Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in Young Adult Fiction

After that long and rambling title, you've probably guessed the theme of this week's Sunday Seven. YA fiction is my absolute favourite, but there are a few things that I wish I could change. So let's make it simple.

THE GOOD (a.k.a. what I'd like to see more of):

1) Strong Female Characters

By strong, I don't mean kick-ass ninjas (although they're cool too) but girls who don't need saving. Girls who don't lie back and let their boyfriend disable their brakes/talk to them condescendingly/save them so they can be eternally greatful. So many kick-ass ninja heroines will fight their way through a whole book, only to be saved by Mr Right at the end. Let your FMC fight to save herself alongside Mr Right (and then they can kiss and make babies and do whatever the heck else they want). Girls that give as good as they get - and this does not mean sarky-just-because - and inspire readers to do the same, they are strong female characters.
Isabel Culpeper from the Wolves of Mercy Falls series by Maggie Stiefvater
Parker Fadley from Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers
Lauren Adams from the CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore

2) Awesome, powerful voice
Laurie Halse Anderson and Hannah Moskowitz, I'm looking at you. The absolute best sort of writing, the sort that makes you feel like you are looking right into the narrator's brain. You can feel the raw, agonizing hurt they're going through, or the desperate love they feel for someone, or the way they are breaking inside but trying not to admit it to themselves, so that as they convince themselves they're fine, the reader knows they're not. And this goes for the comedy too - when the voice makes you laugh out loud, you know you've got a winner.
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Break by Hannah Moskowitz
Babe In Boyland by Jody Gehrman
Target by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson
Ordinary People by Judith Guest

3) Realistic Teen Relationships
I'm not just talking about wit-woo sexy romance here, people. That's included too, but I mean the broad spectrum. How they react with their families, friends, enemies, crushes, lovers, teachers, everyone. Not all teens are angsting at their parents for making them - sometimes families actually get on. Not all relationships are desperate, wild passion or screaming arguments - sometimes the sweetest romances of all are the realistic, slow-build ones, where sort-of-liking becomes like-liking becomes sort-of-love becomes love. Not all best friends are annoying (okay, I'm guilty, I'm guilty, but nobody's perfect), or totally-sister-from-another-mister types.
Jonah and Jesse in Break by Hannah Moskowitz
The Hollis family in Fly By Night, The Team, and The Pennington Trilogy by K.M. Peyton
Nick and Shuggie/Allie in Crossing The Line by Gillian Phillip
Ruth and Pat in The Pennington Trilogy by K.M. Peyton

THE BAD (a.k.a. what I'd like to see less of):

4) Cliched Baddies
The blonde cheerleader. The jealous sister/brother. The love rival. Need I go on? Sometimes the best 'baddies' are the people who have shades of grey - they're not bad just-because, they've got reasons and they hurt too.
Notable Exceptions (because I'm not harsh):
The Wolves of Mercy Falls series
Eve Edwards' The Other Countess
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

5) Absent Parents
Someone once said that it was very dangerous being a mum in YA fiction (or words to that effect) and they were right. Everywhere, there are dead parents and missing parents and parents having a breakdown and parents running away to become coctail waitresses or to marry some random glamour girl and I seem to have forgotten commas - maybe the absent parents have stolen them? Anyway, I know there are a lot of absent parents in real life. It's a terrible thing when a parent dies, or leaves the family home. But in YA fiction, it seems to be the norm. Whether it's an excuse for the MC to wangst, or so they can sneak out and make out in the garden with their boyfriend while alkie daddy sits inside in a drunken stupor, it's a bit of a plot device.
When it's done well:
Babe In Boyland by Jody Gehrman
Jumper by Steven Gould
The Wrong Boy by Anna-Louise Weatherley

THE UGLY (What I wish would just disappear):

6) Girls Who Complain About Being Perfect/have flaws that aren't really flaws
She's not a Mary Sue, the author insists. She has a figure like a boy, her hair's too messy, her lips are too wide, and she has too many freckles! Get real. Most girls would kill to look like that. I know I would. The author dares not write a - God forbid - plain character (and you can forget about a YA heroine being *gasp* unpleasant-looking) so opts for a hottie with issues about her looks, that she angsts about constantly. Perhaps an evil jock told her she was ugly, once, and she's never forgotten it - that'll do. And now, what next? She needs flaws. Let's make her clumsy. Or perhaps a bad singer - but she totally knows it and doesn't sing, so that's okay. Sorted...the ultimate flawed, ugly character - except she's actually a Mary Sue in hiding, and that is flipping annoying.
Bella from Twilight. Yes, I got it in there in the end!

7) The abusive, 'romantic' relationship
Yes, I know this has been complained about A LOT. And things are changing, so it's all good. But they're still out there. And they're making a lot of impressionable 13-yr-olds think that this is a good thing. That it's good your boyfriend watches you sleep. Talks to you like dirt. Cuts you off from your friends...because he wuvs you!

Before you all have a go at me for being a feminist - I think this is harsh on boys too. Look what they've got to live up to. They can't be a normal, carefree guy who plays football in the park with his mates and then turns up for a date with mud still in his hair, or who writes a scribbled love note in his girlfriend's history textbook because he can't say those words out loud. Instead the girls expect total devotion, beautiful dresses in the right size delivered to their door, romantic meals feeding each other in swish restaurants.
I'm not even going to go there - I'm sure everyone knows of examples, one in particular...

So there you have it - my Sunday Seven. What do you all think? Do you agree or disagree? Have you read my examples?
And most importantly, have you got any Good, Bad or Ugly YA traits that you would like to share?


  1. Right there with you on all of these.

  2. "They can't be a normal, carefree guy who plays football in the park with his mates and then turns up for a date with mud still in his hair, or who writes a scribbled love note in his girlfriend's history textbook because he can't say those words out loud."

    I really want to read about *this* boy. Great post.

    1. Thanks! I'm thinking that *this* boy might become a character in the WIP that I'm planning atm, so watch this space ;)

  3. Great post. Totally agree with everything!

  4. I so agree with you, especially the girl complaining about her looks - then being described as basically a beautiful girl. It's as if authors are afraid to let their teenaged girls be awkward or 'ugly ducklings' of course they aren't really ugly, of course they 'will' be beautiful. but how many of us were gorgeous at 13 or 16. Not me, that's for sure. I remember what it felt like. And that feeling of awkwardness is critical to understanding the YA experience. So why ruin it by saying things like "her lips were too big, her eyes too wide, her skin too white and she was too skinny and tall' when that's basically a supermodel face!
    Like your blog, btw - new follower - hello!

    1. Hi Alex! Thanks for following me - it's so nice that people want to follow my blog, better than facebook friends :)

      And I agree about the awkwardness thing - it's really important in YA, or else you end up with an unlikeable character, and bad reviews. It's nice to have a good looking love interest though ;)

  5. Great post! I've been reading so much YA Paranormal Romance lately and it's starting to get under my skin (as evidenced by my recent blog posts). I love posts like this that give me a gentle reminder that, yes there's also a ton of amazing stuff out there, if only I stop to look for it! Thanks for the recommendations!!

  6. Oh, AGREED.

    Especially the flaws. It's about time people started coherently explaining this problem. Not just "She's a klutz". Sure, it's designed to make a character relatable - I for one walk into at least a table, a door, a stool, other people, and shelves every day.

    And Alex was spot on about that awkwardness remark.

    Further: I think it'd be interesting to have one of those peculiarly beautiful teenagers - You know, there's one in every year group. Supermodel looks and all - and instead agonise over personality flaws, or a stutter, or overwhelming shyness. Basically, I'd love to see an internal battle, something that a lot of teens would go through or sympathise with.

  7. Hahaha. Yes. THIS. I admit to falling into the cliches now and then, esp. when it comes to the baddies, but I totally agree with you. Especially the digs on Twilight, mwahahahah!