Occasionally, I hear someone suggest that a YA book should embody a good message for teens. That feels wrong to me, but it’s hard to articulate why.
No Sending a Message!
First, I don’t believe a good novel of any kind sets out to “send a message” in a bald way, and if a book does, it probably cripples the writing. I do believe that a story embodies the writer’s world view and that inevitably includes pretty much everything: politics, morals, ideas of what it means to be human. I suppose that implies value judgments of some sort, but it’s not a “message” in YA or adult fiction either.
So what do I think I owe YA readers? In my writerly opinion, I owe what any writer owes readers: a good story. I don’t think I have special obligations. That may have to do what I like writing about and also with my definition of “good story.”
What I Like Writing About
I’m politically liberal and areligious. However, during a class at the Iowa City Writers Festival, a teachers once said that in a class he was teaching, the atheists and the evangelical Christians both strongly believed in the importance of people treating one another well. I like to write about what “treating one another well” means and what it costs. Maybe that means I like to “send a good message” without calling it that.
What Is a Good Story?
Also, I believe a “good story” offers a reader the chance to explore what it means to be human. The writers I enjoy and admire expand my sense of the world. They don’t have to be dead serious (Terry Pratchett does this) but they need to be insightful. A bad book usually bores me with its lack of insight long before it outrages me with something I disagree with. But then, I stop reading if I’m not having a good time. When I write (or read) YA, I’m still writing (or reading) about human beings, usually just of different ages. Why would I see the world differently just because the audience is younger?
As an example, I have always thought that the Twilight series was problematic because it showed a destructive relationship approvingly. When Edward disables Bella’s car and sneaks into her bedroom to watch her sleep, those are not signs of love. They’re signs of a creepy boyfriend. A creepy boyfriend can be a useful plot element, but at some point, the book needs to acknowledge the creepiness. IMHO, Twilight is a weak book whether aimed at adults or teens.
(Yes, I am apparently stodgy. Scorn me if you must.)
A Few Things I Do Differently
Still, there are a few things I do differently. My MC is young, so I try to use a young person’s view of the world. Even at 16, Harry Potter sees the world differently than the adults around him do. He’s a little naïve, more idealistic, less experience. One…well, I don’t know that you could call it a “problem,” but one characteristic you see in many current YA fantasies is that the characters seem older than the ages they’re given, especially the boy characters. You could argue that their experiences have made them mature beyond their years, but I think experience can do only so much.
YA books are usually shorter, but I tend to write short anyway. A YA editor I heard speak says she doesn’t accept explicit sex scenes, but I’m not much inclined to write them, so that’s not an issue. The only example of self-censoring I can think of is that I occasionally use milder language. While YA books these days can include pretty much any words, every time you drop one in there, you limit your audience a little.
Thoughts on the obligations of YA writers?
“I’m not a thief. Not really. The thing I steal doesn’t belong to the people I take it from. Of course, it doesn’t belong to the people I take it for either.”