We've all seen/heard phrases along the lines of "I liked that book, but it read younger YA than I wanted." Or perhaps "It wasn't really my thing—it read so young." Or maybe even the slightly harsher-toned "That book was way too juvenile, ugh."
As you can probably guess, these phrases rub me the wrong way. Mostly because, yeah, I DO write what might be termed as "younger" YA. I know many other authors who do, and they are great authors with tons of talent and a passion for their books and the audience they write them for.
Right now in YA, more so than in the past (at least over the 7 years I've been in the loop), there is an especially big emphasis on "older" YA. The genre used to be opposite, in fact. I remember when I first started querying, I had friends getting turned down because their novels read too OLD. The characters were too OLD. Everyone acted too OLD. The genre was looking for "younger" YA that had a mass appeal. Now "old" is in and "young" seems to be the kiss of death. Funny how things turn around like that.
But I'm gonna stand up here and say—please, please have respect for "younger" YA.
It's cool if it's not your thing. We all have our things, and respecting other things while having your things is nice. And of course it's totally fine to point out that a book might be for a younger audience—but using that as a point of criticism isn't helpful. All audiences, no matter the age/genre/style/etc., deserve respect.
I can't speak for all the authors who write "younger" YA, but I can tell you why I write it and why I think it's important. And of course I'm gonna tell you because it's my blog and that's what I do: I spout my own nonsense here. So let's get on with it.
When I sit down to write, when I picture the person I'm writing for, I imagine a kid who is in 7th or 8th grade. This kid? They want to be more grown up than they are sometimes, and at other moments they wish they were still a kid who doesn't have to grow up. Junior high is a rough time, you know? Hanging on to childhood with one hand and grasping for adulthood with the other.
It's a time when a lot of kids stop reading.
Why? Because middle grade books are becoming "baby" books (also why I believe upper MG is essential but sadly often discounted), and yet some YA is still just "too old" for a 13 or 14-year-old kid. I'm not saying that as a parent, but as a person who has worked with a lot of 12 to 14-year-old kids. Yes, some are ready to grow up and are mature beyond their years. There are others who still love a good fart joke and are uncomfortable with the fact that they are now experiencing sexual attraction. Those junior high school kids are as various in their maturity as they are in their interests, how they handle tough situations, and what they want from a story.
As I write a story, I picture the girl or boy who doesn't quite love reading. Like, it's OKAY, but they wouldn't do it if their teacher didn't make them. Because, to be honest, I was that kid. I'm not the writer who grew up in love with reading—I grew up never quite being able to find a book I liked enough to read the whole way through. So in a way, I suppose I'm writing for the junior high school version of me, who could have used a "younger" YA story that had some kissing but didn't get into that whole gross sex thing in detail. I could have used a book that was cool and not "baby" but still young enough for me to handle.
Those kids deserve stories as much as the super-enlightened 16-year-old and the already-cynical 18-year-old. The thing I love most about YA is that it has given stories to an age group that didn't have so many before. I just hope we don't forget that there IS a big difference between a 13-year-old and a 19-year-old. YA fills a wide range of needs, and all of them should be respected.
So the next time you read a "younger" YA book, maybe instead of saying it read "too young" you could say "this book is perfect for a junior high school audience" or "this book would be great for a reluctant reader" or "this book meets the needs of a younger teen." Because that's not a BAD thing. It's actually a GOOD thing.
Obviously, I'm very proud to write for the audience I write for. I love them. I care about them. And I get probably a bit too defensive when people treat them like they are lesser just because they're on the younger side of the YA spectrum. So I'll try and control my mama bear tendencies, but I just felt like we all needed a good reminder about this audience. Because in the end, those young YA readers are kids we hope will KEEP reading, we hope they will love books so much they'll still pick them up when they are older teens, when they're in college, and for the rest of their lives.
At least that's my dream, as an author who writes for the reluctant 14-year-old reader, to keep a kid reading, to create lifelong readers.