Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nina: On Teenagers, Angst, and Panoramic Covers

I am a writer and a high school English teacher, so when I tell people that my first novel is for teenagers, they often assume that my book was inspired by my work. In reality, it was probably the opposite: I wrote my novel in graduate school, before I even considered teaching high school, and at that time my only contact with teenagers was through my little brother.

Now, I am constantly surrounded by teenagers. Even on the weekends, the students who live around the corner call up to me from the street below my apartment just to say hello.

Teenagers have a bad reputation, but as most of us who write about and for them would agree, it is ill-deserved. They are inquisitive, they are fun, they are passionate, and—fortunately for YA writers—many of them are perceptive and emotionally invested readers.

I’ve had an amazing group of people read and offer criticism on my manuscript, and the feedback from these wise and insightful adults has been invaluable. But last summer, I got to extend my group of readers to two former students, and I have to admit that to sit across the table from two brilliant fifteen-year-olds as they point excitedly to different scenes in your manuscript, to witness their joy over the joyous parts and sadness over the sad parts, to hear them say, “I know exactly how she feels here”—that is exhilarating.

I wish I could give every debut YA writer that experience, but because I can’t seal my students up in envelopes and send them to you, I am going to do the second best thing and let you hear from them. I asked them a few questions about books and reading.

So now, straight from Berkeley, California, here are the kids of Maybeck High School.

When you're browsing in a bookstore or online, what draws you to certain books?

Max: Despite the saying, the first thing I notice about the book is its cover. To me a good cover is aesthetically pleasing and does not show any pictures of the characters. I never like books with pictures of the characters because I feel that it limits my ability to imagine. The second thing I notice is the length: I tend not to like books less than 80 pages or more than 400 pages. If a book has both of these things (a good cover and the right length) I will usually read the back.

Marina: I like short titles and covers that are either scattered and very busy or extremely simple. Everything in between gets lost in all the other books. It’s better when the back cover has an excerpt that represents the book well over a summary because those are often not well enough written. Praise for the book is always good. (I prefer it on the inside over the outside where it’s too showy.)

Julia: Of course, I can be superficial and judge books by their covers. I am usually drawn far far away from books with pink covers covered in candy or shoes or anything zebra-ish that seems superficial. I’m usually drawn to memoirs because they feel more real. I think that melodramatic teen angst novels are to some degree a guilty pleasure, but only really good if they are true, or seem true, because it is easy to over-do them and make them seem improbable.

Lucy: As many others are, I'm often drawn to a book by its cover, and I really love those that are a full color landscape, like a panorama over the whole cover, front and back. Basically if it's pretty, and the summary on the back looks good, I'm more likely to read it.

Dragor: I am especially drawn to books that are psychologically and ethically charged. Though I will generally read a book regardless of the content if it's by an author that I have a high level of respect for.

Sennett: I don't think I ever go to bookstores to find books by authors I haven't read yet. It’s all in the name. Cover attracts but, again, I don't buy books in bookstores anymore unless William Gibson or someone comes out with a new one.

Kathryn: I love novels with strong imagery, and a story I can connect with.

If you could read a book about anything, what would it be?

Naomi: When I was little I read the first Narnia book. I had never read anything like that before. I would give almost anything if I could capture that very moment of surprise that I had when I was a little girl reading those books. What I loved most about them was that they took ordinary kids like me and brought them to a magical world, I would go to the magical world with them.

Dragor: I would like a book that begins with the tone of a happy go lucky adventure story such as the Hardy Boys with superficial characters and a contrived unrealistic plot. I would like it to then take a turn to a darker tone and because of the setting become real and the characters become people.

Marina: People in subcultures/countercultures/anything outside ordinary society.

Max: The books that I enjoy reading the most are not the educational ones nor the ones with any particular literary value: they are the ones that keep me reading from page one. As far as subject matter, I enjoy the same types of books as lots of 12-year-old boys. Epic fight scenes, surprising twists and interesting characters are all good. Characters that rant about how bored or depressed they are not so good.

Sennett: Anything? I don't know. Its all about language and flow really. After that as long as the author is good the subject matter can be anything really.

Julia: If I could read a book about anything it would probably be about the life of someone who has lived it interestingly. The concept that the things and people in a book are actually real is usually very intriguing to me.

Kathryn: I'm with Julia, memoirs are great. I also am a huge Stephen King fan, so kind of creepy with a good plot line.

Lucy: I love fantasy, series where authors have built up whole worlds, because then you can read everything and really learn the world, understand it, and have fun in it. Despite this, I've actually started reading LGBT stuff, like Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit, Well of Loneliness, and am really enjoy them, maybe because I identify with the characters; I’m not sure. Is there a lot of LGBT YA stuff? If not, I think it might be nice for those who have already figured it out by then, or even for those who haven't, just to understand better. Gay people have to read about straight people, why shouldn't straight people have to read about gay people?

If you read YA, what do you like about it? Is there anything you wish for that you aren't finding?

Chris: I like books in general that include people of my age group as main characters because I feel as though I can become them more easily, even though the link would only be through paper. I like books in the first person, in general. I like books with sad endings, or with multiple endings, like the movie Babel, if you've seen it.

Julia: Mostly what I dislike is superficiality and over-done angst. Angst is certainly fine, and oftentimes enjoyable in a book; however, I do not enjoy reading POORLY WRITTEN fiction about sexually abused, drug addled, depressed, homeless 15-year-olds that then find their way in the world in some cliché fashion after undergoing every feasible stress and ailment in life, because while sometimes that actually happens, it is easily overdone.

Sennett: I don't know what YA even stands for. Young Adults? I guess I'm not really going to give a good response to this.

Marina: I kinda feel like anything with a teenage character is young adult. What I like about any book is the writing style because I like lyrical books with good timing. The thing I mainly remember about young adult stuff was how angsty it was. And in my opinion angsty is good unless its over played, clichéd or written by someone who has left the teenage mindset. (PS: breaking rules=good for young adult writing.)

Dragor: I read young adult mostly because I already know authors that I love and only have to find more books they have written. I would prefer to find more novels like Pullman's young adult novel The White Mercedes. That book deals with teenage problems but in a unglamorized realistic way that allows you to truly relate to the characters. It is a love story of ordinary love, true and devoted but still ordinary, that ends in a tragically ordinary way.

Max: My favorite book from childhood must have been one of the Harry Potter books, or all of them. Part of this might be because I listened to the whole series on tape, which is a medium I prefer, but I also think that the ease of sympathizing with the characters is a major strength. Sometimes I wonder why I like reading a book about an over-emotional teen with fairly two-dimensional friends (in the earlier books at least) but then I realize that I don't care what a book is about as long as it’s familiar.

Kathryn: I like novels that have twists and turns, something I can't put down. Strong characters, a solid plot.


  1. I love hearing directly from teens, what they like, and where they call shenanigans. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. What a great post--fabulous idea!
    Basically, your teenage friends have the same sort of tastes in books that I do (and did)--could you do another post like this later on asking them more questions? I am cross-posting a link on my blog.

    Thanks again to all you guys!

  3. Fabulous post! I don't have enough contact with teens in my life - this is great!

  4. I agree! This is a great post. I love hearing these thoughtful teen voices.

    I have a writer friend who has teens read her YA manuscripts for authenticity. She calls them her "youth behavior consultants."

  5. great insight. Thanks for posting this. Got me thinking :)

  6. Excellent! It's encouraging to know one doesn't have to be with teens (though that's a joy), as in a school setting, in order to write for them. It reminds me of the interviewer asking Maurice Sendak whether having children qualified one to write for children, and his answering that he was a child once. We have all been teens, and it's more a matter of walking with your teen.

    Its also helpful to know, however, the varied responses to books they have. Thank you for sharing the experience.

  7. what do you think ? were your teen years the best of your life ?