Mon
Jun 22 2009 2:09pm

The Wonderful World of Writing for Teens

When I’d talk to anyone above a certain age (who doesn’t happen to be associated with the publishing world) about what I do, I used to always get the same question. “What’s a YA book?” Rather than have to explain that YA stands for young adult, I decided it was easier to just say I wrote teen novels. Though I’ve discovered that has its own set of problems. Images of Sweet Valley High covers dance through their heads and then they’ll usually ask me if I ever plan on writing any real novels, at which I point I’m torn between the urge to educate and the urge to insult them using the word skills I normally apply to said fake novels.

The fact of the matter is that I choose to write for teens. It’s not some sort of consolation prize, or a minor league of any kind. It’s actually an amazing group to write for. I find that teen readers are more engaged readers who connect to a text more than your average jaded adult. They’re also more receptive to unconventional ways of storytelling because they haven’t necessarily settled into the habit of reading the same type of book over and over again as most readers do once they reach a certain age. (As one who usually shops used bookstores by looking at the spines for the Grove Press logo of the 60s, I know I’m certainly guilty of that.)

Another great thing about writing for teens is being able to create teen characters. A teen character has the freedom to be more dynamic in a lot of cases. These characters are still trying to discover who they are, which allows them to believably behave in ways that might seem far-fetched in an adult character. A teen character can be full of confidence in one scene and full of self-doubt the next and no one would blink and eye or cry foul about lack of consistent characterization. As a writer, this is gift that can be used to enhance a story’s tension.

In Zombie Blondes it is Hannah’s lack of self-confidence that allows her to ignore her own common sense and be lured in by the undead. But at the same time, she handles the one boy who tries to protect her with an arrogant self-assuredness. In combination, both of these traits help to create the sinister mood of the novel. They both help to pull her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation. And though it may seem obvious to most people, even to Hannah, that her behavior is not taking her to a good place, readers will understand it because her motivation in both cases is the desire to fit in. As most teenagers know, the horror of being a total outcast can almost be worse than the horror of a group of flesh eating cheerleaders. This why, at its heart, Zombie Blondes in my opinion is more of a coming of age story than it is a horror novel.

There’s an assumption amongst a lot of people that if something is written for teens, then it must be simple or unliterary. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, there are a lot of classic novels that if they were published today, would be sold in the teen section of the bookstore. Catcher in the Rye is perhaps the most obvious, but the argument could also be made for works such as A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, and The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide. I don’t look at that suggestion as a knock on any of these books, but rather a testament to the readers in the age group.

Teen readers are more sophisticated than they often get credit for and so is teen literature. So when people ask me what I do for a living, I have no problem with telling them that I write teen novels. If by chance I do get the sideways glance or furrowed brow or rude suggestion that I write real novels, I just take comfort in knowing they’re missing out on some of the most exciting, creative books being published today. If you don’t believe me, next time you’re in the bookstore, do yourself a favor and browse the teen section. I guarantee you’ll walk out with at least one novel from there.


Brian James is the author of several notable books including Pure Sunshine and Dirty Liar. He lives in a small town in upstate New York that may or may not be overrun with zombies. His new book, Zombie Blondes, is now available from Square Fish.

4 comments
Alena G
1. delizia
I'm looking forward to reading ZOMBIE BLONDES when I get my hands on it! I keep seeing it around and it sounds great.

I am a big fan of YA books myself, and a staunch defender of their legitimacy. It seems to me that one of the other -- maybe not benefits, but definitely features -- of teen books is that they focus first and foremost on story and characters. It is much harder for a YA book to succeed without a strong plot and intriguing characters than it is for a "serious" fiction book, which can squeak by on style, voice, form, etc. Who's to say which is better (it all comes down to personal preference, obviously), but I think they both can make respectable claims as "real" projects. (Where does the idea that if it's "easy" and "fun," it couldn't possibly be a serious work come from, anyway?)

Anyway, excellent point about teen characters -- I'll have to add that to my YA-is-awesome arsenal. :)
JS Bangs
2. jaspax
I was going to ask you where you got that brilliant Photoshop of the Sweet Valley High book. But Google tells me (OMFG) that this is a real book, and that's the actual cover. My brain just exploded.
Mr Wesley
3. Mr Wesley
Teen literature CAN be more sophisticated and dynamic. But, like anything else, a lot of it is crap.

I've read a number of YA novels (not speculative for the most part, but still) where the main character is self-absorbed and melodramatic, makes his or her choices on the most absurd criteria, and are rewarded for making poor choices.

I think a lot of YA books, if not most of them, actually pander to their readers instead of challenging them.
Mr Wesley
4. Carbonel
"...are also more receptive to unconventional ways of storytelling because they haven’t necessarily settled into the habit of reading the same type of book over and over again as most readers do once they reach a certain age"

Bwahahahaha.

They can be, sure, but so can adults: the success of the Sweet Valley High (and other) series ought to be a pointer...

And I write this with love, because there's nothing wrong with loving the familiar+a twist. "Repetition and variation" is a perfectly valid artistic trope.

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