After months of trying to finish the essay that those two parts began, I realized that my search for a definition was in fact the wrong search. I should have been searching for a process, because process often defines product. So, thinking as a creator of literature rather than a consumer of it, a few things became clear.
I decided that marketing, definitions applied by others, and even adolescents’ self-definitions don’t matter to the creation of this particular form of novel. In this sense, a YA novel is not a book about something. Except in the rarest of cases, a YA novel is an adult talking to a teenager. Everything else is window dressing.
So I thought about motivation and message and after that came a very simple three question formula (I do love things in threes).
- Why do I, an adult, want to talk to young people?
- What do I want to tell them?
- Why do I want to tell them that?
Mind you, calling them “young people” makes me feel so very old, but I am more than twice the age of the youngest readers on this blog, and I was an adult before some of my presumed target audience was born.
Here’s the kicker about these questions: they are sequential. Each question leads to the next and you can’t get to two without answering one. Question one is vital because I have, in fact, heard writers answer it with “That’s where the money in publishing is”.
That’s a bad answer. Possibly not the only bad answer, I haven’t been through every answer, but certainly a bad one. Even if the statement itself is true — there is a lot of money in YA lit — it’s not the way you ever want to answer a question about your passion.
Anyway, it’s a good question to keep one honest, because it’s the first step in not condescending to your audience. It’s what sticks me down, because initially I thought I don’t want to talk to “young people”. But then I thought, really, it’s more most young people. The Dead Isle came as a surprise YA Fiction to me — I’ve had many parents buy it for their kids, or to read with their kids. It does carry a message that is not exclusively for the young, about compassion and justice and the power of creativity, but that message is conveyed by young characters.
The characters I created for The Dead Isle are the kind of kids I want to talk to. Shy, nerdy, brilliant Jack. Affectionate, cheerful, isolated Clare. Independent, aggressively sensible Purva, who has no patience for the games of others.
But the question isn’t who, the question is why, and I suppose the answer is
1. I want to talk to young people who are who I was: shy, nerdy, smart, independent, relatively happy despite my isolation, old before my peers were, already sick of the bullshit. Because I’ve been there.
I didn’t get very many books about me. Catcher in the Rye was one. Ender’s Game (despite Card’s horrible politics) was another. The Magician’s Nephew, my favourite of all the Narnia books. Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, which might not be highly acclaimed literature but was valuable to me. These are books of varying quality and era and genre, but they were books about me and they gave me comfort. They taught me about my future.
So assuming those are the kids I want to talk to, the kids like me, what do I want to tell them? I’ve got friends with kids, Olivia and Irene and Harry and Vivi and Little Sam and Noel and Gabriel and a handful of others. I can’t lie to them or be cruel to them. For one, I will get totally busted by their parents.
What do I want to tell them?
2. Well, basically, what I want to tell everyone: that compassion is a high and difficult art, that greed is insidious and cruel, that the world is waiting for people to discover it. I want to explain how the wonder of discovery makes compassion easier and greed more difficult and how the more those two balance out, the closer you come to justice. And sometimes I want to tell stories just plain ’cause I like telling stories.
Three is a little more abstract, because the answers lie in the first two questions. Why do I want to tell kids that?
3. Because people told me about compassion and greed and wonder once, and I believe strongly that what they said was true. If we as a species are going to do more than murder each other and destroy our only home, I think everyone has to understand it. I don’t have all the answers but I have the tools to get us there if kids who are smarter than me take the philosophical hand up that I’m offering them.
So in the end, I don’t know if I want to write a YA novel, or I should say another YA novel. If I did, I doubt it would be one any trad publisher would be interested in. But if I do want to, now I have the knowledge necessary to lay it out.
Really, it’s what I’ve been doing all along.