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.
Lesson 2: Make the protagonist a kid with no parental oversight.
When you hang out in schools you learn, whether you’re a student or not. This tidbit came to me because my “classroom” was a conference room in the school library. During hall duty one day, the librarian told me this: “The books that get checked out most frequently, in school libraries nationwide, are the ones where the kid has no parent on the scene.”
*Click* Of course! I was getting certified as a teen life coach at the time, and had been studying Autonomy Theory, which says this: because their bodies and brains are about to fly the coop, the adolescent human goes through a developmental phase where they tell their parents to GTHO. It’s like, a human imperative. Baby bird needs to grow wing muscles to fly; teen kid needs to grow independent thoughts to get their own apartment. Books that feature teens who are forced into this autonomy, with no pressure or bad feelings from the parents they’re peeling away from, are a combination guidebook/escape hatch. No wonder they rocket off the shelves.
Looking at this through a lit-technical lens: to drive a story, we need a struggle. In books for younger children, the struggle might involve monsters under the bed, a cookie jar the kid can’t reach—the type of problem your average adolescent solves in a snap. Teen characters need to face challenges that are more complex. But if said character has an ever-present parental unit, well, why wouldn’t the parent just fix it? Even if that parent was somehow incapacitated, unable to save the day, if parent and teen share a cozy, close relationship, teen would just talk her plight out with the ‘rent for emotional support. And that, as a plotline? Ho-friggin-hum.
Maybe you’re the parent of a teen. Maybe you’re close with that teen. So maybe this isn’t ringing true. But let me tell you, as an adult who has taught and coached teens for 22 years, you are the narrow exception. From my juvenile jail students to my privileged coaching clients, the kids perceive a disconnect from their parents. They love ’em; some even obey ’em; but they feel a gap between their own experience and wishes and their parents’ expectations. Like, all teens do. They have to. It’s nature. So. If you want young adults to connect with your book, give ‘em a character who is experiencing this same strange new struggle.
Want proof? Okay, but I almost feel guilty, like I’m beating a five-year-old at Thumb War. You ready? Google “most popular books for teens,” and you know what pops up? Dude, The Outsiders. As in, kids who are exiled from society because they have no parents.
Need I continue? The Hunger Games, where teens are shipped off to fend for themselves or die, as the adults wordlessly watch. The Catcher in the Rye, which, duh. I don’t want to keep insulting you. Just name any successful book for teens; you’ll spot the trend.
Lesson 3: Feature the topics making headlines vis-à-vis teens: anxiety, suicide, bullying.
Have your characters experience these struggles, but don’t describe them in a way that’s instructive or glamorous. Lord, and you thought simply writing with cuss words was scary!
Let’s tackle the danger zone first. When we’re writing for youth, there’s an implicit understanding: we’re writing for youth. Our readers are impressionable. If our stuff is good enough to hold teens’ attention, they like it. And if they like it, they want to align themselves with it. That means—and this goes into the flipside of Autonomy Theory, to what teens are reaching toward, as they move away from their parents—they want to imitate it. Therefore we have a power, and an obligation to use that power for positive influence. Does this sound like a bunch of psych mumbo jumbo? One word for ya: Slenderman.
This influence accounts for the alarm bells going off around the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, with critics saying it glosses over, and glamorizes, suicide. If self-destructive behaviors can be perceived as a solution, especially if they’re committed by a character with whom teens connect, those behaviors can look mighty appealing. However. If we convey the actual experiences attendant with these behaviors—the horror, the pain, the repercussions—then we’re not idealizing them; we’re edifying on the reality of them. We’re painting a deterrent.
Given the risks, why even go there? Long short: because so many desperate kids need to know they’re not alone. Abused kids. Depressed kids. Bullied kids. Anxious kids. The list is endless, and the struggles are taboo. Nobody wants to go there. There’s no quicker way to earn a lunchroom status of “nobody to sit with” than to throw your ugly truth on the table. So not chill.
Prepare to be astounded at the numbers. Just to scratch the surface, current data shows 6.3 million teens have an anxiety disorder, and suicide rates for teen girls are at a 40-year high. Even if kids decide to break the taboo and seek help, where are they supposed to go? As we’ve touched on, the parents are out. The guidance counselor is swamped with scheduling and college consulting. If the school has a social worker or psychiatrist—big if—she or he is only on campus part-time. But you know what kids have access to? Books. Books like yours. Books that can offer, at the very least, a character who’s facing the same struggles. A message, a sweet, kind, necessary message, that the struggling kid is not the only one.
Author Ellen Hopkins, a pioneer of the “edgy YA” genre, has written multiple New York Times bestselling novels. She writes about teens dealing with hardcore issues—drug addiction, sex trafficking, child abuse, mental illness, teen pregnancy—with a gloves-off, take-no-prisoners style that has landed her, multiple times, on the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged Authors of the 21st Century” list.
But that’s the adults talking. Know what the teens say? Thank you. Your books helped me understand someone I love. Thank you. Your books saved my life. Tens of thousands of readers have written; they all send the same message: without your edgy, dangerous books, I’d still be lost.
Lesson 4: Include hope.
As my students read my book, they highlight the stuff that relates to their lives. I watch as they carefully press bars of fluorescent ink over abuse scenes and drug experimentation and painful interactions with peers. And then we talk. The readings open them up. The bolder kids share their stories with the class; the shy ones wait ’til it’s just them and me. Their histories differ, but their wrap-up is always the same: “But now things are getting better.” Maybe optimism is another youthful imperative, because the kids, they keep looking up. They believe it’s gonna get better. Until, maybe, they don’t.
Kathleen Glasgow, author of the gorgeous New York Times bestseller Girl in Pieces, stressed this point at a recent reading: “If you’re going to write for kids, you must, you must, give them hope. It’s the price you pay in exchange for their trust.” Kathleen understands how readers seek solutions in the books they love; she found solace in titles that deal with self-harm and depression. She also knows how teens meld with the books they love, regularly receiving fan art of the characters in her story.
Given that teens do so strongly identify with fictional characters, à la Slenderman, we want to make sure we balance all that real, all that grit, with characters who find their way up and out. Not that the good has to be treacly—spoiler alert, the happy ending of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is when the boyfriend-widowed protagonist realizes, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you.” Not exactly word confetti, but: the kid ends up empowered. She has a say in life. She’s not a victim.
That message—that you have the tools within to move beyond pain—is what we must leave our readers with. Because even if they don’t have lunch-friends, or parents, or a guidance counselor with time to counsel, our readers have themselves. Around the clock. If your book illustrates that one’s self is enough, you give readers the greatest gift possible: self-efficacy, tied with a bow of hope.
Long short, what do young adult readers want to see in the chapters of your book? They want to see themselves. Their pain, their experimentation, their autonomy. They want to read about what they’re living, what their friends are living, and they want it in detail. At the end, they want to see themselves figuring out how to win. Such truth can be scary to write. That’s good. Scary is real. Bathe in the fear; use it as your ink. Because when it comes to YA, the real is what gets you the win.
Cyndy Etler is a teen life coach and the author of young adult memoirs The Dead Inside and We Can’t Be Friends (Sourcebooks Fire). Her books take readers into her sixteen months in Straight Inc., a teen treatment program the ACLU called “a concentration camp for throwaway teens,” and then back to her druggie high school, packed with dangerous jockos and cheerleaders.