One of the side effects of blogging, especially if you're blogging with being an aspiring writer in mind, is that you start to notice trends, of what's overdone, what's missing, things that worked for you, things that didn't.
Here are some things that I have found curiously absent in the contemporary YA books I've read, and would love to see more of:
This has been explored over and over again: notable essays on the topic are the April 1 New York Times article and the brilliant breakdown of parental archetypes by the First Novels Club. While I still generally do have problems with any time the NYT attempts to talk about YA lit (this one's not that ignorant or outdated, but the writer is still coming from the point of view of a rather hoity-toity "literary" adult. Can they get someone who actually knows what teenagers are thinking about, please?), it was still an interesting read. I'm not sure I agree with their point that problem parents are a literary norm at odds with society, but I do agree that more recent YA lit has lessened the impact of parents on teenagers' lives.
But still. Where are the parents? Why are 90% of parents either single, divorced, dead, workaholics, etc.? I understand that a little over 50% of married couples now divorce, but I'm also curious, because the writers of these problem parents are usually in stable, happy marriages themselves. (I read your acknowledgments page. Don't try to worm out of this one.) I think it's easy to exaggerate or categorize parents into flawed archetypes because that's the way teenagers think of their parents, for the most part. But it doesn't mean that the parents have to be truly awful people. The problem parent arises in the teenage protagonist's perception of his or her parents, not necessarily in the parents themselves. It's a subtle difference, but one that I would love to see explored more in YA lit.
Some favorite parents, or stories of parents: Audrey's hilarious parents in Robin Benway's Audrey, Wait! Sarah Dessen's parent-daughter relationships (I don't care if SD's parents have practically become an archetype in themselves, they're so well done in their ambiguity of who is right and who is wrong).
Where's the YA lit in YA lit? Most of us like to read about characters that we can relate to in some way or another. We readers read tons of YA, but have you ever noticed how little YA the characters in YA books actually read? When literature is brought up, it's usually classics (Bella's love of Austen and Bronte in Twilight), YA classics (Judy Blume's Forever plays a central role in Tanya Lee Stone's A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl), or conspicuously obscure translations of European philosophers' works (I can't even give an example for this one). How cool would it be to read about a girl who reads the same type of stuff we do? If authors refer to one another within their own texts? I think it'd be absolutely fantastic if an MC read, say, the Mortal Instruments trilogy, or, for a more unisex taste, if the MC and the love interest got into a (spoiler-free, of course) discussion about The Hunger Games. Can you see that happening?
If you're worried about contemporary YA literary references dating a work, keep in mind that so many authors like to have their characters interested in pop culture, or have a particular taste in indie music. What's so different if characters were YA bookworms? I'd totally be up for that. The same way zillions of readers have picked up Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Romeo and Juliet from Bella Swan's love for them (and thanks to HarperTeen's exceedingly Twilight-y rejacketed reprints), or the same way I sometimes take music recommendations from book characters, I'd love to take book recommendations from characters as well. If we YAers are constantly working towards and fighting for YA lit's acceptance as "real literature" in today's society, shouldn't YA characters be a model YA bookworm?
YA books that contain YA lit: Lindsay Eland's Scones and Sensibility, which, alright, deals with two classics (Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables), but I loved how her obsession with those two drove her character. Aaaaaand I can't think of any more.
This is similar to the topic before this. Why, why, why do characters never have to do homework? They can be in 3 APs, 4 Honors classes, and get into some swankified Ivy League school... and yet we never see them hard at work. Instead, they spend 3-6pm at the mall, commiserating with their best friend over the guy who broke her heart over the past weekend's party. Then, when they go home, they go online, chat with their crush. Freak out. Call BFF for support and in-depth analysis of IMs. Get in bed by 10.
In bed by 10? And you're able to get into an Ivy League school? Excuse me, but from personal experience, that's impossible. For me, getting to sleep by midnight was a real miracle. There is no way an Honors student can get 8 hours of sleep every night and still get into said swankified colleges without a significant portion of their life dedicated to schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Sad but true. (And no, you cannot get into a top-tier college on grades alone. Just ask any Honors student.) I enjoy the drama the MCs face, and the conversations they have with their best friends, and the hours upon hours they can spend on spontaneous road trips with their crushes or whatever. It just...can't happen.
I know, I know that we don't read fiction to get a play-by-play of reality, but I still think it'd be nice to have hints of heavy loads of homework, all-nighters, baggy eyes, and canceled plans due to academics in YA lit.
Books with realistic portrayals of academics: Robin Brande's Fat Cat. Cat spends lots of time working on her science project. Granted, it's what drives the plot of the novel, but you can see telltale signs of her intelligence (in the effortlessness of her narration) and hard work (late nights are mentioned).
Speaking of which...
Here are some basic facts: the Early Decision deadline (for academically competitive colleges, which are what many characters aim for and, miraculously, all get into) is between Nov. 1-15, notification date is a few days after Dec. 15. Early Decision means it's binding: the character can't decide to change his/her mind without financial ramifications. Regular Decision deadline is between Dec. 31-Jan. 2. And no, academically competitive colleges (like Dartmouth) will not accept--and admit--applicants after the deadline *coughBellaSwancough*. RD notifications come between mid-March and mid-April; by May 1, you have to have made your decision. Also, IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS (and D2 and D3 schools) DON'T GIVE OUT ACADEMIC OR ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIPS.
So can we not have characters still applying to, like, Columbia or Brown in February? Or finding out, belatedly, that they had gotten into their dream school, after everyone else has had to turn in their college decisions? Or getting a full-ride soccer scholarship to Harvard? Maybe this is a small pet peeve of mine, but the college application process quite literally sucks away all the time and energy that many academically competitive high school students have, and authors making careless mistakes such as these really puts a brake to the whole "I can relate to YA lit because I'm going through what they're going through" symbiotic relationship we want between the books and the readers.
I'd also love to read about characters going through the entirety of the college application process. It doesn't have to be a book about applying to college, but the process is such a huge part of a high school senior's life that to not talk about it in books is really to disrespect all the work that teenagers have put in to get to this point in their lives.
Books: I can think of books that show parts of the process, but none that actually get it right, unfortunately.
Books: I can think of books that show parts of the process, but none that actually get it right, unfortunately.
5. Realistic romances
I really don't want to read yet another contemporary YA book in which the shy protagonist, so full of inner turmoil is she, is suddenly pursued by a super-confident, super-cute, and super-persistent boy who *gasp* turns out to have had his eye on her for years. Can we pause for a moment here and consider how often that really happens in real life? I asked some of my friends, and, surprisingly I guess, the majority of them who are in relationships had initiated contact themselves. You heard that right. Today's women are more assertive in romance than today's men.
Now, I know that reading fiction is mostly wish fulfillment. But it can also be partly educational. Maybe I shouldn't be doing this, but when I'm really confused about life, or social situations, I sometimes try to think back on the stories I read, to see how characters in situations similar to mine had reacted. With romance, there are so few assertive female protagonists to look up to it's rather shocking. We'd all love to be the reserved and unassuming girl whose love of her life suddenly approaches her and is all, sweetheart, I've loved you for years, and I love you just the way you are, awkwardness, shyness, quirks, and all. But the probability of that happening to us? Slim to none. And not because we're extremely unlikable, but because today's love or lust doesn't work like that.
Books: I'm tired.
This topic actually came up at a YA panel with Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Beth Kephart, and Rita Williams-Garcia that I attended at the Philly Book Festival a couple weekends ago. Someone told Catherine that she had heard that publishers were not very willing to publish books about athletes, especially female athletes. I'm not sure where the lady had gotten her info, and I certainly hope that publishers don't feel that way, because I personally love characters who are athletes. I don't think this is as big of an issue as the others on this list, but I enjoy how books featuring athletes do not have to be sport books, y'know?
Though I would like to see some more actual athletic action: mentions or recaps of games, practice, interactions with teammates, bus rides, the like. Basically, I'd love if YA's approach to sports (part of a character's identity, but doesn't define him/her) could be extended to other aspects of YA lit, such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, introvertedness, mental illness... the list goes on and on.
Athletes in books: Josie in Natasha Friend's For Keeps (varsity soccer). D.J. Schwenk in Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen series (super-awesome basketball player, not so great mental player).
7. Acne (and other physical "uncomfortableness")
AudryT on Twitter suggested this to me, and I wholeheartedly agree (and am appalled that this slipped my mind initially). If acne is such a common teen nightmare, why do so many books make it a point to note characters' (particularly the MC's) clear, model-worthy skin? If the average woman is a size 14, why do more than 90% of all MCs I come across complain about their boyish figure, the way their fast metabolism makes it so that they can never put on the weight they want? Also, why do 5'6" MCs weigh only 105 pounds? Is that healthy? [ETA: So I'm not going to look up a BMI chart, but my main point is that I'd also like for there to be 5'6" MCs who weigh, say, closer to 130. Get the spectrum of body types.] I'm 5'4", size 4, and weigh far from 105 pounds. Also, I had (have) acne. Put on some muscles, girls!
I realize that teenagers are supposed to hate their bodies, no matter if your body type is the envy of someone else. But I'd love to see, say, heavier teens. Or, teens with bad skin. A lazy eye. A limp. A hearing device. An amputated leg. There are these teens out there (and bad skin and size 10 bodies are not that rare), and they (or we, in some cases) shouldn't have to feel as if they/we can't find themselves/ourselves in books.
Books: Carolyn Mackler's Love and Other Four-Letter Words. The MC's best friend in NYC does not have perfect skin. The MC in Beth Fantaskey's Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side is a size 10.
8. Characters whose differences don't identify them
The girl can be on the larger side, but it's not a book about obesity. The boy plays football, but it's not a sports book. A book with a black protagonist is not labeled as "ethnic" literature. A gay teen doesn't make a book GLBTQ lit. It's 2010: the world is a lot more diverse than literature gives it credit for. I find myself almost subconsciously looking for racial and ethnic diversity in the characters in a book. For example, are you really going to have only white, upper-middle-class friends? Protagonists don't have to be white to be understood by readers; "white" is not a default race. Having a white MC doesn't signify the MC's "lack of race": it simply means that the parameters of his/her race are normalized as to be "invisible" in society.
There's a curious disjuncture between YA and adult POC. In adult literature, POC characters are often celebrated, considered a huge accomplishment by the author in "convincingly embodying" the character's voice. Just check out an NYT bestselling list or something. Or recent books that have a good chance of being a "modern classic." In adult lit, POC is IN. Whereas in YA lit, there is still an unbalanced ratio of non-POC to POC characters. Here's to hoping for more POC "non-issue" books, and less segregation of books into "issue" (body image, self-esteem, family troubles, abuse, gang activity, etc.) and "non-issue" (light, fluffy, romance happily-ever-after, biggest problem is best friend not speaking to you).
Books: Nina Beck's This Book Isn't Fat, It's Fabulous. Justine Larbalestier's Liar.
I'm going to stop with the in-depth analysis here, but a quick survey on Twitter showed that this is far from a complete list. I could go on about the ones below, but I'm just going to list them quickly. Many thanks to my Twitter friends for helping add to this list, especially Carol, who said, like, half of these. :)
- Well-rounded cheerleaders and jocks - because bitchy cheerleaders and asshole jocks aren't the only types out there
- A best friend-less MC who's NOT a social leper - because I didn't (and still don't) have a BFF, and it's not because the world is unfair and I was wrongly accused of something-or-other
- Socioeconomic diversity - because I read Holly Hoxter's The Snowball Effect and realized how often books featuring blue-collar characters are often still classified as "problem novels"
- Realistic IMing/texting shorthand - U R tryin 2 hrd if U wryt lyk dis. Pls stop kthxbye.
- Male MCs - because a lot of YA readers like boys, and boy narrators are hot, and besides, we want to try to understand how their minds work