Friday, March 18, 2011

Writing for Young Adults – The Real Issue

With Harry Potter’s coming of age series and the advent of Twilight, et al., we are witnessing a resurgence of reading among young people. Add to that the novelty, convenience, and technology of Kindle, Nook, etc., and authors of young adult fiction are finding new readers in an otherwise challenging market. Yes, opportunity knocks, but with opportunity comes responsibility. And that is the real issue.

Too many children have little guidance beyond the classroom, friends, television . . . Are we, as YA writers, responsible for providing that guidance? An old African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And that raises an interesting point—particularly since youngsters are often predictable products of their environments. Are we the keepers of the village’s children? Through our stories, can we offer something positive that inspires them to reach beyond the confines of that environment to be more than they ever thought they could be?

Great YA books result from deep thought and careful planning. (Note, please, that I did not say “preaching.”) Realistic characters that face the same problems readers face in true-to-life situations resonate with young people. Add those elements to the inevitable consequences that come from choices—good or bad—and you have powerful stories that touch the mind and heart if they’re presented in an action-filled format. Crafting characters with values and purpose is no more difficult than generating those who subscribe to the if-it-feels-good-do-it mentality or those whose depths barely scratch the surface of the skin. Putting our characters into situations where they must make choices and learn from their mistakes generates great tension while teaching the reader subtle lessons. This is a formula for success that you can take to the bank in more ways than one.

An article in the current Reader’s Digest tells of a homeless sixteen-year-old who lived in stairwells and searched desperately for a school that would admit her despite her long record of truancy. Two years later, the New York Times wrote an article about her because, as a still homeless but straight-A student, she had set her sights on going to Harvard. Encouragement and help poured in from strangers, and her present life bears no resemblance to that of the homeless teenager. Does it take a village (or New York City) to raise a child?

In his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote this line: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” And it is even truer today than when it was written in 1839. Our youngsters live in the world of the mighty sword. If you doubt that, just watch the news. We writers of YA books, on the other hand, control the mightier pen. And we, like the strangers who helped a homeless teen into Harvard, can reach out with that pen to create much more than an entertaining book. We can be part of the village that raises a child. We can change a life.

Linda Lane edits books and coaches writers. Visit her and her editing team at and

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  1. Linda, you are so right about being careful not to get preachy in the YA fiction. I think young people can get a subtle message when it is presented in an interesting way.

  2. Wow--this post really touched me.

    So often I get lost in the plot arcs, character development and line edits and I rarely sit back and think about the messages underlying the story.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  3. A "preachy" book will often turn off a young reader. An author can reach a child by making the story so interesting that the YA gets lost in the book world. The same is true for adults.

  4. You never know how something you write may influence another person. The younger generation is particularly susceptible.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. I write YA, the edgy kind, and whenever I speak to kids one of the first questions I hear is, is this a real story, is it about real people? I think many of the young people are eager to hear about others, especially if they are in similar predicaments. I spoke at a school just yesterday, and one young man told me that he, like my protagonost, hated his father because of domestic violence. Only for him, the problem started when he awas five and could not do anything about it. That's why I write YA, to give something to the kids out there and let them know they are not alone, and there is always the possibility of a better future.

  6. True, True, True!
    I always try to keep in mind how the reader will feel when they pick up a book. Sometimes it's nice for them to know that they are not alone. Those things they are experiencing happen to others just like them and they will get through it!

    Excellent post!

    June Sproat

  7. I think we writers sometimes don't realize the potential influence we can wield with our words. We have such a huge opportunity to, as B. A. Binns said, offer hope of a brighter future. And as Helen mentioned, this holds as true for adults as it does for teens and pre-teens. All of us feel alone, perhaps even hopeless, at times; and it helps to know that somebody else survived a similar situation emotionally and physically — even if it was a character in a book. Thank you, June, for noting that.

  8. Good post! And there are those who think writing for children is easy!

  9. I totally agree with you Linda. The subtext of stories can have a real influence on a reader, and young readers are really vulnerable and open to the messages contained within stories. Writers do have to be responsible for what they offer these young minds.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  10. I totally agree. We must be honest, not didactic. Best of luck!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  11. Linda, you made me feel as if you'd written this article just for me. I share your philosophy about writing for young adults and I'm trying to follow it as I work on my book. (This is a great website, by the way)

  12. With the current upsurge in YA readership comes opportunities for YA writers to maintain and even further enhance this increase. To take advantage of this opening, YA writers need to be attuned to today's very aware and astute YA readership. Messages about real life options (and the results of subsequesnt choices) must be integral parts of an engrossing story line to be read and, hopefully, accepted.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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