The Style of YA: Writing for Teens, Adult Readers, & Complexity

This post is not meant to be a response to the controversy in the book community of late over the suggestion to change the genre from YA (Young Adult) to YAH (Young At Heart) to include adult readers. I can give my thoughts on that in one word: NO. 

I have been thinking a lot about YA recently, though. Here I am devoting many hours of my life to a book community that largely centres on YA - of course I'm going to be thinking about it. But I'm not interested in whether or not adults should be reading YA. Or rather, I'm interested in questions related to this but the debate over what anyone should be reading is not my main concern (in general or for this specific blog post). I've always read whatever I like and I'll continue reading whatever books I want to without any qualms. Will my reading start to skew more towards YA now that I am actively taking part in this blogging community? It's quite likely, but I'm not too worried. As I'm coming into this community as a trained critical reader and as a reader whose focus has been on non-YA for most of my reading life, I've found this adjustment to bring forth some fascinating questions about how we read.

As I mentioned last week in my post on joining a book club, I chose FYA (Forever Young Adult - 'a little less Y and a bit more A' is the tagline) specifically for the fun, welcoming community. It's been a great experience, and partly because it's led me to think about how I read YA. Most of the meetings I've attended so far have found us discussing some variation on 'Well, this was an enjoyable read, but...' And it's often a really great discussion that follows, but I wonder if the first part is the crucial bit when it comes to adults reading YA - enjoyment. And I think this is a very different reading experience than how teens read YA. A book club of 20-something's reading Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer or I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson will always have a very different discussion about the books than a book club made up of teenagers.

Compare two books written by the same author - one YA and one adult literature. Two very different reading experiences.

Compare two books written by the same author - one YA and one adult literature. Two very different reading experiences.

YA literature is often tackling some very serious topics, and these books do important work in helping teenagers learn to view the world complexly. That said, I've been thinking lately about how the style of the YA novel, which is very different from adult literature, and how it affects the reading experience. 

So. How important is writing style to YA? 

Susan Dennard has written a great post on what defines a book as YA. It has been very helpful to me as a reader to know these things as I enter this online book community that is so centred on YA. There are reasons YA books are written differently from adult books. And yet sometimes...sometimes it can feel a bit too different. I was inspired to write this post after part of our book club discussion on Belzhar, and how different the writing is in the book from Meg Wolitzer's adult novels even her newest The Interestings, which follows it's characters through adolescence in the first part of the book. The differences are striking and I can't help but think that such stylistic differences can sometimes hinder the effectiveness of YA novels, or maybe the different styles just ask different things of the reader. 

I do of course agree with Susan Dennard in her blog post on the topic - capturing the right voice when writing for teenagers is key, as is the closeness of the point of view. When you're fifteen and feeling everything so intensely, from insecurity to invincibility, finding a character whose story you can relate to can really change your life. It lets you know that you're not alone and being able to see characters overcome obstacles and better themselves in novels is how you can learn to imagine better situations for your own life. It's important for the books that teenagers read to reflect how they are thinking and feeling. But I think it's equally important for those books to challenge their young readers, to foster their skills of critical thinking, and to require imaginative mental work. And that comes from good writing, nuanced wordplay, and complex characterisation. The literary tools of writing -  metaphors, similes, imagery, motifs, irony, foreshadowing, allusion, the rhythm and sounds of words (euphony), symbolism, dynamic syntax - are not only for adornment, but can stimulate complex cognitive processes and assist the reader's mind in making connections vital to understanding the nuance and complexity found in real life. 

I know all of that sounds like I'm totally full of myself. Of course, not every novel needs to be overflowing with symbolism or inventive similes. But every good book will have some imaginative use of language and storytelling that makes it stand out. To return to the topic of YA in particular - I sometimes find that this kind of writing is missing. Even books that are fuelled by a thrilling plot or that rely heavily on personal voice, which are two features often done extremely well in YA novels, should always be grounded in exquisite prose. Teenagers don't need to be written down to. I think they need to be challenged, even while they're being entertained. It's a difficult balance and I don't know if anyone does it perfectly right. And I'm not picking on YA writers. There are some amazingly talented authors writing for teenagers. But sometimes I want a bit more - not to satisfy my own needs as an adult reader trained in literary criticism, but I want more for the teenagers who get to have the most meaningful experience of this Golden Age of YA.

Now, I'm going to risk venturing into the academic's comfort zone, so you've been warned, but I want to look at the opening passages of Meg Wolitzer's two books for a comparison. [I can't resist some good textual analysis - but I've gone on too long already so I'll be brief, I promise!] 

Ok. The opening of The Interestings:

On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony. Julie Jacobson, an outsider and possibly even a freak, had been invited in for obscure reasons, and now she sat in a corner on the unswept floor and attempted to position herself so she would appear unobtrusive yet not pathetic, which was a difficult balance. The teepee, designed ingeniously though built cheaply, was airless on nights like this one, when there was no wind to push in through the screens. Julie Jacobson longed to unfold a leg or do the side-to-side motion with her jaw that sometimes set off a gratifying series of tiny percussive sounds inside her skull. But if she called attention to herself in any way now, someone might start to wonder why she was here; and really, she knew, she had no reason to be here at all. It had been miraculous when Ash Wolf had nodded to her earlier in the night at the row of sinks and asked if she wanted to come join her and some of the others later. Some of the others. Even that wording was thrilling.

And the opening of Belzhar:

I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described int he brochures as a boarding school for ‘emotionally fragile, highly intelligent’ teenagers.

On the line where it says “Reason student is applying to The Wooden Barn,” your parents can’t write “Because of a boy.”

But it’s the truth.

When I was little I loved my mom and dad and my brother, Leo, who followed me everywhere and said, “Jammy, wait.” When I got older I loved my ninth-grade math teacher, Mr. Mancardi, even though my math skills were deeply subnormal. “Ah, Jam Gallahue, welcome,” Mr. Mancardi would say when I came to first period late, my hair still wet from a shower; sometimes, in winter, with the ends frozen like baby twigs. “I’m tickled that you decided to join us.” He never said it in a nasty tone of voice. I actually think he was tickled.

I don't think I would ever guess in a million years that those two passages were written by the same author. The obvious difference is, of course, the POV. But there's a lot of other differences as well - shorter, choppier paragraphs in the Belzhar excerpt, more complex sentences in The Interestings, and in general a greater reliance on telling information in Belzhar as opposed to the very successful practice of showing/revealing information in The Interestings. Julie's voice isn't as well defined as Jam's, and yet from these 200 words I found Julie to be just as alive on the page as Jam is in Belzhar. As is crucial when writing teenagers, Julie's feelings are very real. Even from the first appositive describing her character, it's Julie's own feelings about herself, her own self-definition, that are pervasive. From these first 200 words I know Julie feels herself to be uninteresting, undeserving of attention, that she is an anxious person, and that she is fully enamoured with the group of more interesting teenagers - even the feeling of physical discomfort is made real, the excitement of four words ('Some of the others') is brought to life.

From the opening passage of Belzhar I can hear Jam's voice very clearly, and given the plot of the book it's important to have Jam as an unreliable narrator. The images conjured up in Jam's voice are more situational, memorial. Compare Jam's frozen hair 'like baby twigs' to the imagery of 'that long-evaporated year' when the Interestings meet. The images require different levels of imaginative effort - the picture of frozen hair like twigs springs to mind immediately, but the image of time as water, perhaps a puddle on black macadam, slowly evaporating on a hot summer's day is a much more complex work of the mind. And yet Jam's image can be felt much more closely. You can remember the feeling of your own slightly damp hair freezing on a winter morning. It's a very different kind of writing.

Luckily this isn't an academic paper and I don't have to end with a thoughtful conclusion. I am fascinated by how language and literature works. There's so much to think about even in just these two short passages. But I'll let you all ponder the questions of style, language, and reading experience on your own time. Or you can pick up the discussion in the comments!

What do you think about the different writing styles found in YA and adult literature?