Learn the Ropes: Why YA?

We've all heard it before. From family, friends, co-workers, other writers, strangers.

Why do you write YA?

It's not always an easy question to answer.

Why do we write young adult or middle grade fiction? What is it that compels us to write about characters in those age groups? What has made YA or MG more appealing to us as authors?

When I was in junior high and high school, I read all of the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary YA books and tore through the Sweet Valley High series. There wasn't much else out there that interested me, especially once I started to take classes and workshops on the craft of writing. I turned to the novels of Anne Tyler and Susan Minot, short stories by Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro. Every year since 1989, my parents have given me a copy of The Best American Short Stories anthology. I was always drawn to stories about the complications of family, especially with coming-of-age elements.

I wrote short stories all through high school and college, and oftentimes, my characters were teenagers. I studied the art of the short story, fell in love with James Joyce (especially "The Dead"), Kate Chopin, Katherine Mansfield. I wanted to write literary short stories, and I went to graduate school to further develop my craft.

One of my grad school instructors was Terry Davis, author of YA classics like VISION QUEST and IF ROCK & ROLL WERE A MACHINE. That guy knows his stuff. I asked him to read my thesis and provide feedback. One of those stories, called "Moving Forward, Going Back," was about a girl who returns to her childhood home after her mother leaves it for a new life, the narrative interspersed with diary entries of her fourteenth summer. In the margins, Terry wrote: "Have you ever thought about writing YA? You've got the voice for it."

I hadn't, and I didn't, not for another three years, when I picked up a young adult novel called A BRIEF CHAPTER IN MY IMPOSSIBLE LIFE by Dana Reinhardt, and I knew that I wanted to write a book like that. I wanted to write books about characters learning to define themselves, finding their places within their families, navigating the waters of friendships and first loves.

Terry was right. I started writing young adult fiction and haven't looked back since.

This topic recently came up in an author group I'm a part of and resulted in a number of thought-provoking responses. Here are a few:

"I... care about the issues related to finding your way, struggling with identity, developing friendships, falling in love, etc. I think that's why YA always appeals to me - it feels more universal." - TE Carter, author of I STOP SOMEWHERE (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 2018)

"I love writing quirky, vulnerable characters you want to hug. And teens lend themselves best to that." - Anna Priemaza, author of KAT AND MEG CONQUER THE WORLD (HarperTeen, 2017)

"I like writing about kids trying to figure out who they are. Obviously adults do this too, but it's more fun when you think everything is possible." - Christina June, aka The Saucy Saber, author of IT STARTED WITH GOODBYE (Blink/Harper Collins, 2017)

"People can look down on children's literature and say it's less important or valuable than adult lit, but ask anyone what books impacted them the most in their lives, and most will name some books they read as kids. Plus, I love writing the firsts--first kiss, first time you plan to strike out on your own, first heartbreak, first friend breakup, etc." - Tracey Neithercott, author of GRAY WOLF ISLAND (Knopf, 2017)

"I've never even tried to write anything but YA. I have very vivid memories of being a teenager -- the insecurities and the uncertainty and the longing, mostly. It's easy for me to access those feelings. I'm fascinated, too, by first love, which makes YA my jam." - Katy Upperman, author of KISSING MAX HOLDEN (Swoon Reads, 2017)

"My rationale can be summed up in this quote by Astrid Lindgren: 'I don't want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.'" - Ali Standish, author of THE ETHAN I WAS BEFORE (Harper Collins, 2017)

"Emotions have the potential to be much more raw and powerful. Firsts of ANYTHING feel so much more heightened." - Kim Foster, author of GAME OF SECRETS (Sky Pony Press, 2017)

Listen to your instincts. Listen to that voice, and to the voices of the characters living in your pages. Finding the right space in which to write, be it young adult or middle grade, can feel like coming home. Why YA? Why MG? The answer will be clear.