before texted me to make sure it went well. When I got a particularly crushing rejection, writers I knew only from Twitter started emailing to check up on me. I promise you there aren’t a lot of industries where that happens.
I haven’t abandoned adult literature entirely. I still read my fair share of books written by people named Jonathan from Brooklyn. But now I never read just that. It’s always nice to know there’s a good YA book waiting for me at the end of the day.
And there’s nothing guilty about that pleasure.