Monday, February 2, 2015

An Open Letter to My Readers: Why I Write Teens Who Act Like Teens

This post has been brewing for some time, but now that there are ARCs of LAST YEAR'S MISTAKE out in the world, a story that I'm very attached to and very proud of, I feel the need to finally say this out loud.

Look! A stack of LYM ARCs as seen in Chicago
at the ALA 2015  Mid-Winter Conference!

Let me start by saying this: I don't just write about teenagers. I also write for them.

Yes, I'm an adult who devours YA novels. Yes, I know a large percentage of the people who read YA novels are actually adults. But when I sit down to pour a story from my brain to the page, I'm not thinking about the other adults who will read it.

I bring this up because, as someone who does read a lot of YA, I also read a lot of reviews, blog posts, and tweets about YA novels.

And it's become increasingly bothersome to me that there are so many people who choose to read books about teenagers... and then complain when the characters act like teenagers.

Photo credit: movie-addicted
When I decided to write a novel set in high school, I wanted to draw on my own experience. In doing so:

I'm thinking about a girl who experienced total culture shock going from 8 years of city Catholic school to a public high school in a swanky small town where she didn't fit in. I'm recalling the cliques, the jocks, the "popular" kids and the "losers," - things that many are so quick to deem stereotypes, even though they existed and still do. I'm recalling the pain of being teased and called names. I'm thinking about how one look from a particular person could make my day. Or the way it would crush me when the one person I wished and hoped would notice me never even knew I was alive.

I'm remembering falling in love for the first time.

I'm thinking about new friendships being formed, old friendships falling apart.

About words I wish I'd said, words I wish I could take back.

I'm remembering having my heart broken.

In short, I'm thinking about the me that I used to be. And I'm thinking about the girls who are in high school now, living through all of it for the first time.


When I was a teenager, one of my favorite shows was My So-Called Life. There's a Twitter account, @MSCLQuotes, that tweets some of the shows best quotes. Like this one:

"Huge events take place on this earth every day. Earthquakes, hurricanes. Even glaciers move. So why couldn't he just look at me?"

Photo credit: towonderland
To me, this quote is the embodiment of a high school crush. Angsty, dramatic, all-consuming. She takes something commonplace, and puts it on the same level as something huge.

I would've fainted on the spot if Jared Leto looked at me like that when I was a teenager, and I'm only exaggerating a little.

Because when you're a teenager, you tend to feel everything, as Kelsey says in LYM, magnified in clear, sharp focus. (I touched on this subject once before, in a post titled The Big Impact of Smaller Things)

And it's natural that when you're driven by hormones and emotion, you're not always thinking straight. You tend to do and say stupid things. Make decisions you wouldn't necessarily make again. Let your passion get the better of you. Break the rules, or at least wonder what it's like to. Feel like you know everything and absolutely nothing, all at the same time. Test your limits. Cry. Say things you don't mean. Say things you *do* mean, but still regret. Try things you end up loving. Try things you end up hating. Pretend to love things you don't. Experiment with your appearance, among other things. Make snap judgments. Fall hard and fast. Get hurt.

Most important? YOU LEARN FROM ALL OF IT. Because you're figuring out who you are.

Later on, it might all seem silly. But in that moment, it's everything.

These are the things I strive to capture when I write a young adult book. So it boggles my mind when I see people citing immaturity or melodrama or "dumb teenage stuff" as the reason they didn't like a YA novel.

These are, by definition, books about teenagers. YOUNG adults, not actual adults. People who don't yet know that hindsight is twenty-twenty, because they're just learning how to adjust rear view mirrors - not analyzing their lives through them.

So, to me, reading a YA novel and then trashing it when the characters act their age is like ordering a banana milkshake and complaining that it tastes like banana.

If there are people out there who managed to get through high school avoiding all the drama, who were treated fairly by all and were a ray of sunshine to everyone in return, who never made a bad choice or let emotions or inexperience get the better of them, then I applaud you. Everyone has their own reality.

But that's not the high school I remember.

And so, dear readers and critics who've either read or are thinking about reading my novels, I sum up my post with this:

If you are looking for books about people who always make the best decisions, featuring sage adult brains in teenage bodies and teenage bodies in adult predicaments, then my novels are probably not for you. My characters are flawed, they make mistakes, they feel things with their whole, bleeding hearts. And I like them that way. I celebrate the "young" in "young adult." Many of my favorite authors do the same. And I think that if my novels make you feel something - even if it's annoyance at people who don't have it all figured out - then it means I've done something right.

If you agree, then I encourage you to read LAST YEAR'S MISTAKE. Review it. Share your thoughts with me. I'd love to hear from you. To those who already have - thank you, from the bottom of my still-seventeen heart.

Happy reading, everyone.


  1. I enjoyed your letter. Sometimes, when readers have a chance to read/hear thoughts from the author, it provides a little nugget of info for them when they sit down to read your story. It gives them a chance to understand where you are coming from as an author and enjoy the story that much more as a reader.

  2. I love this! I love flawed characters as it is, but I remember how I was in high school and how everyone else was. It was a time full of making mistakes and feeling so consumed with emotions about everything. It's important to write with a realness and it gives teens a chance to connect with a character who may be feeling the same things. :)

  3. I love this. I feel the exact same way. I still spend a lot of time in a high school and I love my teenagers for being real teenagers!

  4. I have two teenage daughters and I can assure you, yes, this stuff still goes on.

    The problem with some adult readers of YA, is they want teenage characters who become extraordinary leaders -- like Katniss, or Harry, or whoever the MC is in Divergent -- or who are wise beyond their years -- like Hazel.

    They don't want to read about stuff that goes on in typical, ordinary teenage lives. So why they pick up books about typical teenagers and their problems (new school, old embarrassments, first love) and then trash-talk them is beyond me.

    Admiring Hazel in TFIOS is not a bad thing. Expecting that every teenage girl is like her is ... unrealistic. "Dumb teenage stuff" is what my daughters live every day. And it's not "dumb" to them!

  5. I love this. SPOT ON. Thank you. I'm right there with ya. *high five*

  6. Yes, yes, yes!! This is perfect!!

    And on an semi-related side note, it bothers me when adults shame other adults for reading YA. I've read more than a few of THOSE articles lately… Morons prattling on about how it is beneath all human creation to remember what it was like to be young and reckless and incredibly vulnerable and invisible and fearless and all those wonderful, beautiful, tragic things that it meant to be a teenager. Because as adults, we should be beyond reading and writing such petty little stories *sniffs* *holds hanky to nose*

    Ugh. Screw you, snobs!

    *steps off soap box*

  7. Ah hormones. Just gotta go with it and love your kids. They will respond. Eventually.

    And thanks for stopping by during the Blitz and saying hello.

  8. All of this! And you used a GIF from Heathers. Can we be best friends now?

  9. I taught teens for 25 years and they're a special and fascinating type of people. Thanks for dropping by my blog on Blitz Day!

  10. GREAT post, and thank you for writing it!

  11. I love everything about this post. This is great - you are great!

  12. Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you for saying all of this!

  13. I love this. This is a wonderful post, Gina.