I often write about or from the perspective of children and teens, but wouldn’t put my work on Young Adult shelves. Why? Because the kids don’t need these words; grown-ups do.
Young adult fiction is on fire right now. According to author and publisher Valerie Peterson,
“The number of Young Adult titles published more than doubled in the decade between 2002 and 2012 — over 10,000 YA books came out in 2012 versus about 4,700 in 2002.”
Rowling’s Harry Potter series is more popular and relevant now than it was when it first hit the scene like a lightning bolt scar in 1997 (see what I did there?) and was developed into both a novel and film series, plus spin-offs. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky introduced an entire generation of young readers to the epistolary novel and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas gave a youthful voice to racial and social tensions around police brutality. Both spawned successful film adaptations.
Like a few elder millennials that I know, I read backwards as a kid. Few could get ten-year-old Chelsea to stop talking about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (or my Star Wars fan fiction novel-in-the-works), while I devoured Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman in my late 20’s. Note, while these books both feature child protagonists, the intended audience for each is quite different. Lee’s unreliable first person narrator (no offense, Scout) presents a complex and racially prejudiced society from the pure perspective of a six-year-old, albeit one informed by the voice of an adult looking back and wrestling with what she has experienced. Starmer’s Alistair, on the other hand, is older (age 12) and delivers play-by-plays from the front lines of his struggle to track down the mysterious villain who steals the souls of children who tell stories and disappear into a secret world called Aquavania.
The former? Begs for an adult or at least teenage audience for full comprehension, tween exceptions aside. The latter? Easily enjoyed by both middle school-age kids and adult lovers of a good fantasy yarn grounded in an edgy, agreed-upon reality.
My work in the realm of child and teen voices helps me wrestle with what I see and hear and experience, through a child-like lens. Adults (myself included - whatever that means) get clouded with a lot of day-to-day stressors and blocked emotions. Kids? They feel, they think, they act! No holds barred.
When I want to get a lot of truth-telling done, I rely on young adult voices to do it. The subject matter, however — that’s something else entirely.
Take my play, Like We Wasn’t People. This ensemble piece leaps down the rabbit hole of our foster care system here in the U.S. The protagonists are abandoned by their foster parents after being abandoned by their parents to a long-term residential treatment facility, where they abuse themselves and each other, alienate the under-trained staff who is supposed to help them, and ultimately greet a perilous and uncertain future. It’s a cautionary tale directed at the population who can make the societal and policy changes necessary to protect kids from this fate: adults.
Could I have written a play about teenagers, for teenagers? I could have, and maybe one day I will. When Like We Wasn’t People was produced in 2009, actors ages 20–24 filled these roles, and brought seasoned introspection to their performances. I chose to market to an audience of adults who would be alarmed by these characters and need to know about the high cost of abandoning our disadvantaged youth.
Teens already know the cost. They’re a savvy bunch and they’re seeing and feeling the effects of their forgotten peers day in and day out.
When I write a story like “Marceline” (inspired by my beautiful and whip-smart niece), I’m writing for grown-ups, adults who can marvel at her hilarious comebacks, gain insight into her motivations for sneaking into her neighbor’s yard, and who may have forgotten the joy of mixing potions out of twigs and leaves while sitting up all night worrying about an elderly neighbor and who may or may not be breaking into her house. Middle school children exist simultaneously in worlds of magical realism and increasing practical responsibility, and this story reminds us of a time when we could — and wanted to — dwell in both.
Sure, teens can read “Marceline,” but likely, they don’t need to. Not yet. It’s the adults whose hearts need stirring.