Ten Things YA Fiction Forgets to Talk About
I read a lot of YA fiction--particularly Contemporary YA. While some of them are wonderful and inspiring, others don't quite get it right about the teen experience.
Okay, this one sounds stupid, but hear me out. How many characters--YA or not--have glasses? I don't think it's a coincidence that Harry Potter--one of the biggest icons of contemporary, children's literature--has glasses.
So many people wear them (or at least contacts), but no one talks about how annoying it is to clean the smudges. No one speculates why scratches show up, even when you've taken meticulous care to ensure nothing can touch them. No one grieves the contacts that dry out after wearing them for 10+ hours.
Why does YA fiction have a way of killing off, villainizing, and neglecting parental figures? I'm guilty of doing this in my own writing, but every teen's parents seem to be dead, divorced, missing, or drowning themselves somewhere in alcohol. If a character does have decent parents, they usually don't get much time on the page.
It would be refreshing to read about parents who actually engage with, mentor, and love their teens. Not everybody has terrible parents!
The lack of acne in YA fiction is even more dire than the glasses situation. Getting acne as a teenager is almost inevitable, yet we never read about it. And let's not forget about blocked pores, oily skin, red skin, and everything else our complexion did to annihilate our self-esteem in high school. It's practically a rite of passage.
People are pretty messed up, and I'm not talking just mental illness, which definitely has gotten more attention through the years. I mean physical health problems, like diabetes, auto-immune diseases, or anything that puts a person in a wheelchair or keeps him in a hospital. I don't see a lot of people with disabilities, either. For all this talk about diversity, I find it fascinating that this demographic has been ignored.
So many YA books are romances. Now, there's no problem with that. I love a good, sweet romance. What rarely seems to get attention, though, are friendships. They're usually secondary to the romance.
While there are plenty of teenagers who date in high school, there are plenty who never have anything that resembles a romantic relationship whatsoever (raises hand). Teenagers need to know this is okay. If I'd read about YA characters who never entered a relationship, I may not have felt left out or embarrassed about it when I was in high school. Attraction and feelings shouldn't be the motive to love somebody. Rather, stories about loving a friend, sibling, or cousin can be equally--if not more powerful--than a romance.
Characters who stay single
Similarly, I wish I read about YA characters who end up single because their romantic prospect doesn't reciprocate--or they discover they're not ready to be in a relationship. Sometimes--actually, I'll dare to say most of the time--it's wise to forgo a romantic relationship because you realize it's not a good fit, or that the timing's wrong. There are a number of reasons staying single is a better idea, and teenagers need to know this.
Characters who are already in a relationship
Have you ever noticed that most romances start at the beginning? The characters meet eyes across a room. Or they bump into each other in the hallway. Or the heroine finds the hero detestable because he's an arrogant douchebag (whom she'll inevitably fall in love with).
Why not start the romance in the middle, when the butterflies have ceased? Believe it or not, there are some teen relationships that stick. The girl can take her makeup off and wear her hair in a messy bun; the guy can fart to his heart's content and offhandedly mention that he hasn't showered in a week.... I want to see boyfriends and girlfriends who are in steady, comfortable relationships.
A strong sense of setting
I dislike that so many settings for YA books are nondescript. I recently started a book that stated the characters lived in upstate New York. Well... where?! Are we talking Binghamton? Albany? Buffalo? Upstate New York is extremely and aggravatingly non-specific. Most YA authors won't even give you a state. They'll give you a generic town name and generic high school name. There's absolutely no commentary on climate or culture. There's no regional slang. There's no mention of local hotspots or traditions.
Characters with religious backgrounds
I rarely come across a book that addresses religion. I'd be interested in reading about any character with a faith, be it Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism... heck, write me a character who's an atheist, and I'll read about him. This is another area where diversity is lacking.
A political backdrop and a social commentary
Just like I want to read books anchored in place, I want to read books anchored in time. What's going on in the world beyond the protagonist's high school? Admittedly, our worldview in high school is often myopic. It's easy to become consumed by our own problems, especially in the Western world.
There are limitations to widening the scope of a novel, of course. Adding a political backdrop will date the book, and the publishing industry is incredibly slow as it is. Writing about the politics or culture right now in October 2019 could be old news by the time it's published two or three years from now. It's difficult to pull this off in a timely manner, but Angie Thomas' YA novel The Hate U Give pulls it off perfectly. It also monopolized the NYT Best Seller's list for weeks.
The other option is writing a YA fiction that takes place in the recent past; it will feel retro without feeling dated. Plus, we could all stand to learn about our own history. It connects the dots from our past to our present.
What would you like to read about in YA fiction?