For a very long time, I have been telling people that I don’t want to read Young Adult (YA) literature. And I didn’t. Why not? Because it doesn’t speak to me. How’s that for vague? But something changed.
A few years ago, feeling friendless in real life, I decided to join a book club advertised on Meet Up (if you haven’t been on there, you should check it out). Since the leadership of the book club had changed many times, it was a bit rudderless and eventually fell apart, but for a couple of years we would meet on the last Sunday of the month, briefly discuss the book we had chosen, and then vote on the next month’s read. This typically involved everyone getting on their phones and digging through their TBR lists on Goodreads. Then we threw out our ideas and voted.
What I discovered is the book club had thriller and YA tendencies. Just the kinds of books I didn’t want to read. But I wanted friends. So, I read.
Starting in 2018, I began reading books that feature fat women and girls in a respectful way, leading to a challenge that has completely blown up. While combing the internet for leads on new books (and avoiding those in which the lead diets or dates her way to happiness), I learned that most books with fat female protagonists are YA — just look at this list. For a full year, I’ve been in uncomfortable, yet hopeful, territory. Why not celebrate YA if it’s doing what other genres dare not do: feature commonly unheard voices from different minority communities? Why not throw all my money dollars at the YA industry in support?
Because YA still drives me nuts. But I’ve figured out a few reasons, and I would love to discuss them with you. I’m not here to convince you YA is terrible, but why I find it endlessly frustrating. Please feel free to posit questions, submit facts and opinions, etc. in the comments. I’m especially interested in what non-U.S. bloggers reading YA from their countries have to say.
Here’s What I Discovered:
#1 Every YA book I’ve read features a first-person narrator, one of the most misused writing techniques. In an article by Cris Mazza, published by The Writer’s Chronicle (Vol 42. No. 2), she found that the number of published books with a first-person narrator is going up. Lacking complexity, Mazza argues first-person narrators have become a fad rather than a deliberate choice. She posits:
. . . readers were meant to have the sensation that the narrator was a “real person,” was our friend telling us a story about himself, that it was personal and intimate and therefore cozy and emotional. . . . [but] it was either a superficial use of the technique, or . . . literally, a person telling his own story because he had no other way to render literature out of experience.
If a first-person narrator is just the voice of the author hiding behind a character name, the technique has not been used properly. A story in which the first-person narrator merely describes what he/she sees or does is a waste of the technique, too. Typically, we get a story one of one action following another with little else when authors choose present tense. The result: no reason for a character to reflect on their past or analyze what happened. We live in the moment, and so does the character.
We should almost be trying to figure out who this first-person narrator is through his/her choice of words, what is left out, emphasized, etc. Think about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Many readers complain that young Oskar sounds like Safran Foer coming out of an nine-year-old boy’s mouth. The way Oskar speaks and thinks pretty much tattles on Safran Foer.
But back to YA. I’ve never read a YA novel that wasn’t in first-person. To live in a teenager’s head for 300+ pages (because YA must be very, very long) is exhausting when you’re in your 30s, like I am. To see a character make all the wrong choices in a cliched fashion, when one normal adult could steer a character in a positive direction, and to see the mistakes coming a mile away, is frustrating.
#2 The YA frenemy. Though it’s a limited sampling, I went through 10 recent YA novels I read. 8 have a frenemy. I’m forced to ask myself how often frenemies exist in real life — someone you’re friends with but also compete with and possibly hate — and why each protagonist in YA predictably needs one.
#3 Getting into a big ol’ fight with the bestie. Looking at the same 10 books, 7 had a the protagonist get into a fight with his/her best friend, which resulted in removing the bestie during the protagonist’s lowest point in the novel. Of course they reunite. But in real life, is that friendship ever the same?
#4 A piece of shit mom. Now, I’m not talking about a mom who doesn’t understand, or who makes the protagonist angry. These moms are more like Disney villains. Half of my 10 books had a Cruella-esque mother. I’m frustrated that fathers don’t step in to debate evil mothers on their choices and think it speaks little of men as parents. Furthermore, a lazy first-person POV leaves the mom as a villain without helping readers see her for who she is. And one big sappy apology near the end doesn’t fix the poor writing of an “evil” mom.
#5 Kisses the crush by the end. Personally, I stopped using the word “crush” was I was 18, so it tends to bap my cringe-reflex, but I understand it’s a word that works with the teen experience. In my small sampling, 90% of the books I read had the protagonist kiss his/her crush by the end of the novel. The one book in which it didn’t happen was a YA re-telling of The Handmaid’s Tale. . . not really a crush-y environment. If you pull out your old Lisa Frank bedazzled diaries, you’ll embarrassingly recall how rarely you kissed your crush. Why must it happen in YA?
#6 Dreams come true. In some YA novels, the dream is to get the girl/guy. But others feature ambitious teens with a goal, be it career-driven, to get into some college, to draw attention to an issue, etc. In 70% of the YA novels I looked at, the protagonist’s BIG HUGE DREAM came true. Even in the most unlikely of situations. This frustrates me because real life requires a back-up plan, and I ask what more reasonable role might YA play in preparing teens for that reality?
#7 They hate their bodies. And here is the one I find upsetting. 7 out of 10 books had characters who absolutely hated their bodies and were doing one or more of the following: actively working to “fix” their bodies, speaking or thinking badly of their bodies, or thinking miserable thoughts about their worth based on their bodies. I’m not talking moderation. “Oh, if my hair were straighter it would be easier to deal with.” It’s more like “I have a horrible fat body and no one will ever love me.” This went for male and female characters, and ranged drastically in body sizes. What about other characteristics? Not really. There is no greater societal sin than to be fat, right?
I guess for me the biggest issue with YA is how I feel like I’m reading about the same person repeatedly. I can tell you the end of the book after reading the synopsis — and the reason for that is readers demand expectations be fulfilled. To anger bloggers who didn’t get the ending they want in a YA novel is to say bye-bye to a sophomore book deal.
Margot @ Lectito once told me that I should try Australian YA, that it is vastly different from YA in the U.S. I haven’t read much, just one book (Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell), but I had no idea where that book was headed, what would happen, and I loved the characters that much more for their capricious tendencies.