When I wrote a young adult (heretofore referred to as YA) novel, I was as surprised as anyone. I actually wrote Little Girls Dream Big nine years ago, and it took six years to find a home with a publisher. One of the reasons it took so long was because I, as a card-carrying adult, didn’t read YA. My protagonists were teenagers, but I was a snob, and I thought what I had written was an adult novel featuring teenage characters. Turns out that’s not really a thing and I had indeed penned what I most scoffed upon: YA.
Why would I dislike YA? This was at the height of the Twilight/Hunger Games frenzy, and after reading about four pages of Twilight, I made up my mind about YA. As a reader, either YA wasn’t big when I was a teenager or I missed the trend completely. I went straight from reading the Baby-Sitters Club and R.L. Stine to Michael Crichton and Stephen King. I was in high school when Harry Potter was released. Though I had plenty of friends who jumped into HP with both feet, I was that pretentious asshole who always had a copy of A Tale of Two Cities in my backpack. (Though I will say, it is still a pet peeve of mine for people who cut their teeth reading HP to this day pretty much exclusively read HP. I’m glad you like it, but there are a couple other books out there you might enjoy.)
Personally, I don’t think I had a lot of use for YA novels because I was a fan of writing and language, and frankly, I didn’t care to read stories that were poorly written. I know, I know, not all YA is amateurish, just like not all adult or not all romance or not all mystery etc, don’t @ me. Imagine my utter chagrin when I realized I’d written a YA novel. The thing I derided most had become my most marketable asset. I almost scrapped the entire thing in horror. I was at a conference, pitching a completely different novel, when I came across my eventual publisher. The book I was shopping didn’t fit their wishlist at all, so I pitched them Little Girls Dream Big. They bought it (suckers. Just kidding, I truly love my publisher and will be indebted to them forever for being the first ones to take a chance on me). I went from being a sworn critic of YA to a YA author.
Before I sold LGDB, I actually changed it quite a bit on the advice of an agent by the name of Molly Ker Hawn. She was the one who enlightened me to the fact that I actually had a YA novel on my hands, and the one adult character stuck out like a sore thumb. So I learned the rules of YA. I learned that they are broad, but there are a few lines that you cross at your own risk. I had to read YA to learn what it was…and what it wasn’t. I learned I was right about some YA, but I was wrong about a lot of it.
I can’t claim to be an avid reader of YA even now. As I have gotten older, the protagonists I write have aged with me, and so have the characters in books I like to read. At this point, I have more in common with the characters penned by modern Ruth Rendell than young adults I’m actually related to. But every once in a while, I find myself pulled to stories of teenagers. (I recently finished a story about a rape victim called College Town if any agents or publishers perusing the #kickassgirlsofya blogs are looking for something particularly depressing.) There are some things I’ve discovered recently about the YA industry that I truly admire.
The YA market is making a concerted push toward diversity. Some of my favorite stories are when an author takes someone who is very different from me but writes in a way that allows me to understand the world from a different perspective. When you get past the poorly conceived post-apocalyptic novels (if you’re writing a dictator, don’t turn the people against each other, create an outside threat that’s not actually a threat, that’s how the big boys do it in the real world), there is a beautiful array of YA stories that seek to break the boundaries that adult novels seem to slide into, namely how adult books are usually classified as romance, mystery/suspense/thriller, or literature. YA doesn’t worry so much about this, and that’s refreshing. Actual young adults aren’t slaves to genre. Go figure.
All this is to say if you haven’t read YA, if you’re going to give it a chance, I think now is the time. Why not start with Little Girls Dream Big (now just $.99 on Kindle for a limited time)? And for those of you who have been reading YA all along and are rolling your eyes and saying duh at this whole thing, sorry it took me so long to catch up.