What Do Young Adults Want to Read? Let My Students Tell You
“I’m the most privileged young adult author on the planet. It took me ten years to write my first book, The Dead Inside, but during that ten years, I taught high school English. Cha-ching! I used my work-in-progress as a textbook. Translation: my 958 beta-readers were real, live teens, I got feedback from them five days a week, and they trusted me enough to be honest. Whoa, Nelly, were they honest. I’ve boiled their lessons down to four key points on how to write killer-engaging YA; read on to let my students school you.
Lesson 1: Make it real.
If you want your book to be the one that teens scarf down in one sitting, talk to their friends about, and consider a part of their actual life, you’ve got to give them the dirt most adults won’t touch. Real language—meaning cuss words, if you can deal. Real sex stuff, instead of cutting the scene when the going gets going. Real substance use, if that’s how your characters would spend their Friday night.
This is a scary prospect. It feels like it violates some sacred oath: “Protect the children!” But here’s the thing: the children aren’t protected. They’re doing this stuff—the cussing, the sex, the drugs and the booze—or if they’re not, they know that their peers are. It’s ourselves we’re protecting, by pulling down the blinders.
In avoiding these topics, we get to feel like righteous role models. We’re able to maintain the sweet myth of innocent childhood. In the process, though, we’re leaving teens to their own (developmentally immature) devices to deal with life’s strongest influences. Because you know, and I know, and D.A.R.E. and Planned Parenthood know, that teens find, and do, whatever they want.
What we don’t know, unless we have direct contact with forthright teens, is this: teens are desperate for this information. They’re dying to understand how sex and substances work, to know how their peers are faring with them. And possibly, quite possibly, to learn that they don’t have to participate, because they’re not the only one who doesn’t want to.
When we cloak the taboo stuff under the guise of “protection,” teens turn to their peers for information, the same peers who will do and say anything to appear #cool, #chill, #down_for_whatever. If we’re willing to present gritty topics in a way that rings true—that sounds and smells and feels like their reality, without a moralizing agenda—teens will bust a library door down to get it. And more importantly, they’ll consider their own behaviors, and possible consequences, as they read about characters they identify with.
If we’re lucky, they might even start a dialogue on these topics. After reading a sexual assault scene in my book, one of my students told me—because she “knew I would understand”—her plan for that night: to run away from her group home and meet a boy at an abandoned house where they could have sex. She understood that, if she ran, she’d lose her bed at the group home. But so strong was her need to connect with someone, she was willing to sacrifice the roof over her head.
In talking her plan out, she evaluated rewards and consequences. By connecting with a non-judgmental adult, she met her original need: to feel seen, heard, and cared for. In the end, she chose not to run away. Without the exposure to this “too real” scene in a book, though, she’d have gone ahead and made a crippling “too real” life decision. Which one’s riskier: sheltering her from the grit, or exposing it to her on the page? You decide.
Setting aside the question of conscience, let’s consider the results of some YA literary risk-taking of the past. How about Go Ask Alice? That book was all about some drugs. Published 46 years ago, it has 9,241 Goodreads reviews today. Kids still cite it as a favorite. Judy Blume’s 1975 YA novel Forever…, in which the main character’s BFF advises her, on sex, to “just get it out of the way,” is number seven on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, and was also the runner up for the National Council of Teachers of English’s Best Book of the Year award. And Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, about a teen girl’s rape, is so frequently taught in high school classrooms, it has its own Cliffs Notes. The moral? Not only do teens want and need the real scoop, but schools and libraries will support those books that tackle it. Further, those books stand the test of time, earning new fans over decades.”