Gonna get a little real here, folks.
When I tell people I’m a writer, after they express their surprise that that’s a thing people still call themselves, they usually ask what genre. I usually say, “YA fantasy,” because that’s what I’m working on now, even if I may eventually branch out into something else.
Most people get the fantasy part, but they don’t get the “YA.” Once I’ve explained it means “young adult” and I’m writing books for teenagers, I am typically treated to a few seconds of silence and a fake smile as they try to understand me.
Writers, you know the one.
Sometimes, I am then asked why I write YA. Why not adult fantasy? Why label it YA? What’s the difference between YA and NA (New Adult)? Their reaction is usually something like:
Adults don’t get why I write for teens. For a long time, my response was some vague nonsense about how the stakes are higher and I can get away with crazier stuff but, let’s be honest, that’s not really true. Adult fantasy puts the whole world at stake all the time and you can do almost anything if you have a believable magic or tech system in place for it, regardless of the audience.
So I started thinking about why I was so stuck on YA. I dig my heels in when it’s suggested I write for adults and, for years, I didn’t know why. The idea of writing for adults now produces a physical, unpleasant reaction in me. I recoil from it. I do not want to write for adults. At least, not now.
After much thought and mulling over the themes in my books and the metaphors I use, I stumbled on the answer:
I write the stories I wish I’d read as a teen.
It seems sooooooooooooooo obvious now. Isn’t that what we all do? We write the story we want to read?
Except I don’t need these stories now, I needed them years ago. I needed stories that reflected the parts of me I kept hidden from myself, the aspects of my life that I buried until I was well into my twenties. I needed to be told it was okay to be every part of me.
I needed representation. Surprisingly, despite fitting the race and gender of almost every YA protagonist, I still didn’t see the struggles I dealt with represented in the books I read. And I would argue that I paid in time and shame.
I want to write stories that tell teens it’s okay to be them. It’s okay to be a geek or a dork, or to be really good at something and really bad at something. It’s okay to be smart and it’s okay not to be smart. It’s okay to be confused about gender, sexuality, morality, politics, etc. It’s okay not to have your life figured out by your 18th birthday. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have a mental illness, a physical disability, a strong devotion to religion or a complete lack of religion. It’s okay to shout these things to the world or keep them tucked away for you and small group of friends.
Just don’t be a jerk about it.
That’s the main message in each of my YA story ideas: It’s okay to be different, it’s not okay to be mean.
And I could be mean in high school. In college, when I finally watched Mean Girls, Lindsey Lohan’s character really resonated with me.
This is a character who starts out strong and smart and confident and becomes controlled, judgmental, and completely unsure of herself. Sure, she rallies at the end but that’s because Mean Girls is a movie, not real life.
I caved to peer pressure as a teen too often and moments where I teased or taunted classmates for being different are some of my clearest memories because they are so painful. But, it was better than standing out, than turning that spotlight on myself. And, maybe if I’d had role models that better represented me, things would have been different.
Now, let’s get one thing very straight: You see that picture on the right? That’s me. I’m White. I was a White girl reading YA. My race and gender are represented in almost every YA book ever by the protagonist. And I still felt like something was missing. I cannot imagine how those readers who are also underrepresented in race and/or gender feel.
Representation in YA is a sensitive topic and I do a lot of listening and learning on social media to these underwritten audiences. I can’t and shouldn’t tell every story, but I can and should tell mine.
I write now to reach out to teens to provide characters who are dealing with some of the struggles we don’t like to talk about as a society that I also dealt with as a young adult. I write to provide stories with such characters that will hopefully show my readers there isn’t one way to be anything and their lived experiences are valid.
I write to share my story in the hopes that someone else will have an easier time of it.
And that is why I write YA fantasy.