Why I write YA

July 23, 2010 § 14 Comments

This past summer, I took a rode trip with my four-year-old daughter, mother, and grandmother to a small town in Indiana so we could attend a cousin’s high school graduation. Four generations on a road trip together is a once in a lifetime thing and I drank in every minute of it.


I found a kindred in my cousin. She delighted me to no end. I’m sad to admit it’s been years since I’ve seen her and our moments together have been short and surrounded with too many other relatives. This time, we really got to know each other. She sat on the hardwood of her bedroom floor, cross-legged, in front of long mirror with her make-up bag on one side of her and a pair stiletto’s (my kind of girl) on the other. You can tell a lot about a teenage girl from the things in her room. I looked at her artwork and books. This sword was in her room. Tell me we aren’t related. I dare you.

I listened to her hopes, her dreams, and was reminded (again) why I love YA. Even though we have not spent a lot of time together, we had a lot in common, only she is a great deal smarter than I am. Young people are underestimated these days and that’s a shame.

 At my SCBWI conference, during the Novel Intensive, each writer brought their first page to be critiqued. They were read aloud, anonymously, by a volunteer. I read one and loved it. It was beautiful writing and an addictive story. When I handed it back to the editors and authors on the panel I said as much.  It turned out, a fourteen-year-old wrote that page. I had to meet this young woman. I talked with her mother a great deal about what little I’ve learned during my writing and social networking experience. Megan Rebekah summed up what all the grown-ups thought about this girl best. She said, “At fourteen, I could hardly survive my own life, much less write about someone else’s.”

I thought about that line a long time. Certainly, I did stupid things and experienced moments that felt like the end of the world, but I knew that I’d find life on the other side of them.

Fast forward through my recent summer experiences with young adults to a conversation I had with one tonight. I work part-time in a gym and a lot of my co-workers are still in high school. It was a slow night and we’d finished all the work that needed to be done for the evening. She turned on one of the televisions to a show I’d heard of but never watched: The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Classy stuff.

In this particular episode, two of the housewives got into a physical altercation with one another. Afterward, one housewife took her two girls to a boxing ring for lessons. Her trainer wore blocking gloves, and as the housewife hit them, she called out the names of her enemies. Both of her daughters stood in the ring and watched her. I studied their faces in disbelief. Their fear and shock was evident. I’m sure my face reflected the same expression.

“How can she do this in front of her girls? What kind of message is that teaching them?” I asked my co-worker. “It’s like she’s teaching them to get into fights.”

She shrugged. “I’ve been in a fight. My dad gave me $10 when I told him I won.”

I stared at her. “He did what?”

“I mean, I was scared. I didn’t want to get into a fight, but I wasn’t going to not show up. This other girl challenged me. I was taught not to back down to that.”

Me. I was floored.  “I think you should certainly defend yourself if you’re being attacked. I’ve never been in that situation honestly, but if someone had a real issue with me, I’d try to work it out with them verbally. I’d ask, ‘What have I done to wrong you?’ I’d go to them. I’d try not to fight.”

She smiled. “Do you get offended easily?”

I laughed. “No. Not at all.” (Quick background on me, I grew up in a foreign country, the minority. My whiteness was often made fun of. I joked about my own ethnicity and played up the skinny white-girl thing because that’s what my friends did for years. I was teased for my lack of boobs, hips, and butt. Those things came later, well, I still don’t have a butt, but I’m fine with this.  The point is, because of my multi-cultural upbringing, I don’t get offended easily, but realize I need to approach other ethnicities with sensitivity.)

“If I did what you said and told my parents, ‘Oh, I went to the girl and worked it out.’ They’d be mad. They’d be like ‘What are you? White? You’re not. That’s not how we do things.'”

We both laughed so hard. I didn’t know what else to do at the moment.

“That’s hilarious. It’s just a different upbringing.”

She nodded.

“I guess I just know that no one is perfect. Ever. And thank God for that. Because of that, I try (key word: TRY) to treat everyone with grace and love. That’s how I’d want to be treated.”

She did more of the nodding thing and said, “I see where you’re coming from. My parents just want me to stand up for myself. They don’t want me to let anyone walk over me.”

“I understand that and see where they’re coming from,” I answered.

We talked a good bit more about it. I came home elated from the conversation. This girl was smart. Neither of us tried to change the other’s perspective. We didn’t pick a fight or put each other down. We just talked about the differences.

We, people, young and old, have so much to learn from each other.

 I am human. I make mistakes all the time and cringe at them. I am not on the other side of most of them. My young adult years? I am on the other side of those. I know those problems. Emotionally, we’ve all been there in some way, shape, or form. We’ve all ached for that next thing, for freedom. We’ve all been frustrated at things out of our control (and a lot is out of our control at that age). I love my past mistakes because they’ve made me who I am.

I do not love my current mistakes just yet. Maybe in twenty years, the older version of myself will write stories based around and about cough-year-old me problems. Maybe I’ll love my mistakes then.

Until then, I’ll write YA because young adults are a beautiful, intelligent group of people. They’re smart, they’re articulate, and I am happy to know them. I hope I do the genre justice.

§ 14 Responses to Why I write YA

  • Anne Kenny says:

    Agreed and well said. 🙂

  • I love this. So beautiful and poignant and real. I feel the same. 100%

    And I love the new blog layout.

    But why oh why didn’t you look me up in Indiana? Heck, it’s so small here, I’ve probably been to a corn shucking with your cousin and half her graduating class.

  • Patrick Alan says:

    OMG! I write YA because I was teased about not having boobs, butt, or hips, too!

  • Glad you are finally back…I miss this voice of reason.

    What a lovely post and very well written.

    I love when we see someone we haven’t seen in a long time and feel as if we are meeting them all over again. I am continuously amazed by the young people around me. You watch them grow from a young kid to someone who’s opinion matters to you.

  • Simon says:

    This kind of post is why you rock so hard.

    I think you need a motto. I suggest: “Harley May: More Than Just Snark.”

    Or something like that. Yes.

  • Patty says:

    I absolutely love this. I agree, youth are underestimated. I’m the mom of two teen boys. They astound and delight me every day. They also scare the hell out of me every day. I started writing YA for them.

  • Linda G. says:

    *applause* Excellent post. Real interaction, real communication…real wisdom, if you will…comes from being able to share your experience with another person without insisting they should be the same as you.

    If only more people could get comfortable with the concept…

  • Janelle says:

    Beautiful!!! I feel exactly the same way!!! Young adults, and kids, are SO intellectually underrated and emotionally discounted.

    They so often see with such clarity, and are not yet afraid to say it.

    Thank you for putting this out there!

  • Harley May says:

    Anne, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you stopped by.

    Carol, We were in Indiana for but a moment-barely two days in Madison. I’ll get you on the next visit (and I’ll visit again).

    Patrick, you’ve really filled out nicely.

    Hey Kelly, I don’t know if *I’m* to be called a voice of reason, but, okay. It is lovely seeing someone grow into a delightful person. I know what you mean.

    Simon, you write me sonnets and now you’ve come up with a banging t-shirt slogan. I owe you.

    Patty, YES! I recently coached boys tennis. I’ll admit, I was horrified beforehand, but they turned out to be the best group of boys ever. I loved it. And your sons seem super smart and impressive.

    Linda! Thank you so much for commenting. And applause?! You are much too kind, please stop-no don’t stop. Yes, if we all had that extra measure of tolerance the world would be a very different place.

    Hey Janelle. Thank you for commenting and I’m glad there’s a collection of grown-ups who see that in young people. “They so often see with such clarity, and are not yet afraid to say it.” Spot on.

  • Good post. You’re sweet. Nice new background.

  • This was absolutely beautiful. I also love working with young people, and they have so much to express.

    I think you’ll do the genre justice.

  • Harley May says:

    Thank you, Elisabeth and Medeia. I adore you both.

  • Bumby says:

    Harley well said. I do enjoy your posts.

    Always Bumby

  • Anne Riley says:

    Yay! Love this! Sometimes I have conversations like this with my students. Other times we just throw things at each other. It varies on any given day.

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