Four things every YA author needs to know about teens

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Four things every YA author needs to know about teens.

My first reaction: skeptical. I think the first thing every YA author needs to know about teens is that teenagers are just as diverse in their characteristics as non-teenagers.

Every single YA panelist at every single SFF convention who has ever said: The thing about teenagers is they’re so angsty! They’re so emotional! Everything is life and death! I am looking directly at you. I hated angst just as much when I was fifteen or seventeen as I do now. Maybe more. Hated it in fiction, hated it in real life, I do not crave emotional upset in any form, thank you, but NO.

This is especially not what I want to see given that a lot of modern fantasy has moved toward the YA pattern: short, fast paced, high angst. I don’t mean everything, but that’s kind of a tendency, or I think it has been for the past twenty years. At least.

Let me just see what this post says …

A) Teens are easily bored

B) Teens are curious

C) Oh, here it is: Teens are highly emotional.

D) Teens push boundaries

I don’t see a single word about teens aren’t all the same, teenagers are a diverse group. Instead, it’s all teenagers have low dopamine levels and I’m like sure, if you say so, I guess it’s a puzzle that teenagers can actually get lost for hours in a specific book, videogame, binge watch a tv series, spend hours fishing or in a deer blind, fiddle with model cars or real cars for ages … you know what, maybe teenagers aren’t all, as a group, easily bored? Maybe the levels of dopamine are high enough in lots of teens to sustain prolonged interest in whatever? Just a suggestion.

But we can certainly say Oh, teens are easily bored, you need to grab a teen reader fast, and then, bonus, we can generalize from teenagers to people and push all books to start with explosions and THEN say Wow, people today have such low attention spans, when in fact if you offer readers long books and/or quiet openings that are engaging, then those books still work fine. It just has to be a good opening rather than a boring opening.

Last I checked, many people, teens included, still love TLotR and other really, really long books, such as, I don’t know, The Hands of the Emperor has a thousand ratings on Amazon. [You know, just saying, but Tasmakat only has 163. If you haven’t ever dropped over to Amazon to rate it, how about now? Preferably with five stars, but whatever, it seems pretty stable at an average of 4.8, so I’m not very concerned about its average star rating.]

I’m just going to note that not only are TLotR and The Hands of the Emperor both really, really long, but both also start quietly, and the quietness continues for a good long time. Yet they are hooky, and plenty of people stay up late reading them.

Raise your hand if you disliked high-angst novels as a teen, and especially if you disliked high levels of angst in romance in novels. Everybody? Of course not. Lots of readers? Yes, for sure. And why are different people raising their hands for different kinds of books? Because readers are a diverse group, no matter their age or, sigh, their dopamine levels.

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7 thoughts on “Four things every YA author needs to know about teens”

  1. Raising my hand…

    Though I’ve also noticed that for a while now I don’t have enough patience to just sit and enjoy the books with long and flowery prose like your recent Olombria example, or even the really poetic works of Lord Dunsany. In my teen years I remember reading and enjoying the Dunsany books I could find, but at the moment I am not tempted to search them out. Maybe all the busy-ness at work and in my life have dopamined me out, for the nonce?

  2. I agree with Hanneke- my patience is much more limited now that I am older. As a teen I was able to push through difficult beginnings (eg Scaramouche) and read much more widely. I even read Pamela, the most tedious book imaginable as a teen. Maybe it’s because the times are so different- there are so many books for teens now when back in the day if you wanted to read there were a few children’s books and then basically the classics. Also there was a lot more down time for kids.

  3. You know what I searched for in the YA section of my library (which, upon realizing the scarcity, I started searching the adult sci-fi/fantasy section for)? Books with low angst and preferably very little romance. I was not super fond of thrillers or horror, but I did like action/adventure, while also enjoying slower paced, even slice-of-life books. I despised love triangles, which seemed to be standard, and wanted stories about non-drama-centered friendships. Which is why I gravitated to books like Gerald Morris’s Arthurian retellings, tLoTR, Diana Wynne Jones’s stuff, etc.
    When authors talk about how books need to hook a teen reader right away (usually with action) . . . no. No, they do not. Give me a good, well-written book, and I can be patient for a few chapters to see where it’s going.
    Come to think of it, my tastes haven’t changed THAT much.

  4. I didn’t like high levels of angst. I didn’t like romance either, although I’d put up with it as long as there was something much more interesting going on in the story than stupid romance. (This hasn’t changed much.) So a romance novel with high levels of angst would have been RIGHT out.

    I went straight from children’s books to the Adult Fantasy section of the library when, at the age of about nine, the annual Red Cross Book Sale accidentally put Terry Brooks’ “Magic Kingdom for Sale/Sold!” in the children’s area. I tore through it. (I laughed my head off at the inept wizard Questor Thews and the serious talking dog Abernathy. I was caught up in the mystery of the Paladin. The romance portion went straight over my head. And even though I knew there was a Demon Lord bearing down, I also knew from the tone of the book that it’d turn out all right.) I then tore through the rest of the series, all but #5 much enjoyed – and then tore through the books that provided the epigraphs to them, which is how I found Peter Beagle’s “The Last Unicorn” and really regretted reading some of the others – and then started wandering the adult fantasy looking for other things I could love. Which is where I happened across Xanth, and Discworld, and Robin McKinley, and Valdemar… and a lot of stuff I gave up on in disgust because REALLY Not My Thing (I think I tried Gormenghast at about thirteen – HARD NOPE and still trying to forget it)… and Patricia McKillip. Oh, Patricia McKillip. I fell in love. Luckily “Alphabet of Thorn” was the one that first caught my eye, because if I’d tried any of her others when I was that young, I think I would have given up on her. I still haven’t tried to reread “Ombria in Shadow” as an adult after dismally failing to follow the storyline as a child. (AoT is definitely her simplest, in terms of “backstory is actually EXPLAINED…”)

    After all that, I don’t think that I ever actually touched the Teen Fiction section as a teenager. I’ve only started to read some Teen Fiction as an adult. Then again, I love many, many children’s books – both from childhood and those I discovered as an adult. Maybe I’m just strange.

  5. When I was about 11-13 I would read anything. I read a lot of parenting books from my church library about parenting teenagers: all the usual warnings about emotional volatility and feelings of alienation. I spent the next six years checking myself. “Has the emotional volatility kicked in yet? Yes, there was a little emotional volatility today… Let’s edit that out in future.”
    I’ve always been very firmly in the “please no angst” crowd.

  6. Kaathryn, that’s really funny about reading parenting books! “Has the emotional volatility kicked in yet? Ugh, stop.”

  7. Nope. High angst has never been my jam. Nor dystopian fiction, either. Do stressful, angsty event sometimes need to happen? Of course! But I’ve never enjoyed spending so much time in the head of someone who’s just angry/angsty ALL the time.

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