What Do Teen Readers Want? by B.K. Stevens
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
21 thoughts on “Guest Blogger B.K. Stevens – What Do Teen Readers Want?”
Thanks, BK, for an interesting post. I would imagine writing YA would be a challenge, and I give you a lot of credit for doing so. It sounds like you are going about it the right way.
BK definitely is going about it the right way – both her YA and her other mystery, Interpretation of Murder, do an excellent job engaging readers. I think it is because of the clarity of her characterizations.
Thanks so much, Debra. You’re very kind.
I hope publishers read this blog. I’ve heard a romance in YA is usually mandated.
Good blog, Bonnie.
Gee, I hope they read this blog, too. Oops, I was thinking of other reasons, but I think you make an excellent point about how many believe a romance (or for that matter a messed up kid) is a necessity to a YA.
Add me to the list of people hoping publishers read this blog! (And agents and editors, too, while we’re at it.)
Interesting. I don’t write for the YA market, but I know someone who does and will share this with them.
Thanks for stopping by and for sharing this blog post. It provides a lot of excellent information for YA writers and those who might be considering branching into that area.
Debra, thanks so much for inviting me! I hope this post does encourage more writers to consider giving YA a try. It’s so important for young people to have well-written, challenging books to read, and I think a good mystery provides them with a range of interesting intellectual challenges.
Judy, I’m glad that you enjoyed the post–I hope your friend does, too. Barb, the young adults were adamant about not requiring romance–one girl said she didn’t like romance at all, and the other two said it was all right if handled well and if clearly subordinated to the mystery. I don’t think that was the only item on the list that might surprise many publishers–the young adults’ disdain for misunderstood loners might surprise them, too. Grace, writing for a YA audience was indeed a challenge, and I was surprised at how easily my protagonist’s voice came to me. (At least, I felt as if it did. Others will have to judge whether or not the voice really sounds natural.)
I’m very happy to see that there are young readers interested in mysteries! Sometimes I worry that the genre will die out because most of the readers are older adults. This is encouraging! Thanks for the post.
I found that encouraging, too. And since I write whodunits, I was pleased that these young people like that particular kind of mystery and feel strongly about the tradition of playing fair with the reader.
I don’t think it will ever die out — evolve perhaps, but not die out. Mystery is the soul of life and every generation seeks it.
Since I also write for YA as well as adults and children, I found this post interesting and informative.
I’m glad you found it helpful, Jacquie. The panelists were very lively, engaging young people. They take mysteries very seriously and may well turn out to be the next generation of mystery writers, as well as the next generation of mystery readers.
Sorry I’m late to the party–I enjoyed B. K.’s YA book, Fighting Chance. An enjoyable read is still an enjoyable read regardless of its classification as YA. Coming of age novels aren’t for just the young. No books for years. Now in one year you have two books published. Just desserts! Enjoy–B. K. Well deserved!
Thanks, E.B.–I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I think a lot of adults are reading YA books these days, partly because YA books are now more likely to develop adult themes (not necessarily “adult” in the X-rated sense, though there’s some of that, too). As I understand it, the only real requirement for classifying a book as YA is that the protagonist has to be a teenager, and I think plenty of adults would be interested in reading about teenagers’ experiences. And yes, I’m pretty excited about having two books published in one year. It was a long wait, but it was definitely worth it.
Also joining in on the congrats for 2 books in one year. Think the point that the requirement for classification is that the protagonist is a teenager is interesting as where would that put books like Marjorie Morningstar or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or ???
I agree, Debra. There’s also Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–and Oliver Twist has an even younger protagonist. I think a book is unlikely to be considered YA if the protagonist isn’t a teenager, but lots of books with teenaged protagonists are clearly intended for adults as well as (or even instead of) young adults.
Thanks so much for this insightful post – it has given me a lot to think about! And your comment about giving your main character “at least a lactose-intolerant cousin” had me laughing out loud! Thanks for both your insights and the laugh! 🙂
Thanks, Miriam. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think some publishers and editors assume that teenagers who read are miserable, misunderstood loners themselves and are therefore most likely to identify with characters who seem like them. The teenagers on the panel made it clear that they don’t see themselves that way and are eager to read about many different sorts of characters.