We all know what YA is by now, right? It means Young Adult, the book and movie genre for all things teen. When you mention YA some people think fantasy ‘Harry Potter’ and supernatural ‘Twilight’, others think teen angst Judy Blume style.
Well you may be surprised to hear that it’s not those things. Not really. It’s actually more than that.
Young Adult has grown up, stretched its wings and started going places it’s never been before – it’s got darker, deeper and more dangerous – and I for one am proud and really excited to be a part of it.
So what makes a book YA?
In my case, I had no idea at first. Other than my protagonist Ella being nineteen years old (an older teen, so she’s no Hermione) I couldn’t see why my fantasy romance thriller was being marketed to young adults. It isn’t set in a school, it’s not about kids being bullied or about pre-pubescent girls trying to get the attention of the hot school football captain.
I was also nervous; surely promoting the book to an adolescent audience was going to alienate adult readers? And surely the publishers were going to cut out my juicy sex scenes and all the swearing so that it didn’t offend kids?
Actually, it hasn’t and they didn’t.
When I had the opportunity to visit high schools as part of my London book launch in February I got the chance to speak to teen girls and ask them what was missing from YA novels. I was shocked to hear that they all said the same thing – YA romance novels were cliché. They weren’t real. They were patronising and formulaic. They were trying too hard.
Then I thought back to when I was 16 – teenage girls are not stupid, they are not naive and they have a fantastic grasp of the English language. Of course they deserved to read something relevant but intelligent!
When I read reviews about my own novel, a book that I didn’t originally write for teenagers, I saw it was being referred to as ‘honest’, ‘not your usual soppy YA romance’ and ‘gritty’. Well of course it was different, I wasn’t trying to write YA! Without meaning to I realised that I was inadvertently spanning the divide between fantasy romance for teens and romance stories for adult women. I was (completely by accident) cranking up YA a notch.
Then I realised something even better had happened…I had started to convert non-YA fans too. Because my book had adult contact with a teen twist, I started to get feedback like this: ‘I am far from a Young Adult but I have been converted’ and ‘this may well be the first YA fantasy series I simply have to follow through with.’
Clearly, by writing a novel without a YA audience in mind, but keeping the protagonists and their adventures teen friendly, I had created a more evolved form of YA.
But so what, I hear you cry? Why can’t YA be smart and sexy and a bit deeper than your usual hormonal and linear ‘girl-meets-boy but they have issues’ stories? Why does the lead female have to be insecure and unsure because she is not yet out of her teens? Why does writing for YA mean that characters have to be weaker, naive or irresponsible?
Of course, when you are a teen there is certainly more passion, more recklessness and everything is a lot more intense than in adulthood…but that doesn’t mean that when you write for young adults you underestimate their intelligence of ability to follow a multi-layered plot.
The reason why ‘The Path Keeper’ was turned away by many publishers before Accent Press snapped it up was because they didn’t know where to place it. It didn’t fit in any box. It’s a thrill of a read – it has plenty of love and other-wordly mystery and the ubiquitous fun friends and annoying parents BUT, because I never set out to write for a younger audience, it also has an ontological depth that I felt was missing from standard romances. It takes the reader back and forth through time…it grips you and doesn’t let you go…and because I thought I was writing for people that had already lived a little, I wrote expecting my readers to be clever without the usual ‘spell it out’ attitude of other YA novels I’ve read I basically wrote the kind of book I wanted to read, the kind of book that was like the American teen fantasy series I love watching on HBO (my guilty pleasures that I’m probably too old for).
A True Blood meets The Da Vinci Code but with no vampires and a bit more esoteric.
So if you’re a teen sick of being spoken down to in literature, there are alternatives out there. If you’re a member of the grown up world and fancy an escape to a world where mortgages and tax returns don’t exist, take a look. If you are a fellow writer scared by the concept of YA, don’t be. And if you’re a publisher who is worried about taking a punt on a book that doesn’t fit neatly in a specific category, then think again.
People are enjoying this new take on YA because they have been challenged and surprised – and it feels good to be challenged and surprised by something you already thought you understood. So I guess the secret of writing YA is NOT to write for young adults…but to write for yourself, because the reality is every adult is a young adult at heart.
Who in their right minds wants to be an ‘old’ adult? Not me!
‘The Path Keeper’ is available worldwide from Amazon and all good bookshops. For more information on the series and writer N J Simmonds click here or search #thepathkeeper to follow her on social media. ‘Son of Secrets’, the second book in the series, will be released February 2018.