Why I write YA; or, the epic disaster that was my senior prom

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Maybe it’s a Peter Pan complex, but I struggle with writing for grownups.  I’ve tried.  My most recent novel is a sort of dark, quirky, self-conscious faerie tale with main characters in their forties.

I write what I want to read, and I really, really wanted to read a story with magic and true love between people who are not seventeen or even twenty-five.  Because, if we can be real about this for a second, most people do not find the love of their lives in high school.  At that stage of life, most of us are lucky to find a prom date we will not remember with an acute sense of embarrassment twenty years later.  I’m still in recovery from my senior prom, a tragicomedy of errors in which these things happened:

  • I asked The Cutest Boy Ever to the prom, which is so out of character for me that everyone around me should have started looking for other signs of the Apocalypse.
  • The boy couldn’t go because he had a trombone audition.
  • I bought a novel and resigned myself to spinsterhood.  I kind of started looking forward to the subversiveness of reading alone at home on prom night.
  • Because of a bizarre series of circumstances involving mono and an unfortunate hapkido accident, the boy called and said he could go.
  • I scrambled to get a dress.  Because it was the 90s, the dress was teal and I bought myself a wrist corsage.  Also because it was the 90s, I curled wisps of hair into these giant boingy springs bouncing around my face.
  • En route from the audition in North Carolina to my house, the boy fell asleep at the wheel and his car got cozy with a tractor trailer.  The boy called to tell me, and I quote, “I totaled my car, but the tux is fine!”  He slept in a hotel lobby until my dad could drive down and get him.
  • The boy, exhausted from his adventures, fell asleep on our lawn and awoke with a truly impressive sunburn.
  • We went to prom.  We looked awesome.  The teal set off my pallor, and his white James Bond tux jacket really brought out the red from the sunburn.
  • It was The Best Evening Ever.  The boy kissed me.  It was my first kiss, and the world completely spun around and everything blurred and for a moment time stopped.
  • Then the boy told me he had a girlfriend.  I got upset in a kind of passive-aggressive, angsty introverted way.  The boy left.  It was The Worst Evening Ever.

To this day, I get a little twitchy when anybody mentions trombones or Japanese martial arts.  I still live the awkward and sad and beautiful and strange moments of my childhood and young adulthood.  They feel at once distant and immediate.  I wonder if this is healthy.

So I tried writing a book for grownups.  And I really, really struggled.

If you’re a writer, people are always interested to learn this.  But when they ask you what you write, and you answer, “Young adult fantasy,” you often get this kind of awkward silence, which in your brain immediately translates to, “But, um, you’re, like, a grown adult, right?”  Perhaps this self-consciousness is all in my head, but it does seem like when I tell people this, more often than not I get the silence.

Anyway, this all makes me think a lot about why I write YA, and after a lot of introspecting, I’ve decided that it’s because of a cocktail of at least these three things:  A) growing up in America, B) feeling more at home in YA than adult literature, and C) not being sure what it means to be a grownup.

The first is probably the least important, but I do think that the places where we live shape us in ways both obvious and subtle, and I am living in a YA nation.  In the vast sweep of national histories, America is a teenager.  As a country, we’re young and often brash and an interesting mix of convinced that we know better than all those older nations and yet open to change and possibility.  We’re not naive; we’re excited about the prom but perhaps a little wary, too.  I think that this kind of national history works its way into your psyche, if you’re the kind of person who spends way too much time thinking about things, and so I think that being American has something to do with why I write what I do.

Secondly, there really is a staggering amount of gorgeous and profound writing happening in YA fiction.  I remember being in college and listening to a professor say that the Great American Novel hadn’t yet been written.  Of course, that made me determined to stalk the bookshelves of the universe until I discovered it.  I never did, but I’ve started to think that maybe we haven’t found it because we haven’t been looking in the right places.  We’re a YA nation, so maybe we shouldn’t be looking exclusively in adult fiction for the greatest novels of our time.  Hollywood profits from drawing our attention to the blockbusters, the Hunger Games and the Divergents and the Twilights, but there’s so much else happening in young adult literature.  There’s stark and soul-wrenching stuff, breathtakingly lyrical prose, long brave descents into the darkness of the human experience, and if you’re not reading the stuff that doesn’t make it to the big screen, you’re missing out on the full scope of what YA really is.  Over my years of reading as an adult, it’s the literature written for children and youth that’s inspired and challenged me the most, and I want to join in this conversation.  It’s a profoundly ethical conversation, too, and I think that this is a large part of why I feel more at home here.  In YA literature, things don’t tend to happen for shock value.  They have meaning, and if someone’s brutalized or downtrodden, the writer’s examining why and how that character is affected and what happens next.  I’ve learned that I can’t stomach a lot of the blockbuster-style popular adult novels because far too often, child abuse, rape, and murder are just plot points.  Someone’s victimized so we’ll understand that This Is A Very Dark World, and then the author just frolics right along, leaving a broken minor character sobbing in a ditch.  Horrifying things happen in YA literature, too, but they tend to be examined, held up to the light.  Characters’ reactions to suffering aren’t ignored, because young adults are fiercely smart and critical and don’t just accept that This Is The Way Things Are.  They question authority, buck constraints, challenge the system, as much as it may annoy the Serious Grownups who are running the show.

The third and most significant reason for me, and one that’s intimately connected to the second, is that I cannot for the life of me figure out what it means to be a grownup.  I love reading about people of all ages, but I don’t feel qualified to write for them.  It’s only now, at the age of thirty-seven, that I’ve finally learned how to think about and make sense of the experiences I had as a child.  When I try to write about adults, I realize that I have no idea how to be one.  Part of this may be because, as a mom and an English tutor, I spend a great deal of time with people under the age of eighteen.  They make sense to me, because they are becoming.  They’re in the process of growing and making themselves into who they want to be.  I think we all are, but it’s easy to forget this amid the piles of bills and paperwork and the household chores and the pressures of “making a living,” which actually means “making money” and has very little to do with actual living.  It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that the concerns of youth are trivial ones, but they matter.  Prom matters.  And it’s definitely no sillier than trying to keep up with the Joneses.

So that’s why I write YA.  But it’s kind of hard to say all that when somebody asks.  So I think from now on I’ll just say, “Because of my senior prom.”

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4 thoughts on “Why I write YA; or, the epic disaster that was my senior prom

  1. I love your thoughtful analysis here of YA fiction and why it’s important. It’s so true that YA fiction deals with critical questions. Frankly, I think it takes a lot of effort to be a good YA author. I enjoy YA fiction just as much as adult fiction. The books that struck me as a child and teenager are still with me today. I can’t really say that about a lot of adult fiction. And at (almost) 40, I don’t feel like I know what it means to be “all grown up.” I keep forgetting that I’m an adult now, because I have so much growing to do still! Thanks for a great post. And I Iove the dress! 🙂 Mine was bright red and covered in frilly lace just like yours, because hey, it was 1992!

    1. Thanks, Sue! Oh, you were brave with the bright red! You’re right–it does take a lot to do YA well, without “talking down” to “kids these days.” 🙂 And I share your reading experience–it’s the books I read earlier on that shaped me the most.

  2. Awesome post, Bee! I love this part “They make sense to me, because they are becoming.” I think that’s what I like so much about YA too. It’s about people who are figuring out the world and everything that happens to them is happening for the first time and is huge and amazing and terrifying and they have to make sense of it.

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