Why I Read and Write Young Adult Fiction

Why I Read and Write YALast week I read a review of Clancy of the Undertow, a dazzling Young Adult novel by Christopher Currie. The review stirred up a whole lot of cranky among the YA authors and readers I follow on Twitter.

The review practically glows. The ensuing crankiness stemmed from the fact that the reviewer took a couple of broad swipes at the rest of YA fiction, “a genre usually filled with bratty, whining, self-obsessed, parent-hating, nobody-understands-me, no-one-has-ever-suffered-like-me heroines.” The reviewer opined that Clancy was so good because it was “Christopher Currie’s first book for Young Adults so he was probably not told that originality and three-dimensional characters were not required, thank you very much.

I’m sure you can see why others in the YA crowd were less than thrilled.

The odd mix of praise and snark is even more puzzling when you learn that the reviewer is himself a YA author. The book’s publisher tweeted a mild defence, pointing out that the review was actually positive, and that the digs at YA were probably meant to be jokes. But even so, the joke only works (in so far as it works at all) because of the popular belief that YA fiction is somehow second class writing, with cardboard characters and hackneyed plots. Which brings me to a question I’m often asked when people find out I’m working on a YA novel.

Why would a grown man read or write YA?

I’ll let you in on a secret. When my Grandma was turning ninety, she said to me, “You know, I don’t feel any different inside to when I hopped the boat to New Zealand.” She left Scotland, hopped the boat, when she was sixteen.

“Why would a grown man read or write YA?”

That moment stayed with me. And she was telling the truth. I certainly don’t feel much different on the inside now to how I felt as a teenager. Experiences mount up, responsibilities pile on top of one another, but underneath it all is the same big kid who loved Star Wars and rock climbing.

Why wouldn’t I love reading YA novels? Those teenage years are filled with vibrant experiences, all the more striking for being new. Teenaged protagonists are discovering things for the first time, which gives a freshness to the story and allows us to relive those first moments. First kiss, first fight. First love, first loss.

Young adulthood is an emotionally intense time, creating vivid memories. I still have dreams about sitting high school exams, and I have razor-sharp recollections of sword-fighting with my best friend down the narrow corridors of our creaking Victorian school building.

I’m sure many of us remember that teenage feeling of invulnerability and sense of black-and-white moral absolutes, when life stretches ahead of you like one long adventure. YA stories call out to the part of me that remembers the brightness and immediacy of those years.

“life stretches ahead of you like one long adventure”

And of course a young adult protagonist has a lot of appeal to me as a writer. Teenagers define themselves in opposition to what is around them, which provides a built-in source of conflict for stories. Rebellion against authority, whether it’s school or parents or the constraints of society, can add texture and tension beneath the surface of your plot.

Another reason to like writing about YA protagonists comes from neuroscience. Our brains aren’t fully formed until our mid- to late-twenties, so young adults are actually more impulsive and more likely to take risks than their older counterparts. As a writer, this can make drastic actions and behaviour from our characters more believable, giving scope for dramatic tension that would be implausible with an adult protagonist.

If you follow story structure and plotting wisdom, then you’ll know that the inciting incident is when the protagonist’s world changes irrevocably, thrusting them into the main conflict of the story. This basically sums up the transition from childhood to adulthood, which involves a series of irreversible changes. Any one of these could provide the backdrop to your inciting incident, giving it depth and resonance.

That’s why I read YA, and write it too. I don’t buy into the weird aversion to YA as a category of fiction. To me it smells of ill-disguised jealousy at the success of books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.

What do you think?

UPDATE:

I’ve just seen an apology issued by the Melbourne Review of Books. In it, they say they “wish to apologise and take responsibility for the anger and frustration that [they] have caused.”  The apology reads as sincere and thoughtful, and is definitely worth a look. Unfortunately, the disdain often directed at YA fiction remains.