Is there too much “adult” in Young Adult?

“points of view” by Domiziana S. (flickr.com)

So, partly as a corollary to Lourdes’s excellent and right-on “Where are all the Young “Adult”s? blog, and also as a kind of indirect response to all the “is there too much darkness in YA?” debate of the summer,  I’d like to ask:  Is there too much “adult” in Young Adult?

By “adult” here, I don’t mean adult subject matter.  I’m in Shannon’s corner on that one.  Also, I agree with Lourdes that the publishing powers that be in YA might want to think about expanding the demographic to include college kids at least.

No, I’m talking about a much more subtle “adult” in YA, and that’s the voice, and point of view (POV).  This question of whether or not the voices in so many YA novels are too adult is one that has troubled me as both a YA writer and editor.  And like most things in writing, it’s a touchy, subjective thing.  But let me pose the question:

 

In YA novels where the narrative is in the first-person voice of the main teen character, or in YA novels where the narrative is from the close third-person POV of the main teen character, how often is  the voice too “adult”?

No matter how it sounds, this is not a critique of teens and their smarts. Teens these days are book smart and emotionally smart in impressive ways.  I’ll even make it personal:  In many ways, I think I was smarter and more confident as a teen than I am now, at thirty-six.  But there are insights about love, parents, money, and what-have-you that people only come to know with age, not to mention poise with the written word that can only come with age.  And yet those insights and that poise show up again and again on the pages of YA novels, ostensibly from the brains and mouths of fifteen and sixteen year olds.

I know you want examples of the writers I think got it wrong.  And I’m going to be diplomatic and not give them to you.  But I just bet you’ve read more than a few YA novels and thought, “Sheesh, this sounds like my dad/aunt/teacher…”  So, spill it in the comments section below.

I will give a few examples of consistently authentic teen voices.  First example, and you’re going to hate me, but it’s Stephenie Meyer’s Bella.  Like it or not, Bella’s intelligence tempered by her long-suffering, faux-rebellious, repetitive mooning rings very true.  Who else?  John Green’s narrators feel right, as their “ah-ha” moments always feel hard won, a result of intense experiences and (surprise, surprise) reading that augments their sense of self.  Plus Green employs a trick that many YA writers do, smartly—they pick a super-smart and often older teen narrator whose insights and voice we’re just barely able to believe, since we can chalk it up to their intelligence.  (Though maybe this is an overused technique?  Maybe, to Lourdes’s point, if there were more YA novels set in college, we wouldn’t need so many smarty pants high schoolers running around their college-like boarding schools sounding more like college English majors than high school seniors.)

E. Lockheart was herself super smart when she chose to put “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” in a more distant, reflective, almost snarky third-person.  Never once did I think the story was being told from fifteen year old Frankie’s POV; I was firmly in the hands of a removed adult narrator, The Writer, if you will.

Because let’s face it—most YA novels are written by adults.  It’s hard not to impart the knowledge we’ve gained in the years separating ourselves from our narrators.

What’s wrong with this?  Maybe nothing, except that sometimes these voices don’t feel authentic.

Of course I could also apply the argument of so many from the debates this summer, that novels aren’t meant to just mirror real-life reality, but to model a smarter, better, more articulate reality.  In “adult” literary fiction, you see all kinds of voices from the learning impaired to the genius level physician heal-thyself doctor types.   But here, I think it’s more a matter of consistency—in many ways, these narrators walk and talk like teens, except in some squishier, harder-to-define life-experience ways.

Kerri Majors, EditorWhat do you think?  Too much “adult” voice in YA?

Really.  I want to hear what you think.

 

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8 Comments Post a Comment
  1. We Heart YA says:

    Haha, we don’t hate you for citing Bella as a good example — we agree with you! (Even if she’s not our all time fave character or anything.) Anna from Anna and the French Kiss is another great example.

    We wouldn’t say we see too “adult” narration OFTEN, but we DO see it, unfortunately. And it pulls us out of the story, makes us enjoy it less. Because we don’t believe it, you know?

    In cases like that, it sometimes would help for authors to switch to third person, as you suggest. That way they can write the way they need to, without it feeling out of place.

    Some authors make 3rd person really, REALLY shine. (We’re thinking of Laini Taylor. :P)

  2. Kerri says:

    I’ll have to check out Anna and Laini. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Lourdes says:

    Anna and the French Kiss is an excellent novel, and I totally agree that Anna does act like the quintessential teen. She is trying to figure out who she is in this new environment while juggling the feelings she has towards her family (The entire dad angle reminded me too much of Nicholas Sparks. A part of me could not take it too seriously as a result.) and this new love interest that one minute seems cold and then the next extremely warm. I think it is one of the more recent YA novels that handles teen romance in a realistic, non-fluffy, humorous way. Plus, Etienne is British!

  4. Jenny says:

    I would agree that I have read several YA books where the first-person teen narrators had a lot more insight than I think is necessarily believable. Mostly, I’ve employed a willing suspension of disbelief and enjoyed the book anyway, but if it is noticeable, then it does take away from the story a little bit. This debate draws attention to how hard it is to write in a voice that isn’t your own – not just not your point of view or opinions, but not your age/experience either. Bravo to the authors who pull it off (John Green, Philip Pullman, Chris Crutcher, Robert Cormier, Laurie Halse Anderson, Scott Westerfeld).

  5. I know just what you mean about the adult voice coming through when the young adult character’s mouth opens. It loses me right away, and my guess is young adult readers spot it as inauthentic immediately.

    I think this can happen when authors write in order to express a message. It is easy to lose sight of why young adults, or for that matter anyone, reads –though we learn from our reading, we don’t read to learn, we read to have an experience.

    In Big Mouth & Ugly Girl, I think Joyce Carol Oates does an amazing job of creating a main character who is anything but intellectual or snarky. And yet, as a reader, I related to Ursula and was invested in her growth.

  6. Kerri says:

    Thanks, Jenny and Jill. So interesting about Joyce CO, Jill–I wouldn’t have guessed it about her! Will have to check out the book.

  7. Kerri,

    If you like Big Mouth & Ugly Girl, you may also like Oates’ two other YA books –Sexy and also After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away –this last one may be my favorite.

    Enjoy!
    Jill

  8. Alison says:

    I think Kody Keplinger (D.U.F.F., Shut Out) has a great teen voice in her books. Of course she was a teen when she started writing them!

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