Because it depends on who's watching...
Teenagers are curious creatures. So eager to be viewed as adults, and yet not ready to let go of childhood. I think they are bold and afraid and naive enough not to know they should sometimes be afraid, which gives them a tenacious boldness at times, and sometimes not bold when they should be bold, and not cautious when they should be cautious, and cruel when they should be kind, and kind when you expect them to be cruel, and fragile, and crazily endearing, and maddeningly frustrating, and all sorts of confusing all wrapped up in hormonal packages of strange awesomeness.
When they are around their peers, they tend to act like their peers. But when they are around adults, they tend to act older, more mature, more like adults. They have the capacity to be both children and adults, and to be viewed as both, either singularly or at the same time, and it is only at their stage in life that this can be said to be true, and that it can be acceptable. Nobody would tolerate someone my age acting like a child, nor an actual child acting like an adult. But a sixteen year old? A sixteen year old can get away with much on both ends of the spectrum, and for a writer, this age presents unique opportunities and challenges both to write about and to write for. My husband and I recently went to see Captain America: Civil War, and I was thrilled to see a new Spiderman take the screen - a true teenage Spiderman! But you know what really thrilled me about him? He precisely embodied this aspect of what and why I enjoy writing YA characters. He was a kid, but he got to fight alongside the "big boys," and he acquitted himself with style. His skills were on par with the rest, but his dialogue was quirky and juvenile. At one point, while kicking Cap's butt, he said something like, "Sorry Cap, nothing personal. I'm just here to impress Mr. Stark." You see? Teenage Peter Parker is both an adult and a child - both able to contend with the Avengers, but desiring their adult approval as well. It just depends on who's watching.
To write YA characters effectively, then, is to remember this dichotomy that exists in each and every one of them. And to remember how unique it makes them and the stage of life they are in. What an amazing treasure it is to handle such fragile souls, to send them on great adventures and see what they will do, and to invite them to remind us that we once traveled through that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, too.
Big ideas, simpler packages
Young Adult literature is often written in a simpler, less florid style than Adult literature, and I prefer my books that way. I think when people write for adults, they feel a heavier burden to be loquacious and to sound intellectual and highbrow (it doesn’t actually mean they are). In YA lit, writers are freed from that burden because they are expected to speak the language of the audience to whom they are writing. But simplicity does not equate to simplemindedness. Neither does floridity equate to depth, and I think it’s often the people who don’t want to have to sit and think deeply about what they have just read who want to assume that it does. Big words and flowery style often mask stories that are only ankle-deep when it comes to actual content and theme, and it sometimes takes much greater skill to insert great depth of meaning into simpler words and style. I’m not, of course, saying this is a rule, or that all YA literature is deep and meaningful (because good gracious – NO!), but much of it contains greater meaning than it is ever given credit for simply because it’s labeled as books for “teens.” YA literature can (and should) stand up to as stiff literary criticism as adult literature. Why not? Can’t it address the same themes? Don’t teenagers wrestle with the same demons as adults? In different ways, certainly, but their journeys are important, and the conclusions they draw from them while young help shape the course of their lives as adults. It has been suggested to me several times throughout my career that it is somehow a higher calling to write for adults, as though adults are worthier of being taken more seriously as a reading audience. The insinuation drawn, then, about my writing is that it is lowbrow, easier to produce, commercial garbage, not serious or to be taken seriously, and etc. etc. My first reaction to these sorts of comments tends to be anger (and hurt, as my hard work is devalued), but those feelings are quickly chased by pity. Because people who cannot see depth in simplicity or value in the childlike must live pretty bleak, joyless lives, mustn’t they? They will certainly, at the very least, never get to experience the cathartic joy of watching a teenager fall to absolute pieces over a good book. And I would not trade that for the world.
Archives from my old blog...