In the process of writing a book proposal, I read a ton of descriptions of young adult novels. I came across three or four with male main characters who can fly, as many or more with female main characters who talk to their dead mothers as they try to deal with life, and countless books that involve the characters having sex with boyfriends/girlfriends/random people. Then there were the books about suicidal characters, a few told from the perspectives of characters in mental hospitals, and a couple of books with main characters in search of family members they may or may not have met.
Needless to say, I no longer worry about my books being too much like other books. I’ve been hearing for years that there are no new ideas, only new ways to present them. That has become more evident than ever by researching YA novels. The one thing I didn’t find were the books I needed to compare mine to. I must be looking in the wrong places, but I’m not sure where to look. I don’t have time to read the entire YA section at the local library, so I’ve been reading descriptions on Amazon. Wow. I’m amazed that so many things that should be in books for people who are at least thirty get published in YA novels. I admit, I’m conservative. But some of the things teens are exposed to in books are just plain disturbing.
So many people talk about the huge number of problems teens have and the things they face every day. Yet the literature produced for these kids is enough to cause problems. Instead of making it so realistic it exacerbates the problem, authors should write fiction that encourages and uplifts and shows that not all teens are on drugs, suicidal, incapable of getting along with their families, or sleeping around. That’s not to say we need books full of perfect people who never have any problems. Realistically flawed characters that the reader can identify with are essential. The other essential (at least in my mind) is giving the characters hope. Show their lives improving. Let teens see that they can change their lives. If we give them a reason to hope, they might handle life better and not have as many problems.
The other thing to keep in mind is that not all teens are messed up. There are a lot of well-adjusted, happy teenagers in this world. Unfortunately, that’s not reflected in fiction. Teens look for a way to identify with the characters in books they read. If all they read are messed up characters but they themselves aren’t messed up, it’s possible they’ll begin to think there’s something wrong with them. There’s nothing wrong with being happy and well-adjusted. That’s actually the ideal. Talking to parents and having a good relationship is what I consider normal. My sister and I have always had a good relationship with our mother, unlike the characters in the books we read. We talk to her about nearly everything, and when we have a problem we know we can go to her to get good advice. We can go to our father as well. It was that way even when we were teens. Our friends had the same kind of experience with their own parents. Novels should reflect that, since they supposedly reflect real life.
Writing for teens is a big responsibility, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The words we write can have a profound effect on the readers. As YA authors, we need to take care to ensure that effect is a good one. Instead of writing only about the less savory side of life, write about the good side as well.