The Unspoken Ageism in YA

Today, I ran across an article by written by the New York Daily that said that in order to sell YA books you need to write about threesomes. Because I don’t want to generate site traffic for them, here’s a safe link: http://www.donotlink.com/gaus
Not only was that article biphobic, written by someone who didn’t know the first thing about YA and also didn’t know how to honestly quote authors, but it was also incredibly ageist.
There is ageism in the YA community. It’s not talked about often, but it should be. There, of course, is ageism againstYA, too, but today I’m going to talk about the ageism that occurs when teens decide to read and write Young Adult fiction.

I just want to throw a disclaimer out there that this is not an attack against any YA adult writer or reader. I love how YA is a wonderful reading experience for every age group. I love that adults read YA and stay active in the YA community. The YA community has been thoughtful, sensitive, and engaging in many social issues, and some of the books themselves are incredibly relatable. But the ageism and the way some people conduct themselves has gotten to a point where teen readers I know, including myself, are not sure if we even belong in the YA community or not, and it’s ridiculous to think that teen readers feel so distanced from the books that portray teenagers. I’ve talked to teen readers, and some of us have concluded that, frankly, sometimes we don’t see ourselves in YA anymore.
Don’t know what ageism in YA is? It’s:
-When adult school boards decide what Young Adult books teens should be denied to read, and teens don’t get a say in it.  
 -When I’m in a room at a conference and there’s a panel of adults instructing YA writers how to “write YA”, but you know they’re thinking of how to write for YA trends and how to write for the industry because there is not a single mention of what teen readers want to see on shelves.  And I, a teenage YA writer who does not identify with anything that’s being said, shrink behind my conference badge. Because the adults Must Be Right. 
-When several YA authors try to deny and shame a teenage reader’s sense of discomfort regarding an author.
-When teens I go to school with and the friends I have care about grades and AP scores and tenuous friendships. They cry about family troubles and college apps and fear for unknown futures and unknown careers. But many protagonists in YA, incidentally, just overwhelmingly care about kissing that hot person. (Relationships are major, but they’re not the only thing teens think about.) 
-When adults write articles saying that all teens want are threesomes, and out of all the woefully misquoted people in there (who may or may not share the same opinion as him), none of them are a) YA readers or b) the very teenagers who open YA books in an attempt to see some of themselves in the author’s words.
I think Kate Brauning tweeted the other day that teens shouldn’t be grouped and written about in a single narrative or manner, because teenagers are diverse. And it’s absolutely true. It’s infuriating when adults decide how teens should be collectively be portrayed in books. When they arrive on a consensus on How All Teens Should Act And Do, they inadvertently co-opt our voices, and tell US what we should read and what we should write. There is no dialogue.  
And that should change.
We are not your perfect high school fantasies. We are not your constantly witty, gorgeous, and sexually confident characters. We come from all races and from every type of social situation. We develop all kinds of identities of sex and gender. We can love boldly or hesitantly, or not at all. There is no one “right” way to write YA. The next time you write about teenagers, listen to us. Respect us. And please, please don’t try to speak for us without considering our voices.    
And Allen Salkin, the next time you decide to write about “What YA Readers Want”, maybe you should consider also including a teenage reader to purposefully misquote as well. And for your information, New York Daily News, I’m a Young Adult reader, a young adult, and I’ll still like a book even if there isn’t a threesome in it.   

35 Comments

  1. This is a well thought out blog post on an important subject and and I'm glad to have found it! Thanks for writing it. Good for you for speaking out. Even though I'm 49 years old I love reading YA. I love stories about teens on the cusp of becoming who they will be, and the challenges they face and overcome.

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  2. \”hegemonic force\” is an apt description–it's sad when adults try to dictate how YA should sound and feel like, because we teens don't quite feel a sense of agency anymore. I've been afraid to speak up about this for a while because no one was talking about this and I thought i'd get scolded for my naivete if I did. But I'm so glad I did. Thanks for reading!

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  3. \”But many protagonists in YA, incidentally, just overwhelmingly care about kissing that hot person.\”If I have to read one more YA about a seventeen year old deciding that they are going to be with their other for the \”rest of their lives\” I am going to lose my mind.

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  4. What a fantastic post. Because there are so many adults who write AND read YA, I think it happens too often that the characters and stories are depicted in the way adults *want* teenagers to think/feel/behave instead of the way they actually do. I know I've taken flack for writing a story that mirrored some of my own high school experience (\”juvenile\”, \”stupid teenager stuff\”) but I don't plan to stop writing stories that ring true to me. I stopped reading reviews instead. This post is a great reminder to keep teenagers and their feelings valid, and prevalent in YA novels. Because, like the name of the genre suggests, it's not about adults. Thank you for stating it so well.

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  5. Yep! Some people DO meet their true love at age seventeen, but just not all of us, and it's sad when having your life and love figured out at such a young age is depicted and encouraged as the norm. Teens carry a lot of interesting narratives beyond what is on YA shelves right now, and I'd like to see more of that too!

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  6. First of all, thank you for this comment, and for writing about your teen experiences that felt true to you. It's a little disheartening to see when reviewers bash YA books for sounding, as you said, \”too juvenile\”, etc., because, well, we ARE juvenile, and we don't necessarily have all the tools and experience needed to act the way adults want us to act at this age. Yes, young adults are capable of a ton of maturity, but when adults set that as an industry norm it creates a lot of insecurity among teen readers and the constant feeling that we don't measure up. Adults are an important part of the YA community, but when they forget to listen to real young adults they sometimes run the risk of writing potentially inauthentic voices and characters. Thank you for being willing to share your experiences, and for listening. 🙂

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  7. I also write YA and my books talk about real issues teens face in their lives. Reviewers have said that I write about teens with an authentic voice and that they take them back to their high school experience. Today teens are dealing with many more problems and pressures than when I went to school, but it is refreshing to hear someone who is writing YA and also is a Young Adult herself say that she wants to see more than sex in a book. This person who wrote the article might think that threesomes are what you should put into a book, but I also believe that people and not only teens want to read about real things and real people and I will continue to write that way. If you write for the market you might sell books, but what is the price for you as a writer? I don't want to just sell books. I want to write what I feel I need to write and not be governed by the whims of the market. I applaud you for speaking out against this \”ageism\” and I am going to quote your article when I am a panelist at Imaginarium this September if that is okay with you. And by the way, I am a chocolate enthusiast too!! My character loves chocolate chocolate chip cookies!!!

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  8. What I find most fascinating about this blog is that you may have hit on the reason why I am not interested in YA. I am an adult author and reader, unapologetically so, though I have no issues or ill feelings toward adults who read or write YA. However, of the few YA books that I've read, I haven't found them all that intriguing or compelling. \”It's because they're not dealing with where I'm at in life,\” I say to myself, but maybe that's it.Maybe it's because they don't deal with any time in my life.Yes, of course, I liked boys A L O T T T T T T in high school, but I was indeed more worried about what my life would be like. Grades, school, who am I? what am I here for? These were the things I experienced, and I can't say that I see that reflected in the limited YA I've read.Again–and especially because I don't want to speak negatively of my friend authors, many of whom write YA–I haven't read a lot in this category. It just doesn't grab me. And maybe, as you've explained here, I've found the reason why.

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  9. This is such an excellent post – thank you for speaking out on this topic. For a while now, I've been feeling like the publishing industry and the reviewers and sometimes other gatekeepers as well have forgotten who YA is supposed to be FOR. It's so disheartening. I mean, when you said, \” [it's] gotten to a point where teen readers I know, including myself, are not sure if we even belong in the YA community or not…\” it made me want to weep for all of the teens who deserve books that are written specifically with them in mind. I hope this opens up more dialogue about this topic.

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  10. Yep, go for it–as long as credit is given. 🙂 I am all for characters having loving, fantastic relationships, but when those stories dominate YA books, and when many of the YA characters seem to have perfect, charming personalities and party lives, then authors run the risk of making the real YAs feel at best, misrepresented, an at worst, inadequate.And–\”I want to write what I feel I need to write and not be governed by the whims of the market.\” This. Exactly. Thank you for taking the time to write your comment! (And I agree–for cookies, the more chocolate, the better :))

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  11. Yes! Teenage life grapple with so many stressful things–grades, school, friendships, etc,–that it's disheartening when authors write our lives as soley focused on x or y. I have to say–there are some lovely YA books that do manage to accurately and sensitively depict the teen life, it's not all ageist out there! I won't be able to say exactly why one might not like YA, because reading tastes are different, but I will agree that maybe, when a \”standard\” is set for how young adults should be portrayed, many books do feature the same narratives, and therefore contribute a lack of diverse storylines in books. But hopefully an open dialogue about this will prompt some sort of shift, within the YA industry and the community as well, and seek to discover new and interesting voices.

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  12. Lisa, thank you so much for this comment! Gosh, I really hope that more people talk about it. There are some days when I've felt so small in the community, because adults were talking to other adult authors and reviewers and industry professionals about all things YA, and I and other teen readers were sort of just ignored, or when we tried to speak we felt like we were trespassing upon adult territory. Anyway, thank you so much for reading this. ❤

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  13. Awesome post. Another thing I'd add, and this is something I'm unsure about in more recent times because I'm not around as much, but book promotion should be a little more centred about teens. I started blogging when I was 13 and I was surprised that most of the YA blogosphere was adults. Adults were reading ARCs, adults were giving away and winning most ARCs, and adults were the public face of the YA blogosphere. I never wrote about this at the time because I was terrified that people would single me out (& that's scary when you are 13) but I felt like a minority in a space that was supposed to be mine. I never did mind, and still don't mind that adults adore YA and are a vibrant part of the community. I think though that since 70% or whatever of YA readers are teens, as an 18 year old and technical adult now, I have to realize that while I do enjoy this space, it's less mine now. Your post reminded me of this, so thank you for that. -P.E.

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  14. Okay, I have to say–a lot of the things you talked about in your post were exactly what inspired me to write this post, and what I'd been thinking about and too afraid to say for a long time. Yes, i feel that the industry and promotion aspect of it are both dominated by adults. As I said above, I am always afraid of being an imposter or trespasser in the community–and that's ridiculous, because why can't teens get a say in a book industry about teens? And I totally agree that adults are an integral part of YA and I love when the genre's accessible to everyone. But what you said in your comment speaks to me so much, and i tweeted about it. Thank you. I thought I was alone in this.

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  15. I understand where you're coming from. I am one of those adults who love YA, and lately I've begun to wonder if, with my reviews, I'm making a point that's too adult – if you know what I mean. If I have a right to review YA books at all, since they're not aimed at my age group. What I can say is, I don't look for sex in books – let alone threesome. Heck, I even try to steer away from romance, because that's not what interests me in a book. I cherish stories that are not derivative, and I would never think a character is whiny just because they don't go around slaying monsters or being badass, or because they are sensitive and muse about their problems or their future. I can relate to that. I don't want teens to sound like adults, or what would the point be in reading about them? And I know many teens who review YA books, intelligent readers who write thoughtful reviews and should weigh more in the publishing industry. I honestly think that it's not the community – as a mix of younger and older readers/reviewers – that is at fault here. It's the folks in the industry, who perpetuate the same genres and styles and carbon-copy stuff, who dictate what people should read and think they know what people really want. Oh, and last but not least…don't let anyone make you feel like you're worthless or your voice doesn't matter, because IT'S NOT TRUE :).

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  16. Thanks, Christina. I was talking about that ridiculous NYT article only yesterday, so your post is very timely. I think you are so right about teenagers being consulted – I try to put my books out to beta readers if I can to get their feedback before the editorial process begins. There's not always time to do that, sadly, with a tight publishing schedule, but if I can't then I listen to what my readers are saying and try to act on it. I absolutely hear what you are saying about the 'hot romance and kissing' aspect of YA, and agree, there is a LOT of that. I do think we need to have a better balance between the reality of teenage concerns and pure escapism. Sometimes a book is the only place someone can find answers about what they are going through – especially if they're too afraid to ask a peer or a parent. As authors I think it's vital that we write those kinds of book – personally, I could have done with one about a book nerdy girl who escaped into trees and was terrified of talking to boys!

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  17. Yes, I agree totally. I only realized later that I probably shouldn't have grouped both the industry and community together, and at the very least, I should have identified the distinction. However, the although the YA community is growing, it's still a small world–industry folks do tend to dictate trends, but are also influenced by writers/reviewers/authors and vice versa. When writers agree to inadvertently write for and teach other writers how to write for YA trends w/o stepping back and thinking, \”Is this how I should correctly portray a teenage protagonist?\”, then it becomes problematic as well. I've experienced both sides–both pressure from the industry as well as from from adult YA writers who discuss \”how to write YA\”. Reviewers talk about love interests and \”perfect dialogue\”, without pausing to consider if all teens can speak with well-rounded, mature voices. I should have made a better distinction, but at the end of the day, I still believe that YA writers, reviewers, and industry share an equal responsibility. And thank you 🙂 That means so very much to me.

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  18. I was already going to write a discussion post about the ageism issue myself, and both the NYDT and your article reinforced my decision. Actually, I'm working on it right now – though I can't say when it will be ready. My post will have a link to this page, but I was wondering if you're OK with me quoting a paragraph in it – specifically: \”We are not your perfect high school fantasies. We are not your constantly witty, gorgeous, and sexually confident characters. We come from all races and from every type of social situation. We develop all kinds of identities of sex and gender. We can love boldly or hesitantly, or not at all. There is no one “right” way to write YA. The next time you write about teenagers, listen to us. Respect us. And please, please don’t try to speak for us without considering our voices\”.Of course, I'll let you know when my post is up :). I can shoot you a tweet if you like, because if I'd post a link here, it would look too self-promotional LOL.

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  19. Absolutely, Roberta–go for it! I'd love to see more discussion on this. And yeah, I've been meaning to talk about this for a while, and that New York Daily article was just too outrageous to pass up. 😛

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  20. Oh goodness, this is such an important post. I feel like this trend is not only in literature, but also in life in general – adults tend to view teenagers as an unfathomable, unreachable group of people whose ways are so mysterious that it's a horrific thing to even imagine reaching out to them and hearing their thoughts on important issues. When it extends into the bookish community as well (and especially in a group of books that are supposed to be for us to see ourselves in!), it's just a whole new level of ridiculousness. It's so important that we go back to what YA is supposed to be about, rather than focusing on superficial trends and treating teens as a unified mass of robotic faces rather than living, breathing, diverse individuals.Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I think all of us needed to hear this. xx

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  21. Thank you so much for this comment! I was talking on Twitter the other day with someone about how ageism is not only in YA fiction, but in overall media as well–from articles telling us \”how to deal with teens\”, portraying teens on TV as only having glamorous, salacious lives, and, well, writing articles on how teens only want to read threesomes. There ARE books that wonderfully capture multiple aspects of teen life, but I felt like overall the YA industry was trying to estimate trends and try to push their versions of trends to sell, instead of actively listening in to the actual teens who want to read and see themselves accurately portrayed in books. So, I guess, I'd just like to see a diverse set of narratives, as well as identities. 🙂

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  22. It's awesome that you consciously make an effort to get teen beta readers! And this phrase of yours–\”we need to have a better balance between the reality of teenage concerns and pure escapism\”–is totally on point. I love seeing myself in books, and I love seeing teens who lead exciting lives that I love reading about, but it would be awesome if I could, like you said, find a book about a girl who was more like me when I was growing up–not so boy-crazy, book-obsessed and nerdy. 😛

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  23. Thank you for speaking up Christina.I can see us – the literary / reading community – losing a generation of readers to YA.I work in a small public library, with a small number of dedicated teen (and slightly pre-teen) readers. Our YA fiction collection takes up 20 shelves.Less than a third of those books would appeal to boys. Even less than that would appeal to the few teen boy readers I know in the area. A few (like, one or two) of our girl teens read paranormal romance (one reads in YA and in adult fiction), but that's what the collection is taken over by – more than a third, I'd say, is paranormal romance. Many of our teen readers are avoiding the YA collection – the books deal with issues that don't appeal to them / aren't relevant. They don't want to read about relationships, sex, drugs, etc. They want to read fantasy and action and about friendships and school issues… Yes, they're nerdy book lovers – like so many of US. But, they don't see themselves, nor their concerns, expressed in literature written (in theory) for them. So, many of them are stepping straight into the adult fiction collection. There they CAN find fantasy and action reads that are straight fantasy and action, rather than romance-y, angsty, with alcohol & drugs.

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