Author: Janet Fox
I love writing for teens. Partly that’s because I’m still frozen in those middle teen years (sometimes when I look in the mirror I’m shocked), and partly that’s because teens are such a challenging audience. Yearning, needy, searching for self, searching for acceptance, pulling away from family, making and breaking friendships, defining goals, first love, first loss…the teen years are exhausting and exhilarating.
So it’s surprising to realize that the young adult (YA) genre is only a few decades old. Not until Judy Blume (Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret) introduced discussion on previously taboo topics relevant to teens, did booksellers begin to pull teen books out of the “children’s book” section (what self-respecting teen would shop for a book for “children”?) Today the teen section is vast and glorious and even sports sub-categories like “paranormal”.
And what are teens reaching for when they get to those shelves? Everything. Yes, paranormal (vampires, werewolves, witches, angels) is still hot, but romance, mystery, and stories about difficult topics (sexuality, abuse, suicide, bullying) are also popular – and important. My friends in the industry tell me that historical fiction is experiencing a come-back, which is dear to my heart as my YA novels (Faithful, Forgiven) are historical fiction, and I think historical fiction writers can and should craft parallels between the past and the present that resonate with readers.
A great YA novel must strike a balance between a driving plot and a driven character. But I believe that strong characterization holds the key to the teen heart. Fundamental to all teens is their search for identity, and my readers tell me that they see themselves in my characters, which pleases me no end. Readers can identify their own strengths (and weaknesses) when they find them in Maggie or Kula or Jo on the page. They can model behaviors and outcomes without fear or threat. They can see how choices lead to consequences without having mom and dad tell them so. They can experience and learn yet never leave the safety of their room.
I spend a great deal of time crafting my teen characters. I write pages of diary notes, and ask them questions. I try to picture what they might hide in the bottom drawer of their dressers. I’ve created character scrapbooks and found pictures of my characters in old books. I try to befriend my characters, make them my allies, and make them a part of my life in the hope that they will become a part of my readers’ lives, too.
Thank you, Nirvana and Kurt, for so aptly summing up the teen sensibility. My job as a novelist of teen books is to craft my characters as richly as possible, so that my readers can “smell” their spirit.