Last month an author moving from science fiction into his first explicitly “YA” (young adult) mystery explained his approach to me this way: “I’m writing the book I would have liked to read when I was ten years old.”
Luckily for me, the explanation was via e-mail, so I didn’t have trouble hiding the “ouch” on my face. Unless you time-traveled when you were ten, this approach is a really risky way to write for today’s YA readers, members of a different generation, even a different culture from our childhood selves. The market also doesn’t confirm that YA mysteries must follow the rules of the “traditional mystery” that we once knew, expressed by the Agatha Award team as “contain no explicit sex,” and “contain no excessive gore or gratuitous violence.” We’re writing for a more aware and experienced audience than most of us were at age ten. So I suggest we test our writing with current YA readers — beyond our own inner ten-year-old. Recruit a niece; borrow a budding novelist from the high school and agree to read her or his fiction if that writer will read yours; there are more ways, I know.
I write better YA fiction when I ignore my inner ten-year-old and write for the “real me” and my friends, even though the characters in the mystery may be aged 12 or 15 or even 19. This choice reflects what’s taking place in the market for YA mysteries and other YA fiction: The books are often purchased by adults (librarians, parents), who then share them after reading them. Consider how librarian-reviewer Nancy Pearl began a YA mystery review on National Public Radio recently: “Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity is an intensely moving novel for teens (although I suspect that adults will also enjoy it).” Commentator Maggie Stiefvater, also a fan of Wein’s book, began her year-end roundup of YA reviews with this: “I don’t care what a book is classified as: I care that it’s good. So it should shock no one that my list of my top five young adult reads includes books I think adults will love too.”
Let’s write what we know; write what we love to read. Test it on real YA readers to see whether our potential audience “gets it.” And let’s invest in reading the books that real YA readers are savoring, as reflected here in the award nominees for the YA sections of two mystery awards:
Edgar Nominees for Best Young Adult Mysteries: Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak; The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George; Crusher by Niall Leonard; Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield; Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Agatha Nominees for Best Children’s/Young Adult Novel: Seconds Away by Harlan Coben; The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George; Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead; The Code Busters Club, Case #2: The Haunted Lighthouse by Penny Warner; Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.