Why Write YA? Why Not? (And Show Real Teens) by Dean Gloster
Honestly, if you could do anything in the world, and some genie offered you the promise that you’d do it well, why wouldn’t you write for young people?
Reading gives teens the gift of resilience—stories show characters triumphing over adversity or learning and growing in the process of dealing with adversity. Young adult (YA) novels almost always end with a note of hope.
Stories also teach empathy—readers identify with characters, even those different from themselves. The one thing our world could most use more of now is empathy.
They’re also fun. Adolescence is a time of self-discovery. (Who am I? Who will I choose to become?) And, for a lot of us, a fierce stage where we have not yet come to accept some of the outrageous BS in this world. You can have realistic character arcs, because adolescence really is a time when many of us can (and do) change. And YA is a category—the novel features a teen protagonist, not an adult looking back at their youth—but within that huge category you can write essentially any genre: contemporary realistic, historical, suspense, thriller, horror, romance, rom-com, high fantasy, surrealism.
You can write in startlingly beautiful prose (Bone Gap by Lara Ruby, anyone?) can include, offhand, the most achingly beautiful poetry about grief and loss ever written (Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere) or write a completely different kind of brilliant book every time, in a completely different category and format. (The career of Martine Leavitt, who gave us Calvin, Keturah and Lord Death, and My Book of Life by Angel.)
YA novels also help teens feel like they are genuinely seen.
I wrote my YA debut Dessert First partly for that reason. It’s the story of smart, fierce 16-year-old Kat Monroe, who is afraid that her bone marrow transplant won’t save her younger brother from his leukemia relapse.
My wife is a former pediatric ICU nurse who went on to work at a children’s hospice, and I wanted to write about the world of the kids she took care of—bone marrow transplant kids who went to their prom by smartphone, while wearing a tux from the waist up in their hospital bed.
And at the same time, through Kat, I wanted to write the emotional truth about what it had been like for me in high school. When I was a teen, my mother was finishing her decade-long quest to drink herself to death. And every day I would saunter off to school, having to deal with crushes, conflict, geometry, and conjugating verbs in German class as if nothing was going on at home.
There are millions of kids who have an experience like that. And some of them, I thought, would see a reflection of themselves in Kat and how she struggled (and made some mistakes in struggling) with that.
They would be seen.
Of course, this idea of having kids be seen in fiction is now under broad and dangerous attack. Across the country, thousands of books are being quietly removed from school library shelves because of parental challenges or to avoid those challenges. The American Library Association estimates that between 82% and 97% of book challenges go unreported, but even the reported challenges were higher in the last quarter than any time since they started tracking these numbers 32 years ago.
The challenges have been almost all brought against books critical of racism, which accurately portray the history of racism in the U.S., or which contain LGBTQ+ characters. And the challenges have disproportionately been brought against books created by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors.
Teens should see themselves in books. And should see authors who look like them and who can write their authentic experience accurately. Give readers a broad range of characters to identify with and feel empathy for.
And, while I write fiction, there is absolutely no way I will ever pretend there is no history of racism in this country or that it magically evaporated in 1968 or whenever, leaving behind only the chalky pine scent of whitewash. Or the wood smoke spell of burnt books.
I know we all have lots on our plates, these days, but: Vote. Vote in every election, especially for school boards. And, you know, buy good books. Good luck to us all.
Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” is about to come out in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press.