Jun 14, 2011

10 Top Issues to Address in YA Fiction

Wassup YAs?
YA (young adult) is a huge market. So what makes a story appeal to teens? Apparently, they want novels that are relevant to their age group and the problems they face. A YA today may share some basic desires and problems with a YA in 1939, but you'll find there are quite a lot of differences too.

At a recent writers workshop we discussed YA issues, then I spoke to my English class of 16yr. olds and we elaborated and tightened that list. Here are the issues we came up with as important to young adults today.
  1. Sexuality. This is a biggie. As I write this, I hear teen girls in the hall hassling a boy to find out who he 'made-out' with on the weekend. Many teens find this age-bracket very confusing, identifying their own sexuality and what is considered right or wrong by their peers. Some are embarking on their first sexual relationships (whether we want them to or not) and others are terrified about what will be expected from them (this is not just the girls). The students told me they do not like novels that ignore this issue completely.
  2. Relationships and friendships. Social peers are the most valued relationships at this age (as a mum I want to think that must be a mistake, but sigh, no). Being left out or worse, pushed out of a social group is extremely painful.
  3. Social power. There are hierarchies within groups for the teen bracket. Those are defined by your social power - how much influence you have over your peers. This can be influenced by sporting achievements, attractiveness and even how powerful you are on Facebook.
  4. Social responsibility - The kids pleasantly surprised me by rating this as very important. Many teens see it as their responsibility to look out for their mates. This can also mean standing up for the underdog or even standing up against your peers (and risking your social power).
  5. Bullying - Wow this has evolved over the years. When I was a kid you risked being punched (or worse - spat at) but now the most common risk is via Facebook slandering. I still haven't figured out why kids care so much about what some moron says about them on Facebook, but they do. Must have something to do with that social power hierarchy. One of the issues raised in my writing workshop was the fact that kids are online early in the morning, late at night and via their mobiles during the day (even during class time - grrr). This suggests there is no 'off' time - that people can reach you, and therefore bully you 24/7. At least in my day, when you went home in the afternoon it was all over.
  6. Risk taking. Drugs, alcohol and misadventure are all playing a part in a lot of teens' lives. Unfortunately they believe that we as adults do not know what we are talking about and feel they are completely safe because they have their mates with them. Planking was a new topic that became an obviously dangerous pastime for students recently.
  7. Belief system. Teens are coming into an age where they stop taking information provided by adults as being right and start making their own decisions about their belief system. This might manifest in some teens as an interest in or a rebellion against religion, or it might just be their ideas on social justice.
  8. Freedom. Many teens feel they should be able to go out and explore life, live it the way they want, but due to financial and parental restrictions, they can not. This is quite frustrating (but after suggesting risk-taking as a part of their life, I can understand the parental restrictions!).
  9. Anger. This has manifested in many teens, most likely due to hormonal changes as well as a desire for freedom but still feeling restrictions from family. In the extreme we have boys and girls lashing out with physical violence or self-harm (such as cutting).
  10. Multiculturalism. This is a two-sided issue. It's important to teens to have a feeling of assimilation, so this would be heightened for any teen feeling their culture does not fit in with the local teens ideas of what is acceptable. It is also an issue for teens to accept new cultures into their community. This is an issue we are dealing with in class now as prejudice is one of the themes we are exploring.
Some themes will easily link together. In class we are exploring the relationship between prejudice, bravery and growing up. You can always add a theme in the editing stage. If you see one here that you think may be important to a scene in your novel, you can go back and foreshadow it. 


  1. Interesting post.

    I thank goodness my children -now in late twenties-did not have to endure facebook. Peer pressure is a dangerous thing.

  2. Thanks for sharing your field research. Yes, facebook has taken on a life of its own. Plus, bullying and humiliation is now global. In our day it was confined to just one school, maybe a neighboring town if it was really big or involved a boy/girl from said town. But, facebook is vicious. Plus, it's not face to face, so there are no filters for some people.
    What's planking?

    I hope my kids survive teen angst.

  3. Wow, this is a post to bookmark. I loved hearing their thoughts on this!! Thanks!

  4. Hmm, I had a few blogger issues this morning. 3rd attempt at commenting: Great list! It's always good to be aware fo the issues YAs face. Know thy market :)

  5. What a useful piece of research. Life has changed so much since I was at secondary school that I sometimes wonder if I'm living in the same world. Oh dear, I feel old when I think that sort of thing but it's very true and it's something that writers have to be aware of so, like I said, well done for this study.

  6. Great post! Yes, people are fooling themselves if they think kids aren't talking about sex constantly. My seventh graders already have sex and they are 12. These kids face issues I never dreamed of at my age and it's sad people want to censor books that contain content concerning these issues. Sometimes a book can change a kid's decision about something in his/her life. I've seen it happen!

  7. Charmaine, I love that you asked students what they want to read.

    I wrote a post about the WSJ issue, asking my 7th-graders what they thought about it:


  8. Nothing like a good primary source! Thanks for the info. :)

  9. I read this ans some of your points make my stomach twist a bit. Life seems so much harder for Kids today. It seem that they are always ina state of alarm socially and therefore do or say things that maybe they shouldn't just to stay "in". Great list. Great post. Blessings, Joanne