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Authenticity in YA Fiction

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Child Soldier Drawing - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips - authenticity in writing YA fiction

Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast, Africa, by Gilbert G. Groud via Wikimedia Commons

Orson Scott Card definitely caused a stir when he published Ender’s Game in 1977 with a young child being trained as a battle mastermind, away from his parents and any true parental authority from age 6 onward.  Very few books up to this point treated any character under the age of 14 as a character whose thoughts were to be taken seriously.  Why should a child represent humanity?

In an introduction to a reprint edition of Ender’s Game in 1991, Orson Scott Card tells us,

Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child.  I felt like a person all along – the same person I am today.  I never felt that I spoke childishly.  I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires.  And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

Although there are definitely inauthentic parts of Ender’s Game (psychologically damaged and chauvinist much?), Card went out of his way to prove that children take themselves seriously even when adults frequently don’t.  This is one of the primary things that separate YA and MG (middle grade) books about youth from adult books written about children/youth; in the YA and MG books, the protagonists are acting in the here and now.  These youthful protagonists have real emotions and real issues; we as writers must treat these issues as such.  If we do not, we risk losing our readers.

Having spent years working with kids, both in my time teaching and in my ten summers at a girls’ overnight camp, I can absolutely attest to the idea that kids and youth have real emotions, desires, and issues.  The primary difference between them and us is their lack of experience (and their frequent desire to hide that lack of experience).

What we as writers must learn to do is write the truth right there on the page; it should ring with emotional integrity.  This can be harder than it sounds.  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole reminds us that

Teens have a very sensitive BS-o-meter.  So for the YA market especially – even though this applies to all kidlit – authenticity and truth are paramount.  If something is cheesy or irrelevant, teen readers will not hesitate to declare you a poseur.

What are our takeaways?

  • Be authentic in your writing.  Write truth.
  • Treat your characters’ issues like they matter.  If they don’t matter to you as the writer, they certainly won’t matter to your readers.

What else do you think is frequently stereotyped with youth protagonists?  Do you have any favorite authentic youth protagonists?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

12 responses

  1. I clicked because I saw Ender’s Game mentioned (it’s my favorite book!), but stayed for the great commentary! The quote from that forward is one of my favorite’s as well, and I think you hit it perfectly in saying that we need to treat our young characters with absolute truth and genuine emotions. Too often I see girls in YA fiction whose sole problem is finding the “right guy”. Yes, it’s something that young women struggle with, but there is so much more than a summer romance to concern ourselves with!

    • I agree — there is so much more that young women care about than summer romances. When I was a teen, I definitely had crushes on boys, but I was more concerned with things like saving the environment and reading great books. We just have to write those “true” books!

  2. I’m a fan of Hazel and Augustus in John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Thank you for this informative post. I’ve worked with teens, but mainly work with middle grade and younger kids. They definitely know BS when they hear it. We talk about books–what they like to read. They love it when I ask them for recommendations.

    • What kind of books have the kids been recommending to you lately? That’s actually how I got into Harry Potter — all my campers at the camp I worked at were reading Book 4. 🙂

  3. Interesting post, Christi.

    I’m of two minds about the whole thing. One the one hand, I agree that youth take their situations, their emotions, and themselves very seriously, and believe themselves to be capable of many things (however erroneously in some cases), and that YA characters should reflect this.

    Plot-wise, however, I think there also something to be said for YA stories that give youth realistically achievable and meaningful things (whether within a fantasy-like situation or not) to aspire to. I don’t read a lot of YA so I can’t speak for the entire genre, but I find the entire paranormal YA subgenre to be sorely lacking in this regard. Ender’s Game as well.

    Also, I don’t really believe Card’s given explanation for why he made Ender so young. I think he did it so as not to have to deal with issues related to Ender going through puberty, which would definitely have impacted his focus as a soldier (and for me, would have made a much more credible story).

    • You bring up a really good point — it hadn’t even occurred to me that he decided to sidestep Ender going through puberty (however, it irritated me the way he treated most of the girls and women in the book as if they were a lesser species). Bringing all of those hormones into the picture definitely would have changed things.

  4. lararthompson

    Excellent post. I haven’t read the Ender’s Game but I will now. I’m very interested in the evolution toward this huge YA fiction dynasty. Thanks for posting!

    • I think part of the trend toward YA fiction has to do with the idea of how these kids are just on the cusp of independence, though they don’t really fully have a grasp of what it means yet. It’s a time of great change — which is fantastic for plot! 😉

      Thanks for stopping by, Lara!

  5. I loved Ender’s Game and followed both Ender and Bean in all the subsequent novels. I thought Catlin was a great character in The Hunger Games, but have to admit I was shocked to learn that was a YA book. There seems to be some kind of weird rule that any amount of violence is okay for YA as long as the author steers clear of sex. Given the issues that young people have to deal with I find it an artificial “barrier” to writing truth. How do we deal honestly, realistically and tastefully with real issues that young people have to deal with?

    • How to deal honestly and tastefully with real issues is going to be a challenge for books for years and years. There’s a happy medium in there somewhere, but I don’t know exactly where that happy medium lies. One thing I will say about the Hunger Games, though, is that even though quite a few characters die, the violence is dramatically less graphic than in books like Game of Thrones and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (that one was so violent I decided never to read anything by that author ever again). Ender’s Game, to me, was also way more emotionally horrible for the characters than Hunger Games (taken away from your parents at age 6!). Both Ender’s Game and Hunger Games lie somewhere in that gray area.

  6. I loved reading this post. I think many authors seem to forget that young adults have true emotions and true problems. Sometimes adults look back on their teen years and laugh at how “silly” they were, but for teens their emotions and life are real to them, and we shouldn’t ridicule that. I think that John Green does a really great job of writing characters and helping teens own the conflicts that they go through on a daily basis rather than ridicule them.

    • John Green is doing a phenomenal job of telling YA stories authentically. He is also really great at reaching out to his readers through his youtube channel (I believe it’s vlogbrothers or thevlogbrothers or something similar) — he definitely has some fun video blogs about all kinds of things. Thanks for stopping by!

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