I’m about 80 pages from finishing The Hunger Games trilogy and have come to the conclusion that: A) I wish I wrote YA, and B) I don’t think I’m smart enough to write YA.
If you haven’t read the series, I urge you to do so. It’s original, engaging and, obviously, a hit. For me the first and second books were character-driven, the third book more setting-driven, if that’s such a thing. But regardless of how the books were written, they’re based on a unique, highly-successful concept that has cross-over appeal to sci-fi/fantasy and mainstream fiction readers. My tastes tend to be more women’s fiction but anything well-written with a strong female protag will usually pull me in. As this did.
As far as admitting I’m not smart enough to write YA, this is not a notion that The Hunger Games elicited from me. Joanne Rowling pretty much made me aware of this years ago when I read her series to my boys.
Writing for YA is tricky—you have to deliver a level of sophistication blended with relatable characters that either your readers aspire to be like or already relate to. Today’s young readers are smart. A lot smarter than I was at their age.
Two cases to illustrate my point:
1) My younger boy is a high school senior and last semester he often solicited my help as a studying partner for his senior AP English class. His vocabulary words included many I’d never heard of, so as I was drilling him with flashcards, I tried to learn along with him. Later he studied the various types of rhetoric and again, I was blown away by all the literary devices he had to know. His last part of the semester included a poetry workshop and, as he discussed poems with me, some sounded familiar. A quick look at his textbook, and then a short trip to my office to pull from my shelf the only college textbook I kept, led to the realization that his senior English textbook was the same one I used in my sophomore-level college English class.
2) Last night my girl and I snuggled in her bed to read together from the book she’s reading—Oogy: The dog only a family could love. As I started reading where she’d left off the night before, she stopped me on occasion to discuss the story. At one point I read the line: I needed to see what I needed to do. And she snickered a bit.
She: Oh, it’s just he wrote ‘needed’ twice in the same sentence. I hate that.
Me: Do you think he should have used another word?
She: Yes, don’t you? When Daniel and I write our book together, he’s the writer and I’m the editor and I don’t let him do that.
Me: Well, sometimes authors do that intentionally. It’s a form of rhetoric. (Remember—I just learned this in my senior English class.)
She: What’s rhetoric?
Me: It’s where the writer uses literary devices—like repeating words in a sentence—to make the sentence more impactful. Like, for instance, when someone writes: I needed to see what I needed to do because it needed to matter.
She: Well, maybe if you repeat the word THREE times, that’s okay. But not just twice.
Rough critic, this one, for an eight-year-old. But I’m proud that she has high expectations for the books she reads and maybe she’ll be particular about the authors she chooses. She just finished reading the Harry Potter series so the bar is set pretty high.
So, if you write YA or even middle grade or, heck, even picture books, I tip my hat to you. It’s a tough audience you have to impress and, if you’re able to do that, then not only do I admire you, but I'll also read you—and so will my children.