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Finding the Teen Voice in YA

Young Adult Fiction is an amazing genre where readers can find almost anything that intrigues them. Once a reader outgrows middle grade fiction, the world opens up quite a bit. There are dystopian wars, high school romances, family dramas, and coming-of-age stories of all kinds. From fantasy to suspense, there’s something for everyone in YA. With all this diversity, it’s no wonder readers of all ages are drawn to YA. The last estimate I heard was that over half of all YA books are read by adults, sparking discussions about the importance of distinguishing between “young” adult and “new” adult. My questions is…where does “teen” fiction fit into all this? By widening the audience for YA, have we inadvertently narrowed the voices of teens in YA?

The way I see it, there are some basic differences between teenagers and adults. For instance:

TEENS: Being a teenager means you’re in your no older than nineteen. You live at home with your parents, who exercise complete dominion over your world. You’re required to go to school, likely participate in activities like sports or theater, and eat the food your parents offer. You may drive a car, yours or someone else’s, and you probably have enough independence to be out late on weekends doing whatever you want – provided you make curfew. You’re not legally permitted to drink, but you are required to exercise good judgment when it comes to alcohol, drugs, and sex. You’re probably on the verge of falling in love for the first time, if you haven’t already fallen in. Everything is new and exciting, painful and overwhelming, and absolutely pivotal.

YOUNG/NEW ADULTS: Being a “young” or “new” adult means you’re likely living away from home, either at college or with roommates. If not, you’re probably going to the local college or working a job that requires you to be responsible for yourself. You get to make your own life goals since the government isn’t forcing you to be a student anymore. You’re allowed to drink, get a credit card, and purchase what you like without parent approval (mostly). You’re probably getting the hang of being in love, or at least dating new prospects.  You may be engaged or already married. You may be having babies or embarking on some fabulous career path. Your world is opening up and you are becoming an autonomous force to be reckoned with. Unlike your older peers, however, everything still feels new and exciting, painful and overwhelming, and absolutely pivotal! 

Although we all go through life-changing moments at different times in our lives, I think there’s something particularly special about experiencing something for the first time. Everyone remembers the magic of a first kiss and the heartbreak of saying goodbye for the first time. Opening a college admissions letter, landing that first job, and leaving home are moments we all have embedded into our hearts. Right next to those are a stash of soon-to-be regrets and missed opportunities we won’t realize passed us by until years later. One by one, these firsts introduce us to who we are becoming. And these firsts keep on coming in a variety of ways…for years. That’s why there’s room for all kinds of stories in YA.

I think experiencing these firsts through a beloved character is amazing. Depending on where you’re at in life, it can be like getting a sneak peak at what’s to come, joining a trusted friend on the adventure you’re taking, or jumping in a time machine to go back and do it all over again. For me, I’ve journeyed through many stages with the same stories, taking something different from it each time. It’s an incredible thing to see our own humanity reflected back to us from the voice of our earliest iteration.

That’s why I’m a huge fan of the classic movies like Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, Can’t Buy Me Love, Dirty Dancing, and Reality Bites. It’s why I love books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. They’re all about firsts in one way or another, and they give us characters who are clumsy, immature, revolutionary, imperfect, and real. I love them because they’re deliciously steeped in the angst-ridden, bittersweet experience of trying to figure out who we are and how we fit in this world. To me, that’s the the quintessential experience of being a teenager, and a hallmark of being human.

Despite all this, however, I can’t help but wonder if we’re starting to forget what it’s like to be a teenager too quickly. To me, being a teenager is similar, yet drastically different, than being a young adult. It’s raw and unfiltered. It’s the first draft, not the second or the third. I think we all tend to look back at our teen years through years of life experience and, feeling like the same person we’ve always been deep down, attribute qualities to teenagers that might be more appropriate for more experienced young adults. We forget that being a teen is beautifully unsophisticated and appropriately juvenile.

Have we grown so accustomed to hearing mature voices in YA that we dismiss some characters as acting immature when maybe they’re exactly as mature as they should be? Have we made enough room for all the emerging personalities of our youth, the ones we reformed or discarded as adults? Have we welcomed to the page the decidedly unfinished versions of our young selves? Are we open to embracing those characters when they show up in stories, let alone in real life?

What do you think?

I’m curious how teenagers feel about how they’re represented in fiction. If you’re a teen, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think most stories accurately reflect you and your peers? Do you relate to some characters more than others? Which stories capture your experiences the best? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below…I’d love to hear from you!! Of course, if you’re a little older, I’d still love to hear your thoughts too. What stories impacted you the most as a teen? What stories have held up over time, and which ones didn’t?

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