Teens Are Dumb: “Writing Down” to a Younger Audience

It’s something I think about whenever I read or write YA fiction: does the writer respect the intelligence and psychological complexity of young adults? The obvious answer is “duh, Idiot. How can you connect with young adults without empathizing with them?” But I don’t think it’s always so simple.

The YA market is booming. More and more writers—most of them full-fledged, alcohol (legally) buying, car-renting adults—are writing first-time YA novels, novels about teenage love, the awkwardness of puberty, the social dynamics of school, etc. Even books like Divergent and Hunger Games, set in speculative / futuristic worlds, deal with many of the same subject matters / themes/ motifs as their literary / realistic counterparts. But can a writer long past the angst-ridden teen years successfully capture a teenage point of view?

Point of view, in my opinion, is the crux of YA; it determines if the story will succeed or not, regardless of how exciting the plot is or how funny/tragic the central characters are. Take John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars: it’s about kids with cancer (trite topic, anyone?) and doesn’t have a particularly dynamic plot. But it succeeds in its point of view: the protagonist, Hazel, is so smart, funny, sarcastic, and emotionally complex, that the reader falls in love with her voice. Mr. Green is a unique example because his young-adult characters speak with the linguistic sophistication usually only seen in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. Could teenagers be so comfortable in their speech, so precise in their use of irony and metaphor? Maybe not, but it’s clear that Mr. Green respects the intellect of young adults, and he trusts his readers to understand and be entertained.

Where some YA fails is when writers try to “write down” to the audience, presuming that the writer is more experienced, more educated, and overall superior to teenagers. If you’ve ever read a YA book that didn’t move you, didn’t excite you, and felt like it was “written for” young adults, then take another look at the point of view: do you get the sense the writer thinks young adults are less intelligent than adult readers? Good YA appeals to young adults; bad YA is “written for” young adults.

The difference often lies in the subtext, the general authorial presence throughout the book, which undoubtedly finds ways to surface.  Usually, books like these contain young-adult protagonists who figure things out slower than the reader or the adult characters. This type of book contains a love story that feels like it was sterilely placed into the story to meet the genre quota. And this type of story relies too much on action sequences / violence / general mayhem to work out its plot because the characters don’t have enough weight to drive the story (after all, young adults are action-obsessed and have short attention spans!). Whether it’s the plot, the characters, the voice, or the tone (or a combination of all of the above), you can tell that the writer doesn’t respect or understand the reader.

It’s no coincidence that many of the most popular YA books are popular among adults as well as teens. That’s because young adult readers are in many ways smarter and more open-minded than the crotchety white-haired English professors who denounce sci-fi/fantasy (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), dystopian (Hunger Games), or experimental forms (Thirteen Reasons Why) because they’re all different from the standard realistic literary style.

So thank you, YA, for being everything that adult literature refuses to be. When I write YA, I will write stories that appeal to young readers, and hopefully those stories will appeal to others readers, too. But I will not write stories for young readers, for to do so implies that I’m writing down to them, and the only people I will write down to are ex-lovers and dishonest politicians, and only if they are being rude.


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