What makes a great ya book?
"Many successful authors say there’s no secret to writing for teenagers. Good writing is good writing; believable characters and compelling plots are crucial regardless of who’s picking up the book. But many YA authors will also tell you there’s something particularly fulfilling and rewarding about writing for teenagers, who often respond to stories they identify with more intensely and gratefully than adult readers do." Excerpt from The Eight Habits of Highly Effective Young Adult Fiction Authors by Nolan Feeny, The Atlantic
“The defining characteristic of YA literature is emotional truth. Even if we’re not the same as the characters we read, they are all dealing with things—issues of who they are, who they should be, what they should and shouldn't do—that we all deal with, in their own ways. With The Hunger Games, even if we will never be in Katniss’s shoes, the decisions she makes make emotional sense to us—even when she makes the wrong ones.” David Levithan
"Write hopeful endings. For the most part, young-adult novelists leave their readers with hope, if only a glimmer, despite whatever grim action came before. Adult novels, while dealing with the same issues, can leave a reader utterly sad, even completely bereft. But in writing for young adults there still seems to be a sense of responsibility—not to drill in lessons and give warnings, but to allow for possibility. Let your readers believe that in the end the power, the choice, is theirs." Nora Raleigh Baskin
Find the “Emotional Truth”
John Green’s hilarious and heartbreaking The Fault in Our Stars is not a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel like Divergent or The Hunger Games. But the lives of its protagonists, Hazel and Gus, hardly mirror the lives of their readers, who probably don’t have cancer and generally don’t fly to Amsterdam to track down reclusive, alcoholic authors. And yet, the book has been a New York Times bestseller for 46 weeks. “I get emails every day from people who are like, ‘I’m just like Hazel, except I don’t have cancer, I’m not 16, I’m not white, and I’m not female,’” Green says. That might be why readers find themselves so drawn to Hazel and Gus, whose relationship and health struggles offer avenues for teenagers to examine the bigger ideas they’re grappling with in their own lives. “Maybe some of what’s universal is the intensity of the experience."
Find the "Kernel of Hope."
“There’s a sense that it’s worth waking up tomorrow,” Reiss explains. “Things are dark, things are terrible, but tomorrow’s another day. Ninety-nine percent of books for teens have that at least at the end.” This change doesn’t always unfold in ways that are explicit or conventionally heroic. In The Hunger Games, Katniss ends up winning the deadly, titular tournament she enters, but it’s not the victory itself that’s important—it’s more about how she wins on her own terms of integrity and empathy. In realistic YA fiction, a friendless, social outcast may not become the most popular kid in class, but it’s unlikely he or she will stay a total loser for a whole novel.
“That's life, isn't it?” Levithan says. “Things get rough and you get swallowed up in it. But then you get through it. You wrestle it down. You find a way to survive. YA only reflects that.
Characteristics of a great YA book:
1. The protagonist is a teenager. 2. Events revolve around the protagonist and his/her struggle to resolve conflict. 3. The story is told from the viewpoint and in the voice of a young adult. 4. Literature is written by and for young adults. 5. Literature is marketed to the young adult audience. 6. Story doesn’t have a “storybook” or “happily-ever-after” ending—a characteristic of children’s books. 7. Parents are noticeably absent or at odds with young adults. 8. Themes address coming-of-age issues (school, friendships, bullying)
Keep it Real
The best YA books capture the gravity of the teenage experience, whether it’s the sparks of a first crush or lunchroom gossip and bullying. “When you’re in that time in your life, the trials and tribulations of friendships, romantic relationships, it's all very crucial and vital,” says Kristen Pettit, an executive editor at HarperCollins. “That is one way the author presents themselves as authentic to the YA community, by nailing that keenness of feeling and emotion and high-stakes nature of the interactions they have with people every day.”
One reason The Fault in Our Stars’ Hazel feels so familiar to YA readers is the fact that she, like so many of her peers, is is hooked on America’s Next Top Model marathons. But Green didn’t include multiple mentions of Tyra Bank’s
long-running reality show just for fun—the references teach us a lot about Hazel as a character and as a teenager.
Know Your Audience
Understand the audience for your story before you write the book. If your book is geared to 11-14 year olds, it will be a different book than if it is geared to 5-8 year olds. Think very specifically about your target audience. Who is your ideal reader? Boy? Girl? Age? What are the child’s other interests? If you create a story with a specific target reader in mind, it will make the marketing of your novel significantly easier. The Creative Penn