who are we writing YA for?

A question: right now, are we writing YA for teenagers, aged 12 through 19, or are we writing YA for those of us not-so-young-anymore adults who devour them? I don’t have an answer to this question, but it’s something to think about.

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I try to think back to what I read when I was 12 through 19, and to be honest, if it wasn’t for school, it was probably a Star Trek novel, a steamy romance from my mom’s box of trashy novels, or Regency romance. I didn’t start keeping track of what I was reading until I was in college. And Harry Potter was a senior year thing for me. (In fact, I recall my earliest reactions to HP when my mom tried to get me to read them — “seriously, Mom? those books are for little kids. wizards? who cares.”

I don’t think of myself as a teen reader. I can make excuses but the only one that really makes sense is that I was too busy. I went to school 8 hours a day like everyone else, I worked a part-time job most nights and weekends, and I did the fall play and musical which meant that the downtime I had was for homework and school reading (and I can tell you right now I didn’t always read what I was assigned in English class).

Before high school, I read a lot. Series books. The Baby-sitters Club, Sweet Valley Kids, Teens, High. American Girl for sure. But once I hit those teen years? I even asked my mom and her response was: “I don’t remember you reading much other than books for school.”

I worked in a bookstore for many years, in charge of the childrens and YA section. I should know the answer to this but try as I might, when I think of interacting with actual teens in the bookstore, it’s when they’re looking for their school reading list, not in browsing the YA section for something new to read. Parents of teens? Absolutely, but more than not it was the age-old question: “My son/daughter doesn’t like to read. What can you recommend that will keep their interest?” But a teenage piling up their arms with the latest releases? I don’t recall it. (There are exceptions, of course, such as the fact that when I worked in a bookstore, the last two Twilight novels released… as did Deathly Hallows.)

So I guess what I’m wondering is this: what books are actual teenagers reading these days? Are they reading The Scarlet Letter and A Separate Peace and suffering through Animal Farm and Heart of Darkness in school which puts them out of reading anything else? Are they reading Harry Potter and Divergent and The Hunger Games because of the movies? Are they going to the library or the bookstore and browsing the Young Adult and Teen Fiction shelves for anything that’s catching their eye? Are they reading blogs (more than likely maintained by adult fans of YA) or using Goodreads? Are they reading “issue” books like Looking for Alaska and Speak and Go Ask Alice? Are they looking for escapism in the form of the silly, the contemporary, the romance like Anna and the French Kiss and Wish You Were Italian? Do they want action and adventure? Do they want sex and drugs? Do they want myth, mystery, fantasy?

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Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that the YA genre has ballooned. I read it. I read it all the time. If you look at any of my recent years’ lists of read books, you’ll see that the majority is YA. I’m glad that for those teenagers who are reading and devouring books left and right that there is a treasure trove of styles, genres, characters, and emotions that YA books these days can offer them. I want these teens to be reading. I know that I’m in the adult YA world as I’m a) an adult and b) read YA and c) read YA book review blogs written by other adults. For this reason my viewpoint is bound to be pretty skewed. I’m not a teacher. I’m not a librarian. I don’t still work in a bookstore. I’m not even in publishing anymore (though I won’t even touch publishing at this point because I have many feels and opinions on that).

But I am a writer. And right now, I’m writing YA. So that brings me to the point of this entire post, and that is to ask: what I’m worried about as a writer is this: to whom am I writing my YA novel? To the teen reader or to the adult YA reader?

I don’t mean me, in general. I mean all of us. Anyone who’s writing a YA novel right now. Maybe I even mean agents and editors, all of whom are also adults who love YA. What are we looking for? Who are we writing for? Do we write to sell books (and right now, that seems like it’s adults who are buying YA books), or do we write to get a teenager to read? I’ll tell you this: I’ve tried both from time to time and still feel muddled and stuck and, well, defeated.

What about you? Thoughts on this? Have any articles or research or other blog entries I should be reading that answers me questions (or ponders more)?

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