“So, do you think you’ll ever write for adults?”
This is one of the questions I’ve been asked numerous times since I began writing YA novels. On the surface it’s not unreasonable; one could assume it’s asking if YA is the only type of novel I ever see myself writing. And actually, I have some middle grade ideas and possibly even some picture books simmering in my head, so I could totally mention that in response.
Except that’s not what the question is asking. It’s asking when I will stop playing around and writing ‘just for kids’ and actually write a ‘real’ book. As though writing for children and young adults is somehow less legitimate of an artistic pursuit, for a less legitimate audience with a less legitimate need for storytelling.
I have taken to responding: “Maybe. But would you ask your pediatrician when he or she is going to finally start treating adult patients?” That tends to nip things in the bud.
It’s not the first dismissive or even hostile question I’ve received since my first YA novel came out in 2009. When first novel DREAMING ANASTASIA debuted, a librarian in the school district where I was teaching actually came to my classroom after school one day and asked me if I was ‘encouraging tobacco use’ since one of the main characters smoked cigarettes. Her implication was that I probably was and if so perhaps I should be uninvited to the then district-sponsored book festival. At first I thought she was joking. How could she possibly believe that a character’s smoking habit was in the novel not only gratuitous, but included with the express purpose of me advocating tobacco? And that by implied extension, keeping this book and its tiny handful of references to cigarette smoking by an immortal Russian who had been around since the Bolshevik Revolution out of the book festival would somehow keep teenagers safe from all evils.
She had to be playing with me.
It happens so often it no longer surprises me. YA books are challenged for their use of language or for sexual content, as though readers want to believe that these things do not exist for teens. Resolutions to stories are sometimes criticized if they are not clear and unambiguous, if the ‘bad guy’ isn’t appropriately punished and dealt with. As though teens have no ability to deal with gray areas. Well, of course they do. Teens live--and have always lived--in a world that includes--as it always has--sadness and violence and love and hope and awful things and wonderful things. They suffer bullying and harassment, experiment with drugs and sex, deal with poverty and divorce and loss and rape and war. They dream big. They are cowardly and heroic. They speak in all sorts of ways. They betray and lie and protect. They are human. Even if their age ends in the word 'teen.'
Female characters in particular take the brunt of this misguided ire, although certainly it’s not limited to gender. My narrator in The Sweet Dead Life series, Jenna Samuels, starts the first book at age 14. Some readers have taken exception to her occasionally salty language—and we’re talking words like ‘asshat’. As one reviewer put it, “Some things that turned me off just a little: Jenna’s language and independence.” Would Jenna would have received the same criticism if she were a fourteen year old boy? I am not sure. But I have my doubts.
In full disclosure, I do understand that this is why fewer YA main characters are only fourteen, and in fact fewer characters in general, with MG novels aging them down to 13 and YA aging them up to at least fifteen and more frequently sixteen. Because not only do younger readers (for whom the content of a YA novel might or might not be inappropriate) generally read ‘up’ and look for stories about characters a few years older than they are, there is something in between about that age that makes readers want characters to act younger, to retain a greater sense of innocence. Of course, I also want those leveling that criticism to spend just one day subbing in a junior high…
Here’s a Writer’s Digest article that discusses that YA/MG issue. http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult
And my friend and awesome author Dianne Salerni talks about it here, too: http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2014/09/age-14-no-mans-land-between-mg-and-ya.html
And the very savvy Mari Mancusi talks about another side of the protagonist age issue here: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2014/09/guest-post-giveaway-mari-mancusi-on.html
All of this, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. And all of it goes back to the underlying issue that sparked that original question that I get asked so much: The perception of teenagers as somehow ‘other,’ of requiring stories that are ‘less’ in some way, that present them only in their most idealized (and thus imaginary) form.
When am I going to write for adults?
Right now, the answer is never.