What YA Gets Wrong About Teenagers (From A Teenager)

I have an extremely unpopular teenage bookworm reading opinion.

I don’t like YA.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve never read a YA book that I enjoyed. Some of my favorite books fall under the YA genre. But to be honest, I don’t typically like reading young adult novels.

Let me just say, this is NOT because I think YA isn’t real literature. I think as a society, we have a tendency to automatically dismiss genres that women (especially young women) really enjoy. Romance and YA are often seen as not ‘real’ fiction, which is stupid, because women and teenage girls are obsessed with both. And if you’re obsessed with something, that means it’s a good book. In my humble opinion, teenage girls are the ultimate judges on culture, even though we’re constantly shamed for our decisions and patronized by adults and teenage boys alike. (You can make fun of “White Girl” things all you want, but that does not change the fact that teenage girls of all races supported both the Beatles and Starbucks before anyone else did, and where would you be without your delicious coffee and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?)

However, despite believing that YA is a genre worthy of literary awards and esteem, it’s still not my favorite. There are a couple of reasons why.

  1. For many, reading is an escape. I think a lot of adults love YA because they’re well-written, and let them imagine being in a different stage of life. But I AM a teenager. I remember reading the Catcher In the Rye and feeling only great annoyance, because Holden reminded me a lot of boys in my school who didn’t pull their weight in a group project. I think I might like YA more when I’m not surrounded by the characters. 
  2. I think that YA also misses some key things about teenagers. So when I’m not avoiding a book because it remind me a little too much of my classmates, it’s because it completely captures teenagers wrongly. Again, I understand YA is fiction, and a story about how a teenager’s every day life went would be pretty boring. There are certainly exceptions to the things that I list below. But here are some things that I think YA novels on a whole get wrong about teenagers, from a teenager.

(P.S. This post is a criticism of some aspects of the YA genre, but if you’re a writer, you could also take this as YA writing advice from  a teen. 😉 )

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Everyone Listens To Them

This might be the biggest ‘mistake’ I see in YA fantasy, dystopian, crime, and even realistic novels.

Picture this. The teenage main character finds out a huge secret about the enemy fairy army / corrupt government / mysterious murder / sketchy biology teacher. They run to people with power. And then, just like that, they get to lead the resistance/investigation because obviously, they know what’s going on.

Here’s the truth about being a teenager: NO ONE ACTUALLY LISTENS TO YOU EVER.

Adults think you’re too old to be making mistakes and too young to take over their jobs. No one would just hand power over to a sixteen year-old, no matter how cool their prophecy or magical birthmark is.

If your main character gets to be in charge, make sure it’s not just because they’re the ‘chosen one,’ or even just because they’re the main character and that’s what has to happen to make the plot work.

Make teenagers work for their power, and make sure the adults around them are skeptical at first. (Unless the adult is the Main Character’s mom. My mom always believes in me. Thanks, Mom.) Make them prove themselves worthy of being heard.bracelets-4

You’re Really Writing 20 Year-olds

A lot of YA books I read have main characters who read like they’re in college already. They rarely rely on family, they smoke, and they go on crazy road trips.

I admit this is a really tricky one for writers to capture, because most teenagers THINK that they’re twenty-somethings. Here’s the trick to teenagers: All of us are trying to be older than we really are. As I’ve mentioned before, teenagers are weird creatures. You feel like you’re too young to do anything of importance, so you try to act older. Because it’s cool. Because it makes you feel like you have things under control.

So in the abstract, it makes sense to write teenagers like you would write college students, because we act like we are. But it’s not that simple. There are two major differences: Experience and security.

Teenagers aren’t really secure with their identity, and they don’t have enough experience to be convincingly written as adults. Most of my friends don’t know how to do laundry. If you’re going to write teenagers with an adult edge, make sure you’re still making them vulnerable.bracelets-4

Generalizations

I am a nerd. There are not too many other ways to describe someone who recites Emily Dickinson facts, wears boots that resembles a witch’s, and enjoys writing essays for school. But I have something to say that may shock an inexperienced YA writer:

I do not automatically and inexplicably hate any of my classmates. For some reason, ‘preppy’ girls and ‘geeky’ girls have been pitted against each other in fiction. Preppy girls think the goths/nerds/nonconformists are weird and all the other girls think the preppy girls are basic and boring and conforming to society’s lackluster expectations.

This is stupid. Let’s list some reasons why.

  • Someone’s taste in music and clothes does not dictate their intelligence. Let that sink in for a minute.
  • In my school, most people like each other! We might not like the same brands or bands, but that doesn’t mean we have a burning desire to watch those more traditional or popular fail. (That would be middle school.)
    • Unless you abandoned someone in a group project. Then, you are branded as scum.
  • It’s actually sort of sexist to pit girls together like that…It’s not a competition. Though many writers put ‘popular/rich/pretty’ girls against ‘beautiful-but-she-doesn’t-know-it/misunderstood/underdog’ girls against each other in…a competition for a boy. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS. It’s so boring. Just because someone wears makeup doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. Just because someone likes an indie band doesn’t mean they deserve a boyfriend more than a girl who knows how to french braid. (Also, will someone teach me how to french braid??) I’m tired of girl/girl hate. There’s not as much of it as you think among teenage girls! We support each other. We believe in each other. I want more YA books that show this!

Okay, here’s another problem with generalizations: None of them are true. I know in the past couple of paragraphs, I called myself a nerd and used words like, ‘preppy,” goth,’ and ‘misunderstood.’ These labels create an immediate image in your head, which is why writers use them. Stop. It’s lazy.

When I called myself a nerd, I closed off the opportunity to be anything else. I didn’t get to tell you that I love winged eyeliner, Taylor Swift, soccer, and flower crowns. Also, I like rap songs. (Closest thing to poetry in the music industry!) Teenagers have ~diverse~ interests, because we’re people, not stereotypes. In fact, keep in mind that teenagers are actually still developing, so it’s common to try out many interests to see what sticks.

Let your characters, even the secondary characters, even the characters your MC hates, be real people. Let them be interesting and unexpected. Think outside the box that previous fiction wrote.

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Is this a cloud palace on top of Mount Olympus? Because everyone here is as beautiful as the Gods and Goddesses.

I am surrounded by teenagers five days of the week of over 75% of the year. (Yikes, I know.) I spend a lot of time looking at them. And let me just say, I have beautiful friends. And of course, everyone beautiful in their own way. But YA fiction often only gives us one type of beauty.

Being a teenager is sort of awkward. Say hello to braces, pimples, weird fashion trends, poorly dyed hair, and too much eyeliner. When YA novels describe their main character as someone who could win a Gigi Hadid look-a-like competition, I cringe, because they’re missing a major chance to connect with their audience. Writers put a lot of effort into voice to make sure their narrator sounds like a teenager. Maybe they could try making them look like actual teens, too.

Give your main characters diverse body types, different styles, and create a new definition of perfect. (And I promise I won’t blame you if the movie adaptation completely ruins all of your efforts.)bracelets-4

Love Triangles

Do I really have to explain this one? Love triangles are unrealistic and cliched. The only love triangle in a teenager’s world is when two colleges are interested in them, and that triangle usually ends with which ever college offers the larger scholarship.

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Slang

OMG, do y’all literally mean that slingin’ around dank slang isn’t on fleek?

In three years (or in two months) the above sentence will illegible. For some teens, all of the above words are already out of style. Slang is horrible for two reasons.

  1. It dates your novel. Slang is intensely temporary. By using it, a book can easily become obsolete. It’s the ultimate pop culture reference, but mentioning Oprah is a lot less ‘dating’ than slang. Oprah’s been around for a while and she’s going to be around for a while. Let’s say the average ‘writing a book and publishing it’ process takes about two years. (It’s usually a lot longer than that, but bear with me.) If you use slang in your novel, by time the two years are over and your novel is published, the teens have already moved onto a new meme. 
  2. Teenagers don’t use slang in everyday language. Sure, we’ll drop and ‘OMG’ every now and then, but ‘lol’ and ‘fleek’ is usually saved for text messages. Using slang in dialogue is a poor way to try to connect with teens. It’s like ringing a massive bell and shouting, “I don’t know how teens actually talk!” And slang is often used to describe ‘valley girls.’ Who we’re supposed to automatically hate, because they wear UGGs, or something like that? See “Generalizations.”bracelets-4

“Forever Love”

YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever. Many epilogues show the main character and their love interest happily married. But that’s not how most teen relationships shake out. Long-term love just isn’t something a lot of teenagers think is realistic at this point. Sure, some of my classmates will end up marrying their current boyfriend/girlfriend but most will breakup before or during college. And they know this.

Most teens are looking for someone to win them a stuffed animal at a carnival, not someone who is this spiritual and intellectual match. They’re looking for someone who’d be a good prom date, not a good father. This doesn’t mean that our feelings of love, confusion, and crushes are less serious, or that we don’t need narratives about teenage relationships. But making every teenage love story a permanent installment shows a fundamental lack of understanding of teens. We fall in love and have relationships, but we’re not naive. We might not want to envision breaking up with someone, but very few of us are looking for a true ‘forever love.’bracelets-4

They’ve Got Their Lives Together

You know the character that I’m talking about. They know multiple languages, they kick butt on the battlefield, they have multiple people romantically interested in them, and they are ready to start and lead a revolution. Also, they’re 16.

WHO IS THE MAGICAL PERSON. WHY DO THEY HAVE THEIR LIFE SO WELL PUT TOGETHER. I am 16 and I learned yesterday how to make an omelette. I wish I was joking. This is sort of an extension of the whole, “Don’t make your characters sound like they’re 20” thing, but to be honest, most twenty-year olds are a mess too. Let your characters have flaws. Really. You can have a ‘strong female character’ without having her be perfect. Most teenagers are a complete mess.  bracelets-4

We’re Not All That Sarcastic

I know, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But not all teens are adorable, wise-cracking, defiant, sarcastic little squirts. Besides, when everyone in a novel is sarcastic, all the characters sound the same. Save the sarcasm for one character. Most of us teens are awkward and spend bus rides thinking up comebacks for arguments that we lost hours ago.bracelets-4

Happily Ever After

This is probably my biggest pet peeve with some YA novels. The book is almost over, and one by one, every plot issue is tied up with a bow and set to rest. Soon, everything is perfect, and everyone’s living ‘happily ever after.’ But how can you live happily ever after when you’re still a teenager? It’s difficult to end a teenage narrative story, because by time you end your teens, you’re still beginning your life.

I hate ‘perfect’ endings to YA novels. There’s still so much that’s unknown! How will our lives shake out? Will we ever live in Paris? Will we own a horse, or get married, or be a soccer coach for our kids’ team one day?

Not every young adult book has to end with an existential crisis of all that’s to come. But it would be nice if more could hint that just because it’s the end of the story doesn’t mean it’s the end for the main character’s adventures. 

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Alright, my unpopular opinion post is officially over! I realize that not all teenage narrative stories aim to have realistic teens. (Often, books have ‘aspirational’ characters, or characters that are purposely older in some way so that teens can look up to them.) But for general YA, this is what I think some books miss about teenagers.

What’s your opinion of YA? Do you agree? Disagree? Do you too hold obscenely long grudges over abandonment in a group project? Let me know in the comments below! 

(And be on the lookout for an upcoming post on my recommendations for YA books that do it right!)

Until next time, you can find me on Pinterest or Instagram.

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30 thoughts on “What YA Gets Wrong About Teenagers (From A Teenager)

  1. TheOriginalPhoenix says:

    I think you may have just singlehandedly described all of the problems with the YA genre. This post pretty much explains the reason I want to write a NA book and not a YA book. Because the genre is fairly new, it doesn’t have all the tropes and generalizations. (And I’m 18 and adulthood is scary lol.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. meltingpotsandothercalamities says:

    I actually enjoy YA, and I have to say your post definitely hit all the points on why General YA is sort of….meh. It’s probably why I’ve been trying to read more of the “underrated” stuff recently, which tends to not have as many problems as the ones you just described. Or I just read YA where the characters are actually adults, lol. But thanks for this really well written and thought post! As a writer, I am definitely saving this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bookdragon1017 says:

    I’m a teenager and I love reading YA books and I couldn’t agree more with all your points! You pointed out every single problem I have with the characters. Seeing them act older than they actually are, or seeing how they easily gain followers to whatever cause they’re supporting is insane! It makes them much harder to relate to as well. I appreciate you using this post as a way to advise authors about what to not include in their YA characters. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. S. M. Metzler says:

    This is AWESOME. I think I’ve finally found a post that sums up most of all the problems of YA that I understand and agree with clearly and on every point. I love how you touch on generalizations and how teens always seem to have their life together in YA and really, just how unrealistic everything IS. Also, your thoughts on love triangles are so true. XD Keep preaching unpopular opinions, girl!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rachael Corbin says:

    Excellent post! I remember having a lot of the same gripes towards YA when I was your age. Thing is, it can be difficult for some adults to remember what it’s like to be a teenager (not excusing the bad writing, just trying to explain it). When you get older, you see everything you did in your past through the lens of adulthood. It’s especially difficult to write a good protagonist when you’re annoyed with your younger self as a lot of us become as we age lol. You want to write how you believe you should have been at that age as opposed to who you actually were. It’s difficult to strike the right cord when it comes to writing contemporary YA because technology has become so important to every day life so of course you’ll want to incorporate it in your novel. However, tech and lingo change so quickly that, like you said, the novel will become horribly dated in a few months to a handful of years. I’m totally with you on teens not having their life together and the concept of having a one true love out of high school. I think that sets an unhealthy precedent for people your age. You will change your mind consistently about your love interests, your career, your….everything. Otherwise you aren’t growing as a person and who wants that? Keep up the good writing! Side note: Don’t feel bad about just learning how to make an omelette at 16. I’m 23 and I’ve never made one to this day lol.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Claudia McGill says:

    Wow, I think you did a fantastic job here. I’m 58 years old, I was last a teenager in 1978, and all of this was true then (what you said about being a teenager, not YA, because I am not sure if we had YA then, and if so, I missed it, despite reading everything I could get my hands on). I will also say that I notice these same themes occurring in adult fiction, just moved along the age scale. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries and everyone is self-assured, good-looking, and doing all kinds of interesting things plus successful careers plus quirky kids etc. Unless they are tortured misfits, that is. It makes for a lot of predictable books, books that I don’t finish. Life is too short to spend with stereotypes! This topic is interesting to me to think about, thanks for writing.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Robyn says:

    This is a great post!! As a teenager who is currently trying to write a novel, I can’t tell you how helpful this is. Because there are a few things on this list that are an issue in my novel, and as I was reading this, I figured out how to fix one of them. Thank you!!
    (Also, love that you love Taylor Swift. Me too 😊)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Kellyn Roth says:

    I’ve got agree with you on most of this (even though I read little to no YA). The only thing I don’t agree with is about girls supporting each other, haha. I don’t think they do. I mean, sometimes they do (my friends are pretty supporting overall … some of ’em, anyway … and my best friend is amazing), but … I think that in general girls do kind of tend to butt heads … and they can be pretty mean to each other. And maybe that’s sexist but … it’s kind of what I’ve observed in life. But other than that, I feel like it’s super accurate!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. pf says:

    “But not all teens are adorable, wise-cracking, defiant, sarcastic little squirts.” I laughed so much. But thank you for finally pointing it out. Whether I’m reading YA from the library, my own collection or websites like Wattpad, it tends to be the same stuff over and over again, and very rarely can I actually connect and relate to a character realistically. And I’m really happy your school is like that in regards to the way girls in your life act around each other. Unfortunately for a little while at my all-girls school there was quite a competition and a large group of clique’s but it was very reassuring to know that we could all come together and back each other up against other year levels or teachers (which actually happened a lot). But I do agree, YA books really overdo it with the tension and competitiveness surrounding teenage girls while all the boys are best mates who only fight over girls. And don’t even get me started on the plot of the sarcastic character who was also supposed to be a bit shy, completing a 180 and standing up to the antagonist in the middle of the corridor….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. May @ Forever and Everly says:

    YAS VIVIAN YAS. I mean I personally love YA but all genres have their faults! I think a lot of this apply mostly to contemporary books, because fantasy books have a different atmosphere, I think. But YES girls aren’t always mean! We can definitely be supportive. And OMGGGG you had me cracking up at the college love triangle thing! XD And forever love is so hard as a reader (and writer) because I feel like the characters are destined to be with each other and I SHIP THEM SO HARD. 😛 Great post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Artsyteen777 says:

    I don’t know if the classification YA is the problem. It’s just a classification for books. I think authors will try to copy each other and make it more relatable for teens but let’s face it, adults were teens a long, long time ago. Authors will try to connect to young readers as if they are young but it doesn’t always go well. I think it’s the authors problem for bad books not the genre YA but I do agree it is a little stereotypical when authors will try to fit into the genre with slang and love triangles, etc. If you’re having trouble finding a book book for teens (that isn’t the dreadful YA) then read 7 Ways We Lie it is so awesome, so dirty and sooo funny!!! Read it!!!! Great post!
    -Artsyteen

    Liked by 1 person

  12. thewhimsicalwordsofanagreeablebookworm says:

    I can definitely agree with some of these. The one about stereotypes is so true though. Soooo many “chick flicks” are where women are against each other and sure sometimes people hate each other that’s just a fact of life, but not all the time! Girls don’t want to annihilate other girls. But on the other hand I do still love YA books. Sometimes it’s nice to go to a world where everything turns out perfect. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  13. laura bruno lilly says:

    Found you via L.Marie: https://lmarie7b.wordpress.com/2017/06/26/two-articles-one-connection/

    I commented – “Linda: perused Vivian’s Huff Post articles and her blog…wow! thanks for featuring her in this post…maybe you could do one of your fantastic blog-interviews with her???? Just a thought for you to ponder.
    But truly, I’m heartened at her voice out there in the wilderness of the internet!
    peace”

    I am now a follower of your blog…stay true!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. hoardofbooks says:

    Personally I love YA, it has its problems, but I think all books do. I’ve found these problems in MG just as often as in YA. I don’t think that characters usually act like they’re 20 though, I’m a teen, and I often find myself thinking that YA protagonists are immature, and end up telling the character “I know a 12 year old who’s more mature than you”.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Fleur @ Fleur Henley says:

    I especially understand the frustration at the generalisations and forever love. Not only do they reduce the character to caricatures, but them having them step into a serious relationship that generally appears in less than a month and then to imply that they’re ‘soul mates’ or something along those lines… it just doesn’t sit well with me!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Julianna @ Blots of Ink and Words says:

    YES I AGREE WITH THIS.

    Also I originally read this post on Huffington Post?? And then I REDISCOVERED IT HERE???

    Okay, I agree with you a lot!

    NO ONE EVER LISTENS TO US TEENAGERS EVER *huffs in annoyance* Even if we have super cool birthmarks or whatever.

    And yes. Honestly, I like the idea of “forever love” but that’s probably because I haven’t had a relationship before (except in like, kindergarten. DOES THAT COUNT.)

    Liked by 1 person

  17. The Real Issues says:

    I, for one, completely adore YA. But, I do really think that everything you said made sense. I would totally love if YA authors wrote teen characters to be more like actual teens.

    PS. I also hold grudges on incompetent group project collaborators 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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