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Writing for Young People

I'm hacking away dutifully at my comedy novel, Kagemusha, which is maybe, tentatively, halfway finished. It's difficult to tell because I only put a green check mark next to the chapter on my whiteboard when it's 100% finished, but there are many chapters of sort-of finished prose with partial skeleton text. Cumulatively, the finished parts may add up to "half."

It's not a long novel—it will probably be quite short, actually—but it's slow going because being hilarious is hard. Sometimes I get tired of being hilarious, or the muse of hilarity goes out to lunch and won't pick up her cell no matter how many times I call. Then I outline my next project after Kagemusha: a YA series about a rag-tag bunch of teen sleuths solving not-quite crimes.

As I've been outlining, I've been thinking about the differences between writing for adults vs. young people, and about the differences in my interpretation of media as a child vs. now.

From the adult perspective, children and teens don't have much to worry about. All they have to do is sit around being taught things and consuming things adults prepare for them. But believe me, young people do a lot of worrying. They probably stress out more than most adults. And they take everything seriously.

Say your heroine is Suzie and her best friend is Charlotte. Suzie has a crush on Mike. But Mike asks Charlotte to the movies. Charlotte says yes.

The average adult reader's reaction: "Okay? So?"

The average eighth-grade reader's reaction: "OMG poor Suzie! Charlotte is the worst person on the planet! I hope she gets into a horrible car accident and dies!"

To many teenagers, every trivial issue is a matter of life and death. Whenever I stumble upon an internet forum with a lot of young users, it's like walking into an emotion tsunami. The smallest slight, like "Um, I think you're wrong," is a betrayal akin to burning an entire family alive and dancing on the ashes. Teens get upset if they're five pounds heavier than the prettiest girl in class, if they remember that one time a classmate made fun of their favorite shirt two years ago, or if there are no more turkey sandwiches in the lunch line and the only option left is ham. Fine, then, they'll just freaking starve to death! Today is the worst day ever! FML!

Children and teens also don't see humor in foolish characters or in awkward or upsetting situations. My mother says when I was little, she'd sit me in front of the TV with a VHS of Winnie the Pooh Bear—the one where he gets stuck in a hole because his tummy's too big. In the beginning of the video, Pooh would be doing his morning calisthenics, bend down to touch his toes, and riiip went his teddy-bear seams. And I would start wailing. I thought Pooh was hurt and his stuffing would bleed out and he was going to die. I'm sure the Disney animators thought it was cute, but to my three-year-old self it was cruel and graphic violence.

When I got a bit older, I bore an intense hatred for the silly antagonists in cartoons. Angelica Pickles from Rugrats, DeeDee from Dexter's Laboratory, Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants...I thought they were insufferable and the shows would be so much better without them. Watching episodes as an adult, however, I found those "villains" to be the funniest characters in the cast. I didn't see it as a child because, to children, characters are like people in real life. They don't see parody or commentary like adults do. Angelica would be annoying in real life, so they find Angelica annoying in the cartoon—they can't see Angelica as an exaggerated caricature, or sympathize with the haggard adults she leads by the nose.

This is how many books for children and teens can get prestigious awards and rave reviews from adults, but the young people they're written for can despise them. The 2001 YA novel Flipped, which made me develop a serious writer-crush on Wendelin Van Draanen, has overwhelmingly positive reviews on Goodreads. But if you filter to the one- and two-stars, they're almost all from children and teens.

I really dont like this book but for one and only one reason. The girl in it is sooooo annoying!!! I dont get how she can be so annoying and so different and not even notice that the boy doesnt like her.
While reading the book, I kept thinking "Bryce is an idiot." And I hate his father. And "Juli should wake up." If I could, I seriously would slap a majority of the characters.
ooh another terrible book.... Just Wendelin Van Draanen should get a new job.. Because writting is NOT working out....

Here we have an Angelica Pickles dilemma. The humor in Flipped comes from the familiar flaws in the two eighth-grade protagonists—the superficial Bryce who acts cool but is really a coward, and the idealistic Julianna who's blissfully unaware of her effect on others and swept up in puppy love. But in order to see the "funny," you have to be a certain distance away from the age group.

One Goodreads teen admonishes, "this book sucks...DO NOT read it if you are over 12." But it would be more accurate to say, "You might not like it if you're over 10 and under 20." Flipped is brilliant if you're 25, remembering being an idiot at 14. But if you're 14, wrapped up in the same mindset Bryce and Juli have, you might just see a stupid boy and an annoying girl.

Even the teens who like Flipped don't necessarily see it for what it is. They coo over it because it's "romantic." But Flipped isn't a romance. It's a coming-of-age story about two kids who start to question the things they've always taken for granted and learn to see beyond the surface to a person's real nature. The ending is left open, but it's clear that both Bryce and Juli still have a lot of growing up to do before they're ready for romantic relationships.

This, to a teenager, is simply unacceptable. Another thing about young people—and adults are prone to it too—is that in any story featuring a male and a female, one question is of first and foremost importance: "Do they get together or not?"

I remember, as a preteen, visiting the Harry Potter fan forums. The young fans didn't talk about magic. They didn't talk about plot. I don't think the name "Voldemort" came up once. The only topic anyone thought worth talking about was who would be romantically paired with whom. You had Harry/Hermione shippers, Ron/Hermione shippers, Harry/Ginny shippers, Draco/Hermione shippers...and people would argue endlessly and with great fervor for their favorite couple. And the fan fiction was all about sex. No magical adventures, no tangos with heinous villains, no comedic jaunts to Hogsmeade—just Harry and Hermione having sex, Ron and Hermione having sex, Harry and Ginny having sex, etc. etc.

Maybe Disney movies teach children that marriage equals happily ever after and vice versa, and they grow up to believe you can't have an ending without couplings. Or maybe preteens and teens are just pumped full of strange new hormones and romance takes up a disproportionate number of their daily thoughts. In any case, from the book discussions held by teens around the world, it seems like every YA novel ever written is a romance with some other stuff as a backdrop. Dystopias, fairies, vampires and werewolves, death, disease, and destruction—it's all just scenery for the real issue here: will Girl A end up with Boy B? Or maybe Boy C? (Spoiler: It's never Boy C.)

You can write whatever you want, but if you write about characters younger than mid-twenties, you may have to choose whether your genre is children's/middle grade/YA, or if you're really writing about young people for adults. The two demographics may react very differently to your story. And if you decide you want to write for young readers, you'll have to do a bit more than simplify your vocabulary to get the effects you want.


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