A Different Kind of Diversity

I’m seeing this discussion on the YA Twitter feeds this morning and want to put in my 2 cents. But I hate typing on my phone and it’s a long rant so here I am on my blog instead.

The discussion is about how YA books are skewing too old/mature currently. This means that the content tends to be aimed at 17-19 year olds instead of 14 year olds. Middle Grade fiction tends to be aimed at 8-13 year olds, with younger MG aimed at 8-10 and older MG aimed at 10-13. The biggest difference there is age of protagonist and reading grade level.

YA is supposed to cover 14-19ish and NA (New Adult), in my opinion covers 17+. Again, difference should be age of protagonists (YA has 14-21 year old characters while NA tends to have 19-35 year old protagonists). There’s also a difference of theme with YA covering first crushes, first dates, first kisses, first jobs, high school drama, identity seeking, trust issues, and developing independence (and however these translate into fantasy settings). NA deals with college or post-college, first steps towards a career, first serious relationship, coping with increased financial and personal independence, paying bills, and adulting (and however these translate into fantasy settings).

There are several problems with this.

  1. Age does not directly correlate to reading level.
  2. Grade level does not directly correlate to reading level.
  3. Age alone does not determine the content maturity level kids and teens are ready for.
  4. Which means that grade/reading level does not at all correlate to content maturity level.

There are 12 year olds who were bored to death with Babysitter’s Club (which features 12-15 year old characters in the lead roles) and there are 12 year olds who loved them. I worked with 14 year olds who were reading at an adult level and 17 year olds who were reading at a grade 8 level. That 17 year old doesn’t want to read about little kids going on dorky adventures – they want to read about their peers doing relevant things but they need the words on the page to be easier. (We had specially written books called Hi-lo. High interest, low reading level. … oh, right – I worked as an educational assistant for about 3 years).

As a reader, I was reading Stephen King at 12. And Poe. And Agatha Christie. I was reading Laurel K Hamilton before I was 18. (I watched Clive Barker’s Hellraiser at 15).

As a writer I’m acutely aware that there are teens with a high reading level who don’t necessarily want graphic content so I write clean books that will appeal to 12 year olds with a high reading level, 14-18 year olds with a standard or high reading level, and adults looking for quick fun reads. I also write MG sci-fi that will appeal to 9-10 year olds with an advanced reading level, 11-12 year olds with an average reading level, and 13-15 year olds looking for easier reads that are still exciting. I do that by blending reading level (grade level) with higher or lower content maturity levels.

While a lot of this debate deals with content maturity levels (like 8 year olds reading about periods or 12 year olds reading about college life) and whether or not content of a certain level will even interest kids of certain ages (FYI, majority of teens/kids want to read about their peers so 1 year younger to 5 years older than the target reader), a big part of the discussion centers on graphic content. Sex to be exact.

Are the characters having sex at all even if it’s not shown “on screen”? If the answer is yes, it is no longer MG fiction but clearly YA.

Are the characters having sex that is shown “on screen”? That skews it in the adult mind to older teen fiction.

To be clear, there are differing levels of graphic depiction. You can write a sex scene that centers on emotions, on the awe and wonder, the newness, the excitement, the raw nerves, the awkwardness, the buzz afterwards, or the regret, or the shame, or whatever suits your story. You can write a sex scene where you never talk about what the penis is doing at all. And you can write a sex scene that sounds like the “Audio captioning for the visually impaired” track for a porno, with great physical details of their bodies, their actions, their emotions, their physical feelings, the sweat, the passion … (I ghost wrote erotic fiction for a while). There’s a big difference in how authors can handle it.

Personally, I’m okay with sex being a part of stories for younger teens. I’m not okay with 18+ porno style depictions of sex being a part of stories for younger teens. And I’m not okay with anything for younger teens that shows abusive relationships, gas lighting, or irresponsible sexual behaviours in a positive light. But that may be me as a parent speaking.

I’m working on a new teen contemporary drama, and it involves a teen pregnancy. Several of the major characters are navigating dating and sex as part of their story arcs. Some of them are in dangerous, red-flag relationships. And it’s up to me to decide how graphic or prevalent these scenes and arcs will be. And it’s up to me as an indie to market my book to an appropriate age group.

Honestly, I think YA books were previously marketed to an older audience than they should have been (meaning, books for 12 year olds were being pushed on 14 year olds). I think our current YA content and marketing is more accurate, especially considering things like the #metoo movement, climate change, a global pandemic, gun violence in schools, and teen pregnancy. Our teens are living in complicated times – they need fiction that reflects that, not fiction that reflects a rosy Leave it to Beaver world. (They need good role models and happy endings, of course, but they need characters they can relate to as well).

What we expose our children to is always a razor’s edge balancing act. We cannot overshelter them or censor them but at the same time we must guide them, educate them, prepare them, and protect them.

We’re not going to get it right overnight.

Casia Schreyer Does Panels

And apparently I’m pretty good at it too.

Sometimes being full of yourself is a necessity. Well, maybe not to that extreme, but my mantra at When Words Collide was: Speak up, be bold, do not be afraid to take up space. And it paid off.

I did three panels this year and would like to take a moment to talk about each of them.

CROSSING GENRES: We spoke on the thrill and difficulties of writing in multiple genres, either in different projects, or in projects that blur the lines between established genres.

Pros: I write fantasy, contemporary lit, and science fiction, and I find the biggest pro is that when people are looking at my books I have a greater chance of having something for them. As someone who reads widely I don’t have a real preference for genre. I don’t write mystery, can’t get the hang of it, but anything else is fair game for me. If there’s a story I want to write, I’ll write it, and I’ll figure out how it fits into genres and my own collection later. This seemed to be the consensus on the panel – we were all happy to write what we enjoyed and figure out what the genre was, who to sell it to, and how to market it, after it was written.

Cons: My fantasy fans are always hounding me for the next book while I’m working on the sci-fi series. For traditionally published authors they may have to find a different publisher if they stray from their established genre. And if you are established in one genre it can be hard to bring fans with you when you write something new.

Nom de Plume: There are pros and cons for using a pen name. It takes time and effort to cultivate a following for each name. On the other hand, fans know what they’re getting when they see the name on the cover. Casia writes fantasy while KC writes contemporary lit (I don’t use a pen name). Some traditional publishers require it because of marketing and branding. We all agreed that if you were writing YA or MG and you also wrote smut that you should use a pen name for the smut.

Genre and marketing: Publishers, book stores, and online publishing platforms are the ones pigeon holing books into genres so they can market them and recommend them to people, and sort them on lists and shelves. Many authors write fantasy that could also be horror, or could also be sci-fi. Or they write literary fiction with a paranormal bent, which is basically fantasy with pretty language and a good moral. Is it a mystery with paranormal elements, or a fantasy with a mysterious plot? Authors don’t always have control over how their book is marketed by the publisher.

This was my first panel ever and I was very nervous but I was the only indie on the panel so I had some unique insights to bring to the conversation. The other panelists were friendly and knowledgeable and no one person dominated the session. As an introduction to this type of speaking it was perfect for me and I hope those who attended enjoyed themselves.

YOUNG ADULT TO NEW ADULT:I could write a whole post on this subject!

There’s been a shift in YA literature. It used to be for teens, 14+, now it’s for kids as young as 10. Which isn’t a problem, except that over half the buying and reading market for YA lit are adults. Which means the YA category gets broken into young or lower YA (for 10-15 year olds – what used to be MG) YA (14-18) and upper YA (17+). NA looks to fill that crossover market, writing books that sound and feel like YA but feature protagonists who are in college or out of school completely as compared to being in junior high or high school.

The age of the protagonist and the maturity level of the content (violence, swearing, sex, politics, etc) are mainly what mark the difference between NA and YA but there is a large grey area between them and a lot of crossover depending on the interest and maturity of the reader.

PEN TO PAPER: When writing doesn’t look like putting words on the page.

We discussed outlining, doodling, world building, daydreaming, and brainstorming. We talked about where our inspiration came from and the types of activities we filled our time with while we were pondering or working through writers’ block.

Repetitive, mindless, physical activity, be it yoga, chopping wood, mowing the lawn, taking a walk, doing dishes, etc, was brought up time and again as a way to keep the body busy and distracted while the mind is free to wander.

We talked about visiting the settings of our stories, or if we wrote fantasy at least visiting museums and such places to get a feel for the time period we were basing our fantasy world in.

We discussed music as inspiration and as motivator (and we were split down the middle with two of us preferring silence and two of us using music to fuel our writing).

We weren’t very talented with art but map making was one of the doodling things we did for inspiration. That, and timelines and calendars for working through writers’ block.

And that was my experience doing panels. I admit, I was nervous, but I had a great time and I learned a lot. I hope other people learned something from me.

Review: Asylum

Asylum is a fantasy horror novel by Chantelle J.Z. Storm. I would recommend this book for teen audiences, and anyone who loves a scary fantasy.

The main character is a moody teenage girl named Kairyna. She has been living with her Aunt Helen for three years, ever since the death of her parents. Helen has taken a job as a housekeeper for Madame Sporra and moved Kairyna to Madame’s spooky mansion.

Kairyna is a book worm but the book she finds in the mansion will whisk her away to another world, answering her prayer for adventure. But of course the answer to our prayers isn’t always what we hope it to be and the adventure that Kairyna finds herself on is dangerous.

The majority of the story takes place in this other world with a small cast of varied characters, all of whom were, at one time, like Kairyna, looking for adventures beyond their boring existence. A few times you get pieces of what’s happening with Aunt Helen while Kairyna is off on her adventure.

I really enjoyed this book. The pacing was good and the story was spooky. The dialogue was really good, for the most part. There were a few places were things got a little too corny, but otherwise it was good. The tension in this book is not so much about who the bad guy will turn out to be but how Kairyna and her odd bunch of friends will twist their situation to their advantage while an unseen force relentlessly tries to kill them.

Most of the characters were enjoyable but I found 1 or 2 to be a little cliched. Kairyna herself is moody without being annoying and steps up to the challenges that appear before her. The story is told in 3rd person so there’s real tension as to whether Kairyna will survive to the end.

I give this book a 4 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Portal Prophesies A Halloween Curse

A Halloween Curse is the second book in the Portal Prophecy series by C.A. King. This is a fantasy series for YA/NA readers.

This is an action packed story with decent pacing and interesting characters. The story is quite twisty and the characters are complex, even the bad guys.

There is a large cast of characters of varying magical abilities from a variety of worlds or dimensions. Sometimes it is hard to keep track of who they are and what they can do because you often go several chapters without hearing from someone.

The descriptions are good, and the imagery and detail is fantastic. The author has put a lot of thought into the double meanings and vague possibilities of all her prophesies, curses, and warnings.

I worry that some of her characters are becoming over-powered and that it may cause plot-failings later in the series but for now the team continues to grow in strength and numbers while the problems facing them grow in complexity. Also, there is tension between the members of the group and quite often the girls are frustrated by people not taking them seriously.

Over all I’m impressed with the series and the scope of this fictional world.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Dragonfly

Dragonfly is a young adult paranormal romance by Alyssa Thiessen. You can find it on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Dragonfly-Alyssa-Thiessen/dp/0994021003/ (Please note this is not an affiliate link).

Dragonfly is a quick, easy read, but perfect for grades 8 and up. It’s clean, so no sex, no graphic violence, no major swearing. What really sets this book apart are the wings. No dragon, bat, or angel wings here. Not even hawks like the Maximum Overdrive stories by Patterson. No, this time we have dragonfly wings.

I read this book with my book club so the first week we read chapters 1-9. In our first discussion we were listing all the possibilities for how the main character, 18 year old Joshua Miller, had ended up with dragonfly wings. Born that way? Mutant? Science experiment? Alien? What? Halfway through the book and you still have no idea.

The plot of the book is people centered. It’s about Joshua, a boy who has always hidden from the world for as long as he can remember, a boy with no family, no friends, no connections. Until he meets Lexi. His connection with Lexi triggers a whole series of mishaps that lead him to the only piece of his past he remembers. And from there we find out everything that Joshua doesn’t know about himself.

The book follows that winning YA romance structure: bored rich girl, roguish bad boy, becoming friends when they shouldn’t. Lots of him holding back because he’s no good for her and her stubbornly holding on because she’s never met anyone like him. But it was still a fun book to read. Really, Joshua and Eric and Nik aren’t so bad, Lexi was my only complaint with the book.

I gave this book 4 stars and would recommend it to young readers and anyone who likes YA fiction. I’m looking forward to her second book, which is not tied in to Dragonfly in any way, titled Infusion.

Nothing, Everything, Nothing – Update

I finished my novella at just under 40k and sent it off to a close friend for a good read through. I was so pleased with the response that I have to share it here:

Dearest Casia, I have read this now 3 times and am having a terrible time editing it … to be honest having suffered from depression for a great deal of my life I didn’t feel that the severity of the angst of a teen confronting this illness was adequately relayed. I had to put it down and really lay aside my own experiences and reread it coming form the prospective of a teenage girl living in the time of Facebook. I am always astonished by your writing, the characters are really engaging, the conversations so real sometimes I forget we are in a book going somewhere. I find myself wanting to get to know more about who mom, or Marlee are as individuals, sometimes even more than I am about where the story itself is going. If that says anything at all it is that you need to be writing novels. you need a much broader canvas. In the end however it feels like an outline, like there is a deeper darker story here, as a reader I felt denied. As a friend I can tell you this is the hardest topic to write about, I have not succeeded. I think that takes a courage and vulnerability I am not graced with. After reading your story I found myself incredibly upset over Rehtaeh Parsons and Megan Meier (again) and outraged at the number of similar stories. This is why its important to write about. Spell and gram check says its okay… you seriously don’t want me checking that

As you can see, not exactly a glowing “Go publish that puppy” sort of review, but it may be the most helpful set of comments I’ve ever received. Taking the first comment to heart, I was worried that the experiences, and there for the depth of the suffering, of the main character were rushed. That ties in to the next critical comment – that it felt like an outline and that it should be longer.
Well, there’s something I can do about that and I’ve spent days contemplating and outlining and I think I have a better grasp of the story now. I’m not yet ready to edit it, there is more I want to consider and work through before I tackle the story itself, mainly the bulimic best-friend sub-plot, but I feel confident that the story is now headed in the right direction.

As for the comment that there is “a deeper darker story here”, I think there is too, but I was afraid to write it. I was afraid of scaring off the reader. But if pussy-footing around the hard truth of this character’s experiences is going to leave the reader feeling denied, then I’m going to have to face the darkness and write what needs to be written.

There is a quote for writers, something about “killing your darlings”, which means not being afraid to cut out your favourite scenes, lines, or even characters, if they serve no purpose in the story. There will be some of that when I edit, I’m sure. But I think most of what I have is salvageable for the rewrite.

I’m glad I took the time to get a second opinion before releasing the novella (which may really turn out to be a full 60-80k novel) to the public. I don’t think I would have been happy with it, or its reception. Now I have the chance to make it what it can be, what it should be, and what I am capable of allowing it to be.