My mom is a high school librarian who is really into her job. As long as I can remember, there have always been stacks of books around our house and she gets excited when a good one or a new author comes out.
When I was home for Thanksgiving, I started grilling my mom about what makes good YA fiction because, in addition to loving it like the fourth child in our fam, she’s got a really practical perspective. She loves a good story as much as the next person but she’s also thinking about a whole other set of questions when she’s evaluating YA lit. What kinds of books are kids really going to read and talk about? What do teens care about in a book? How do you account for the different kinds of readers in high schools? What do learning readers need?
Here are the big things she told me (and “this is just stuff I’ve noticed,” she emphasizes) about successful YA fiction:
The age of the protagonist is one of the most important things. I’m putting this first because over and over, my mom tells me this is so big. Kids will rarely read a book about someone younger than them. For a middle school novel, she says to try and make the protagonist as old as you can get away with. A 13-year-old won’t read about a 10-year-old, but a 10-year-old will read about a 12-year-old. High schoolers usually won’t read about adults, but they will read about college students. The main thing is that they want to see themselves. My mom notes that if you’re a big reader, you won’t really understand this, because you like to read widely and you’ll read anything about anyone, but if you’re a learning reader, you want to see yourself in the pages right away—or someone you’d like to be or be friends with. “They definitely don’t want to be adults,” my mom says.
Love is another huge thing. You probably already know this. But even if your book isn’t a love story, there has to be a love thing. Someone has to fall in love. “They love love,” my mom says. Teens are exploring their own sexuality and relationships. So they want to see examples and they’re just very excited about all that stuff in ways you may or may not even remember if you’re an adult. Like, do you remember reading kissing scenes over and over? That’s what makes Harry Potter successful, she says, even though it’s not strictly a love story. “Stuff that I ignore as an adult—Peeta, Team Edward—that’s all huge for young people,” she says.
In a YA plot, love can be an especially powerful force. My mom sees a pattern where the person who holds the love power in YA novels has the ability to make the protagonist a better and more important person. For example, Bella is plucked from obscurity by her love interest in Twilight. Or maybe your character just likes the guy next door. In any case, the love has to be epic in its own small way.
But be careful with describing sex. You can still write about love and “contemporary stuff,” as my mom calls it, “but if you can keep it as clean as possible, it’ll be more successful.” Think about it: every school library could buy a copy or two of your book, and a librarian could recommend it to kids individually or through reading lists and class talks … don’t mess that up. The school my mom teaches at is nice and liberal about censorship, but that’s unusual. “Not that it has to be squeaky clean—but if the sex is ‘off-camera,’ that’d be better.”
Same goes for swearing. A lot of it is unnecessary. My mom brings up the awesome book “Carter Finally Gets it,” where the author uses the word “retard” a lot. In a literary climate full of young people, it’s important to use inclusive language if you can. Be aware that even though it might achieve some kind of end for you personally, swearing and using edgy language unnecessarily make up what my mom calls “barriers to accessibility.” She says, “In Diary of A Wimpy Kid, they could’ve called everyone a retard, but it wouldn’t be used in schools, and it wouldn’t be so widely read.” If it doesn’t hurt your intent or ruin the story (the important stuff!), ditch the swearing and try to remember how many different kinds of kids will read your story.
Get the grown-ups out of there. You hardly need adults in a story, my mom says. They’re a foil. Every once in a while you have cool parents or older people—like Ron’s parents, the Weasleys—but usually not.
Shorter chapters are better, and so are shorter books. My mom thinks most successful YA books are too long and she recommends going for shorter if it doesn’t hurt anything. She says it’s hard to do a good book in less than 200 pages, but aim for under 300. Harry Potter, Twilight, the Hunger Games are all longer than that, but then again, the first ones are all shorter than the rest of the books in the series. Chapters should be short too (my mom throws out 5-6 pages as a possible amount), with a cliffhanger or some kind of mystery at the end of every one.
Historical fiction is pretty meh for teens. Teachers love it but my mom honestly cannot think of a historical fiction that kids have gotten excited about. There’s a certain kind of kid who will read anything about the Holocaust and it’s their thing. But historical fiction is a hard sell, generally.
What’s going on inside the protagonist’s head is important. In terms of character development, my mom talks for a while on the value of introspection: get inside the characters head and have them think, she advises, and move the story along that way. Why, in some books, aren’t the characters thinking? It’s hard to guess at their motivation. Isn’t it weird that they can leave their parents’ house without a look back? “Maybe the authors are too close to their own story that they don’t think of it,” my mom says. But that can make a story feel rushed and inauthentic.
A brave protagonist is important, too. Teens love protagonists who stand up for themselves and others. They’re all looking for identity, moral and otherwise. Also, teens are starting to really understand and be pissed off by adult hypocrisy. Righting wrongs is a huge thing, especially in fantasy. “The quest” is an important element here—a teen is faced with a dilemma and nobody thinks they can do it, because they’re a loser, or nobody believes in them. “That’s huge,” my mom says.
There’s not that many “guy” books. That might not sound super progressive, but in the reality of high schools, it’s 100 percent true. Most guys aren’t reading your girl books. “If you can write a guy book … that’s hard,” my mom says.
Don’t worry about trends. Vampires were big, now they’re out. “For a while, they tried to get werewolves going ..,” my mom says. Now it’s the dystopia, but my ma says that’s losing traction with kids (“If you’re gonna write something dystopian, take time to set up the ‘world’ you build,” she says.) Her personal bias is that she’s not actually that into fantasy for herself, but she hasn’t noticed trends in non-fantasy books the way they’re so obvious in fantasy lit. “That’s not to say there are none.” But she says, “it’s kind of like John Green has it all to himself right now, you know?” No matter what kind of genre, she says it’s really all about a character people care about.