Thursday, May 15, 2014

In Defense Of "Younger" YA

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.


  1. "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."

    Well-said! (As usual. :P) I think often people don't even mean "this is young" to be a negative comment, but you're right, it's being poorly framed. Your suggested phrasing is perfect!

  2. I totally agree that there is an audience for younger YA and reluctant readers. It's so important to have books for them!

    But I think non-professional reviewers should feel free to state whether a book worked for them, and in what manner. Whether they say a book is too gritty, too long, has too romance, not enough romance -- they are only stating what worked and didn't work for them. The normal reader isn't taking your intended audience into account (nor do they even think of the author as a person rather than a product).

    So my advice is: don't worry about Amazon / Goodreads reviewers! They aren't professionals and they aren't going to care who your target audience is. People write things like "this book was too girly for me" which is kind of like DUH, you were reading Bridget Jones Diary! But you get my point - you can't change how people review things. All you can do is write the books you want to write for the people you want to write them for.

    PS: As someone without a book out in the world, I know it's easy for me to say. You can make fun of me someday when I have a similar rant...

  3. Can I say, "YES SO MUCH!" This is one place where I can clearly say Middle Grade does it BETTER.

    I have an 8yo boy and a 6 yo girl. They are both fantastic readers and have (shockingly) similar taste in books, BUT there are things that my 8yo is ready to read (both content and grade-level wise) that my 6yo isn't. I read Ranger's Apprentice with my 8yo and Nathaniel Fludd with my 6yo (while my 8yo listens because hello! Great stories). Do I rip on RL LaFevers for writing stories for younger audiences?

    I don't think there is a simple solution. I guess we all need to accept that YA is a broad category, and our readers' maturity levels and abilities are equally as broad. Let's just hope that there are books out there for everyone. :)

  4. I wouldn't have made the distinction- but then I'm not writing in the YA genre myself.

  5. This is awesome. So true! I enjoy MG and "young YA" as much as (in some cases more than) the more grown up stuff. Nothing wrong with reading and appreciating a wide range of books! Consider those kids who are really young (like 8-10) who are reading at a higher level. Young YA is perfect for them.

  6. I stopped reading contemporary in middle school. In three years, I found two series that took place in middle schools. One was actually an upper MG, not YA. Now I'm 17 but I still love books about fourteen year olds.
    I guess this is another "seeing yourself in literature" thing. In eighth grade, I wrote a story that took place in a high school. The characters drove cars and went on dates. Halfway through it, I realized, "Why am I writing about a girl sending a text while her friend drives her to the mall for prom shopping? I don't do any of those things." I just wrote what I thought was normal.
    Love this post and thanks for caring.

  7. Apparently I'm an 8th grader trapped in old body without their energy! I love everything about your books, they're amazing. That includes loving that I can recommend them to students as well. Thanks for rocking your genre!

  8. The "market" being as it is, with a tendency to be premised on niche, I would not be surprised if a new genre ends up emerging with its own name that doesn't include the words Grade or Adult. Because clearly there IS a niche market, and parents, teachers, librarians, and most of all, middle school kids, want to know which books are catered for the 12-14 set. The challenge, as I see it, is to come up with a catchy name for the genre and get the industry to embrace it. Hey, it worked for New Adult, right?

  9. This post hit me on soooo many levels. After receiving a rejection this week while on sub for just that reason "skews too young for our older YA readers".....I heard this loud and clear. But not every book has to be for 18+. There are plenty of stories that need to be told for the YA set that don't include a lot of sexual situations or other really mature content.

    As a children's librarian, I KNOW there are plenty of readers out there who just aren't ready for the more mature books, but are becoming slightly ashamed of reading MG books while their peers are reading up. This seems to be especially true for readers who enjoy contemporary fiction as opposed to fantasy.

    Isn't this what we're hearing, that children are living in a society where they are becoming too mature, too fast? Then why is there criticism about books that read a little younger? Kids don't jump from being 13 to 19, so why aren't there more books for the years in between?

    Great post, Natalie. You always get it.