A lot of people complain about YA.
It’s too dark! It’s not dark enough! It’s got too many vampires! All this violence will transform teenagers into mini-Hitlers wielding nunchucks of their own making! Not enough sexytimes! Too many sexytimes!
Most of the people I know who complain about YA haven’t read much YA.
Everyone needs stories. Stories are everywhere. But there’s a special kind of teenager who needs stories, or they’ll die. The kind of kid who grew up getting in trouble for reading under their desk in class, who spent more time in the library than on the soccer field, who learned to like people because maybe the people in books were nicer than the ones in the real world. It’s easy to tell who used to be this teenager, because they usually become writers.
But there’s an element of that teenager in every teenager. Growing up is scary. It never stops being scary. (It’s scary just to use the word ‘teenager’ and not ‘we’ or ‘us’ because for the first time this year, there isn’t a ‘teen’ at the end of my age.) But it’s scariest in middle school and through high school, when you start realize several things:
– Adults lied about a lot of things, including but not limited to: “You can do anything.” “Things will work out for you.” “There are endless possibilities.” Not to say there aren’t possibilities, or that kids aren’t capable of amazing things (I believe in teenagers possibly more than anything else in the world), but you begin to notice there are other factors. That money can make it a lot harder to do what you love. That bad luck can seem insurmountable. That real life is filled with things like taxes and medical bills and days speeding up, and that unfair things won’t automatically be set straight for you.
– You’ll die. Everyone you know will die. Pretty much everything beautiful will be dust in a relatively short period of time. Yep. Good stuff.
– You’ll have to make choices, big choices, which means you can mess up in a big way.
And this combined with the cataclysmic shitstorm of your body doing and wanting new things and figuring out exactly what “me” refers to and meanwhile propping up with your elbow the gigantic cultural expectation that as a Teenager, you will be Pretty or Hot and be Socially Capable and go to Lots of Parties and Dress Stylishly and Know What Music to Tell People You Like and What Music to Lie About.
Being a teenager means needing something. You won’t get through it without that something. It’s why friendships are 90% of life, and finding love is this panicked, crazed, hyperbolic obsession. And it’s why YA, as a genre, is incredibly precious.
YA preserves that magic you’re born believing in. It’s made out of the terrors and struggles that come with these Real Life realizations hitting you all at once. It lets you not be alone. Being a teenager is when you walk through fire, when everything in the world is larger than life and and a million times brighter, and that’s just plain interesting to read about.
And YA, if we let it, can be an alternative to a society that says we must be White and Thin and Straight and Act Like Girls or Act Like Boys in order to be seen. We can tell all stories worth telling.