Earlier this month, I participated in an unusual panel at Bouchercon in Raleigh, North Carolina. The panel’s topic wasn’t unusual—these days, most mystery conferences devote at least one panel to young adult novels—but the panelists were. Three of them were real, live young adults, members of a high-school book club in Georgia. They brought along a list titled “Ten Things We Wish YA Writers and Editors and Publishers Knew about Actual YAs (Like Us).” As a writer whose first YA mystery was just published, I found the list both enlightening and reassuring. Parents and grandparents who give books to the young adults in their lives might enjoy checking it out, too.
Some items on the list are predictable—the club members like a diverse cast of characters, they don’t like having pets or young children put in jeopardy simply to heighten tension, and they think it’s important for YA writers to “talk to young people alive and young right now,” rather than relying on decades-old memories. Preachy mysteries don’t appeal to them—“We can smell a lesson a mile away”—but mysteries that mix serious issues with humor do. The club members also want writers to “treat YA mysteries as seriously as adult mysteries.” That means playing fair with clues, not introducing villains at the last minute, avoiding plot holes, and tying up loose ends. As someone who loves traditional whodunits, I was glad to see that some young people still value these time-honored standards.
The list also includes less predictable advice. The club members don’t see romance as a necessary element in YA mysteries, especially not if it seems injected into the book “just to create a relationship subplot.” The characters’ attraction to each other has to feel genuine. Also, not every protagonist has to be a “misunderstood loner,” and “not all characters need a tragic backstory.”
That was good to hear. Misunderstood loners with tragic backstories are so common in YA fiction that I worried about whether young readers would care about my protagonist, a popular athlete with an intact family. When I was planning the novel, I wondered if I should give Matt a dead parent, an addicted sibling, at least a lactose-intolerant cousin. I decided against it, and now I feel more confident about that decision. Of course Matt’s family has problems—all families do. Matt feels distant from his parents and thinks they won’t understand his problems, and they’re so intent on making him feel secure that they hide the challenges they’re facing. But they’re all good, well-intentioned people, and they all love each other. Once they start talking more openly, things get better—not suddenly, completely better, but better. I hope the novel succeeds in acknowledging that the problems young adults experience can be painful and real, even when those young adults aren’t misunderstood loners with tragic backstories.
I also felt cheered by the second item on the club’s list. “Adults are not always evil/boring/patronizing/incompetent,” these young people maintain. “We live with adults, and we actually care about them and sometimes even like them. And we have people in our lives who care about us.” Frankly, I hadn’t expected a group of teenagers to take a stand on behalf of the adults in their lives, but I was moved when they did. It made me feel pretty good not only as a YA author but also as a teacher, a mother, and a grandmother. If you’d like to see the full list, you can find it here: http://ccatmystery.blogspot.com/2015/10/ten-things-we-wish-ya-writers-and.html. It might make you feel pretty good, too.
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B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults, which was recently released by The Poisoned Pencil / Poisoned Pen Press. She describes the novel as “a cross between The Hardy Boys and The Karate Kid.” Interpretation of Murder, a novel for adults, is a traditional whodunit that offers insights into deaf culture and sign language interpretation. . B.K. has also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. She has won a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com