Young Adult Mysteries: Which Reader Are You Writing For?


Hi. Beth Kanell here.

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Libraries Association, defines “young adult” as “teens, aged 12-18.” Defining mysteries: OMG, we already know that’s impossible, but let’s say for now that there’s a question to solve that revolves around a situation, a person who’s done harm, and a process for finding a logical solution (along with distractions and “red herrings”).

There are four common ways to approach picturing the reader of “young adult” (YA) mysteries. Each can work — and each can lead to frustration. Which one would you be likely to pick? Or which have you already used?

1. Write for the teenager who lives on inside you. Tim Wynne-Jones talks about writing his 1950s self in Canada. M.T. Anderson and Gregory Maguire also may take this approach. I’ve found it helpful at moments when I’m fleshing out the details of a scene, recalling how it felt to be bullied, for instance. (Have you read the great new “middle grades” cyberbullying mystery, True Shoes, by Doug Wilhelm?)

2. Write for the teen you’ve seen from your writing-place window or met at a gathering or see growing up in your family or local school. This is how The Darkness Under the Water began for me — getting to know a teen with Abenaki heritage, and her family. She didn’t know I was writing the book until much later, but her dad knew. I suspect Allan Bradley used this approach at times for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first in his Flavia de Luce sleuth series.

3. Write for teens “at risk,” if you’ve come to know their culture very well. Let’s face it, you can’t fake a knowledge of the music, social media, and language of today’s teens. Just as in a mystery for adults, if you hit a false note with a cultural aspect, you cast your entire plot into doubt for the reader. Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games (a thriller) dodged this by placing her teens in a different time — after a devastating war. How did Robert Cormier work with it? Which of his books would you consider a mystery?

4. Write the book you’d write for an adult, with teen protagonists. Although A Wrinkle in Time is not a detective mystery (it may be a sci-fi thriller though), its author Madeleine L’Engle has written extensively on how important is was for her to write the best possible book for ALL readers — and the eventual (surprising to her) discovery that people considered her novel a YA book. Michael Chabon’s book The Final Solution takes a more literary approach to a retired and confused Sherlock Holmes who connects with a mute boy who’s survived the war. Jennifer McMahon’s Island of the Lost Girls moves between two time periods, one of the children involved in a mystery and the other of their adult selves — and the crimes involved are so intense that I’d actually want to make sure any teen reading this had a conversation with an adult about it, during and after.

In the next YA mysteries post, I’ll talk about levels of violence (and the presence of death/murder) in books written “for” teens. Meanwhile, think about this: For the teen in your life whom you know best, what mystery books from your shelf would you share? Why? And are Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie among them? Why, or why not?Image

And for extra credit, try this article from PW (Publishers Weekly) on the YA market.


About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of mysteries, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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2 Responses to Young Adult Mysteries: Which Reader Are You Writing For?

  1. Hi Beth, Great article! I use a combination of the approaches you discussed, writing about being a teen while remembering what that was like. I write about at risk teens, too, and have worked extensively with this group. I write a story and hope the work can be enjoyed by various age groups.
    🙂 Take care,

  2. Red Tash says:

    I write for all ages, but my latest is within the pacing convention of YA adventure & has a teen protagonist. Reviews have been great!

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