Friday, December 18, 2015

Deja vu Blogfest - Why I Write Teens Who Act Like Teens

Happy Deja vu Blogfest Weekend!

The post I've chosen to rehash for #dejavu2015 was originally posted in February, and is called An Open Letter to My Readers: Why I Write Teens Who Act Like Teens.

It's an honest, heartfelt post that rings true about my published novel (LAST YEAR'S MISTAKE) as well as my unpublished and soon-to-be-published books (BUSTED, coming from Sourcebooks, and a second YA contemporary from Simon Pulse). How do *you* feel about the depiction of teens in YA novels?

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. AMEN Sister!!! And I've just placed LYM on my TBR list.

    Thank you for re-posting this...not just because I'm glad to have the opportunity to enjoy it...but because the message needs to be said again! :)

  2. Yes, yes, yes! The same, by the way, is true of MG fiction. I write for kids, not for adult reviewers. And my characters act like kids, including making dumb mistakes and then having to face the consequences. I have had adults complain about one particular mistake made by my MC -- but I have NEVER had a kid reader complain about it. In fact, when asked, they say, "I probably would've done the same thing."

  3. Excellent post! You really do have to put yourself in the mindset of the age group you're writing about.

  4. Readers should look at the subjects and realise that the author is working in character. Otherwise, they should pick a genre that won't disappoint.

  5. Excellent post! I might have to read some of your books to get some good ideas for this teen witch character I am working on!

  6. You make some excellent points. I don't know anyone who made it through school w/o drama, so if they tell you that, they're probably lying.
    Love Catalano. :)

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. The key to any good character is letting them be real--with flaws, contradictions, goals and motivations (acknowledged and unacknowledged).

    Good choice for your Deja Vu post!

  8. I just kind of had this discussion with my new CP. She said that my MC was acting like a petulant teen in the first chapters, and I said yes, she is. She's unhappy and unwilling to pretend she's not. It's meant to be kind of annoying. Hopefully, not so annoying that no one wants to read the book, but yeah... She's sixteen, and she's going to act like it.

  9. Doing stupid things is part of being a teenager. :)

    Thanks for the blitz, and a very Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  10. Well said! If we write for teens, we need to respect them and also remember. It's a tough, complicated time when people are trying to figure out where they are and there are plenty of mistakes made.

  11. Well said! If we write for teens, we need to respect them and also remember. It's a tough, complicated time when people are trying to figure out where they are and there are plenty of mistakes made.

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  16. YA should be about real teens. This authenticity of character and voice is exactly what I like in your writing. I'm going offline to read more of your debut.

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