Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Getting Past "Don't Wanna"-- Firsts and YA, by Emily Whitman

Thinking about our theme this month, firsts, I realized that's why I write YA. It's all about firsts. The first time you stand up to a bully, or an unjust world. Your first kiss. Your first step on a journey. That's what I want to explore--that moment of choice, of bravery, of change.

"I woke in the middle of the night, came straight up out of sleep. Then sat there, heart pounding, in that numb, blind space where you can't quite kludge together exactly what's just happened or where or when you are." That's Bryn in Susan Fletcher's Ancient, Strange, and Lovely. A thumping noise woke her, and since her parents are missing and she's watching out for her little sister, she has to go check it out. It's scary out in the windy dark. "Don't wanna," thinks Bryn. But she goes anyway. (And discover's a hatching dragon's egg, and her family's secret history, and her strength).

Don't wanna. But you do it anyway.

The moment you make the choice to do it anyway--your pulse racing, your skin tingling, thinking you might well fail but you have to try--that's the start of the journey. Of taking the risk to grow. For me, one of those moments was the first time I went to a writing conference and let people see what I was working on and risked hearing what they really thought. Daring to dream that I could be a writer.

Why YA? By the time you're older, you've lived through enough situations that you've got templates. You've survived some crazy situations and you've got a sense you might just get through. But as a teen, you don't have a bag of tricks at the ready yet. And life is throwing itself at you full force. There are real stakes here, choices you know can shape the rest of your life. In The Hunger Games, the stakes are life and death--Katniss has to kill other kids if she's going to survive. (For an interesting take on how that rings true for teens who have to face a high school lunchroom every day, take a look at Laura Miller's piece on dystopian fiction in The New Yorker, "Fresh Hell.") (That illustration is by Kikuo Johnson, by the way).

I want to keep daring, to take on firsts, for as long as I live. So I read YA, where heroes and heroines inspire me to take a step into the unknown. And I write YA, where the stakes are high and the choices are profound. Because it's about transformation. Daring to take a step. Daring to change.

p.s. I have some great news to share--Wildwing is a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards! And I have incredible company on the YA list--Lisa Schroeder, April Henry, Jen Violi, and Heather Vogel Frederick!


  1. CONGRATS on the Oregon Book Awards, Emily! And I'm with you--characters embarking on life's firsts is a big draw to YA for me, as well.

  2. I love this post, Emily. You're right: teens face one first after another, each rich with opportunity. That's what makes YA such a wonderful genre. I'm glad you decided to keep daring!

  3. Wahoo on the Oregon book awards. And I concur with the idea that for teens all firsts feel like life and death stakes.