The school year is coming to an end, which has caused me to reflect on all the works we’ve read in my classes this year and the stories my literature students have enjoyed the most. I’ve also been reading blogs and articles about what’s “in” in YA fiction at the moment (now that vampires, ghost boyfriends, and dystopian societies are decidedly not), which has me wondering: when writers and publishing professionals speak about what will “sell” in today’s competitive environment…sell to whom? It can be easy for writers to forget that we are ultimately writing for kids (a.k.a. people, not “a market”) and what kids want to read matters far more than what happens to be hot or trendy at any given moment. Besides, are young adult readers truly the ones demanding these trends (“We want more books about eating disorders and suicide!”), or do we adults have a tendency to thrust certain issues and messages onto our teen audience, rather than take the time to discover what they really want to read?
My high school students are wise, analytical, and introspective readers. This isn’t the result of high tuition costs or a privileged neighborhood (I teach at a public charter school open to all)—it’s the result of a school culture where reading is taken seriously and good stories are viewed as one of the keys to a good life. As a result, we take the time that’s required to work through some of the best literature our civilization has to offer. This year I’ve had the privilege of teaching Hamlet and Sonnets by William Shakespeare, Paradise Lost by John Milton, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Persuasion by Jane Austen, The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer, Oedipus by Sophocles, Medea by Euripides, The Aeneid by Virgil, and a few short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and others. And by “teach” I mean that each day my classes of 15-17 students move their desks into a circle and crack open the book we are reading. Then we proceed to talk about characters, motivations, conflict, ethical dilemmas, universal truths, human nature, and beautiful language for the next 40 minutes or so. There are no teacher plot summaries and very few lectures—we read and discuss these challenging works line by line, from cover to cover. Do students love every chapter or even every work? No (Paradise Lost is a particularly tough sell). Do our conversations sometimes get sidetracked, so that one minute we’re talking about Madame Defarge and the French Revolution, and the next we’re discussing how human beings would really behave during the zombie apocalypse? Yes, all the time. Ultimately, what I have learned from teaching teens is that young readers can be just as shrewd as adult readers (if not more so!), even if they find some plots more interesting than other. If I had to choose a “winner” based on student enthusiasm, Dickens takes the prize with A Tale of Two Cities, but after reading and discussing any of these works, my students were able to articulate strong opinions on what makes a character heroic and what makes a story great.
So here’s what I’ve learned about what teens love in literature, and what they really want to read.
1) Stories with Strong Heroes, but Complex Heroes
Achilles starts out as a pouty jerk and most of my 9th graders can’t understand why Homer seems to consider him the hero of the Iliad over the noble Hector, but they start to come around after Achilles avenges the death of Patroclus and reconciles with Hector’s father, the King of Troy (though ultimately I still love Hector more!). Similarly, Sydney Carton receives little student interest until the very end of A Tale of Two Cities, but by then most of my 10th graders think he’s the greatest hero ever because he started out as an unmotivated, drunken loser. The key concept here is growth. For all the talk I hear about the importance of writing “sympathetic, likable characters,” I really don’t think most teens care that much about likeability (after all, very few of them probably feel “likeable” most days). They don’t want “everyman” characters. What they want are interesting, unusual, and complex characters with strong convictions; characters who grow and change; characters with an edge or a major flaw; characters who are not born heroes, but become heroes. In A Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay are practically perfect the entire book—both as individual people and as a couple. Students recognized their virtues and do not dislike them per se, but they also don’t care about them as much as they care for and admire Sydney Carton by the end of the book.
2) Love Wins
Even if teens want heroes who overcome obstacles and are not squeaky clean from start to finish, they also want Good to defeat Evil in the long run. Who doesn’t? Of course this doesn’t mean that all YA books must have a happy ending where loose ends are tied into a perfect little bow—far from it. But the stories they truly love do seem to end on a note of hope or moral triumph. To again use A Tale of Two Cities as an example, the ending is sad and bittersweet (spoiler alert): the hero dies, but he sacrifices his life for something greater—love—and so you are left with the satisfaction that he ultimately triumphed. Think of all the YA/MG bestsellers that will probably be considered “classics” years down the road (e.g. Harry Potter)—the concepts may be fresh and the characters unique, but the stories themselves are not avant garde and follow a Hero’s Journey that has captivated readers for centuries.
3) Romance—It Isn’t as Big of a Deal as You Might Think
One of the “rules” for YA fiction seems to be that romance is a must. Sure, teens love a good love story, but based on what I’ve learned from my students’ comments, there also needs to be a bigger picture. The romance that develops between characters is far more appealing if it occurs in the midst of a larger struggle with higher stakes. The characters “in love” must realize there is actually a world beyond the two of them, and their ennobling romance enables them to confront the challenges of this world head-on. Teens get accused of being self-centered and narcissistic all the time, and they live in a world of constant media that encourages them to be this way. Yet that doesn’t mean they want it or like it. Many desire a purpose and long to devote themselves to something greater. As a result, they admire characters who realize they are not the center of the universe, and neither is their love story.
4) Cliches and Copycats—Avoid At All Costs
One of the things that surprised me about teaching smart, savvy teens is how annoyed they get at some of the trends and tropes that exist in YA fiction—love triangles, stories where the hero discovers he is a “chosen one” with magical powers, dead parents, the girl who is somehow overlooked by everyone, but is actually smoking hot—these have all been done a million times before, and teens are getting tired of reading the same old thing. Now of course it’s true that “there is nothing new under the sun,” but the crucial piece of advice here is that when you are writing for teens (or anyone really), you should avoid chasing trends and instead chase after a good story that will stand the tests of time.
5) Beautiful Writing
As a literature teacher, I know that teenage students sometimes struggle with “the classics” because many of them initially seem dry and slow, especially when compared to what they typically read for fun. Yes, a gripping, page-turning plot is likely to attract more young readers in this age of fast-paced everything, but I also know that kids can and do appreciate beautiful writing. When I told my best friend (since age 15) that I would be teaching A Tale of Two Cities, she immediately quoted her favorite line from the story—“the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate”—which has stuck with her ever since she read the book in high school. Whether it’s “Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles,” “To be or not to be? That is the question,” or “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” these poetic lines are what we remember years later. So if you want to write books that shape souls and stick with young adults long after they put them back on the shelf, write honest stories that matter and always make beauty a priority.