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June 8, 2013

Why I Write YA

Kate Hart
Standard interview question: Why do writers choose YA? There are some standard answers, whose frequency doesn't make them any less accurate: Because my characters appeared to me as teens; because I love the immediacy; because everything is new at that age; just because, okay?

But my own answer has never really been clear to me, which allows those ~*~other~*~ suggested motives to worm their way in. Why do I feel most comfortable writing about teens? Is it because I'm stuck in high school? Because I'm scared to write as a grown up? Because I lack ambition?

My grandmother in 1955,
clearly frittering away her time at math club.
Funny thing: Sometimes people ask my father-in-law or my grandmother why they spent thirty years teaching middle/high school. But no one insinuates it's because they're immature, or tried to relive the glory days. No one claims they "wasted" their master's degrees by using them for the benefit of young people.

But use your degree to write books for young people? Tsk tsk. What a waste.

What people are insinuating is that teachers are crazy to willingly spend time with teens. And I'll be the first to admit: young people can be annoying. But having spent time in the teachers' lounge, I can also say: adults are annoying too.

Case in point: "You'll understand when you're older." It was an infuriating thing to hear -- not because I thought I was so smart and knew everything, but because I did know my perspective would change, and the only way I could get there was by going through what I was stuck in now, whether I wanted to or not. (Spoiler alert: This is also an issue in adulthood. "Just wait until it's your [publishing; pregnancy; progeny; property]!")

I hated knowing that I didn't know things. I wanted to know ALL THE THINGS, ALL THE TIME (and still do). Worse, not only was I a teen, I was a teen girl -- trivial, laughable, ridiculous. Unimportant. Immature and annoying. I understood, on some level, that this was bullshit, but insisting that it wasn't made me more immature and annoying, so I directed it elsewhere. And inward. Especially inward. I hated being that girl. I hated being a girl at all.

And books, which had always helped (god bless Judy Blume), suddenly didn't. The classics and standards served other admirable purposes, of course, but only The Handmaid's Tale made me stop and say, "Wait. Someone else gets it." It made me realize my perception wasn't as skewed as the world wanted me to think. That maybe I wasn't a problem, but a symptom of something much bigger.

But for a long time, Atwood was all I had. Authors like Laurie Halse Anderson or Sara Zarr or Libba Bray just weren't available to me, for whatever reason, and I wish it hadn't taken until adulthood for me to find them. Writing and reading YA helped me forgive the girl I was -- and realize she never needed forgiveness in the first place.

I write YA because a girl's problems can be trivial, but she is not. And that's something she should know at every age.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this post. If it weren't for authors who are honest, I don't know where I'd be. YA books, like those of Libba Bray, made me realize that my opinions and thoughts matter.

    1. She's a genius. I really respect how fearless she is about tackling different genres. (And I'm glad you liked the post, thank you!)

  2. Love this post! Had so many of the same frustrations as a teen.

    I was (randomly, as we do) making a list of all my favorite characters in literature yesterday. Only four out of twenty were adults. FOUR! Most were plucky, fun, diverse, and sometimes evil girls or young women. So according to me, all the best characters are under 20 (unless Gillian Flynn is writing the book, of course).

    So glad that today we have a range of characters for teens and middle graders.

    1. That sounds like a fun list -- now I want to try!

  3. Oh, this made me gasp: "Writing and reading YA helped me forgive the girl I was -- and realize she never needed forgiveness in the first place"

    Yes, yes, yes. Beautiful. You've helped me understand the answer to that question too. : )

  4. Wow. It's amazing to read something and wonder: is she writing about me? I know she is! Even down to Atwood... I remember reading "The Handmaid's Tale" way too early (I think I'd already read everything in the YA section of our library!), but understanding that it was an honor to be given access into her world. And understanding there was so much more to understand, and that she was speaking to me, even if I didn't get it all yet... So, thank you for writing this empowering and motivating piece.

  5. Great post! It's so true -- sometimes I think children's writers are tolerated because we want to encourage young readers, but anything written (or filmed or sung or danced or photographed) for teens is immediately considered trivial. (As if there aren't also books for adults that are trivial. Ahem.)

    Why we write is so personal, so individual, just as the stories we tell are. Teens are a part of this world, and they're not quite children, not quite adults. It's one of the most confusing and challenging periods of life! It's when, as you said, you want to KNOW everything you can, because there's so much to learn. Writing for teens is an honor, if you ask me.


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