What Makes a Teen Novel?
As I’m sure you know by now, Swoon Reads is a teen romance imprint. (If you didn’t already know that, feel free to take a quick break to look at our About Us section, I’m happy to wait right here until you get back.) We’ve already talked a little bit about the concept of romance, so today, I thought it might be a good idea to look at the other absolutely vital element of a Swoon Reads book – it needs to be a teen novel.
But what does that mean?
In the Writing Resources section of her website, when Holly Black, author of the Modern Faerie Tale trilogy and The Curse Workers series, was asked “How do I know if I’m writing a young adult book or an adult book?” She answers,
“Does your book have a teenage protagonist? Does it address the concerns of being a teenager without condescension or didacticism? If so, you may well be writing a young adult book.”
There are three key elements here: age, the concerns of being a teenager, and a lack of condescension.
First, age. In the Swoon Reads Submission Tips we said that “Teen novels ideally feature protagonists between the ages of 14 and 19.” But as you can tell by the inclusion of the word “ideally” it’s not an absolute definition. There are many adult novels that feature younger protagonists, and there are even a few YA novels with main characters outside that age range – and that’s without including New Adult novels which blur the line even more.
Next up, the concerns of being a teenager. In a Tor.com interview, while talking about Sci-fi, teenagers, and exploring the human condition, Sarah Rees Brennan, author of The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy and Unspoken, says:
“Growing up and discovering who you are—and indeed, discovering romantic love for the first time, being betrayed by a friend for the first time, part of the reason why YA is, to me, such a compelling genre is that we all remember how the first time felt and how deep it cut.”
In his Why Write YA? blog post, Jeff Hirsch, author of The Eleventh Plague, says that being a teenager is all about change.
“One minute you’re in junior high and you have this one set of friend, then all of a sudden you’re a freshman in high school and everything’s different: different school, different friends, different activities. And once you’re in high school you’ve got even more change coming at you. You fall in love. You get dumped. You get your driver’s license. You have sex. One little adjustment and everything changes. You change. Over and over you’re saying goodbye to one world and hello to another. You wake up one person, you go to bed as another. When else does that happen in a person’s life?”
And in her Some Themes for Teen Novels blog post, Code Name Verity author Elizabeth Wein sums it all up for me with
“throughout all YA fiction…the heroes or heroines have to mature in some way. The events of the book help them or force them into growing up. In a true YA novel, the main characters will be changed forever by the end of the book…moving from the limited relationship of family life into the broad and complex relationships of society, including friendship, conflict, and romance”
And finally, a lack of condescension. Susan Dennard, author of Something Strange and Deadly, is correct in her blog post Writing YA Versus Adult Fiction when she says
“voice is critical…the number one reason for rejecting YA is that the voice feels inauthentic. You aren’t talking down to teenagers, and you aren’t trying to imitate a teenager. You are simply telling your story as if you were a teenager.”
New York Times bestselling author John Green was quoted on the Guardian’s blog as saying,
“I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful.”
Lish McBride, author of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone, covers this element quite well in her Writing Teen Novels blog post Why I Write Young Adult Novels.
“I feel like I have to justify my genre because people don’t think it’s ‘real writing’. . . I’m sorry, but teens aren’t people? They don’t deserve good books and good writing? They don’t deserve to be taken seriously as an audience? That’s silly. Books when you’re a teen or younger have, in my opinion, more importance. At that age, stories form you. They make you. They change the way you think, the way you want to be.”
And that’s what we’re looking for: Books about young people, going through big changes for the first time, growing up and falling in love, written with respect, because they are important … and, hopefully, a lot of fun to read!
— by Holly West