Some Themes For Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein
I sat down to write these blog posts armed with some thoughts about writing, reviewing, themes I deal with, and literary tips that I think help make the story vivid. And then I found myself stuck because I realized that none of these ideas were specifically connected to writing for teens. So, I am going to start my entries with a disclaimer. I don’t write teen novels. Most of my novels are about teens, but I have never once in my life set out to write a ‘teen novel’. As a teen – and into adulthood – I never set out to read a ‘teen novel’. I just read! So, as a novelist I can probably give some good advice about how to write a book, but I haven’t thought much about writing a ‘teen’ book. These posts are going to make me think about it!
My first ‘teen’ novel, The Winter Prince, has a narrator who is pushing thirty. In my third and fourth ‘teen’ novels, The Sunbird and The Lion Hunter, the hero is 11 and then 12. In Code Name Verity the heroines start at 18. I don’t consciously sit there thinking, ‘Ah, this time I’m writing for teens, so I’m going to have to do things differently.’ I just write the book that I am writing.
However, my books, despite my protests and the wide age range of their protagonists, are very solidly Young Adult. So maybe I need to think about why. I think it has to do with the themes I deal with in my novels.
1) The age of the protagonists. Okay, so the narrator in The Winter Prince is 27 or whatever. In fact, it’s the teenagers in the book that the reader really cares about—the narrator’s 14-16 year old siblings and his relationship with them. In The Sunbird, where the hero is a little younger than a teen, and in Code Name Verity, where the heroines are a little older than teens, their age doesn’t get mentioned. The implication is that they are teens, or close to it—and also, that teens reading the books will relate to these characters in spite of the slight difference in age. This is not only an authorial decision but an editorial one. In crafting the book, we are consciously aiming it at teen readers—giving them characters they can relate to because of their age.
2) The emotional maturity of the protagonists. There are a couple of themes that resonate throughout my books and, I think, throughout all YA fiction, and one of these is that the heroes or heroines have to mature in some way. The events of the book help them or force them into growing up. In a true YA novel, the main characters will be changed forever by the end of the book. This isn’t necessarily true of ‘adult’ fiction. To my mind, the change ought to be for the better in teen fiction—even in fiction where the ending is bleak, the protagonist should have had the opportunity to grow somewhere along the way.
3) The acquisition of skill. This is also key, I think, to teen fiction: the characters are thinking about What They’re Going To Be When They Grow Up. In an adult novel, that’s no longer necessary, and in a book for younger readers, they’re not yet worrying about this. So figuring out who you are and what you’re best at, and how you’re going to use that in later life, is critical to teen fiction.
4) Figuring out your body. I don’t really want to say ‘sex’ is a driving force in teen novels, because it isn’t always, but certainly there has got to be some aspect of the protagonist facing and dealing with his or her changing body. In The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom I took this on both metaphorically and brutally by making the hero have to deal with losing an arm. In Code Name Verity the two heroines are physically mature, but they are pretty sexually innocent, and though that’s not the focus of the book, their growing awareness of their own attractiveness and desires does affect the plot.
5) Building relationships. Moving from the limited relationship of family life into the broad and complex relationships of society, including friendship, conflict, and romance, is another key theme that characterizes teen fiction.
These five points probably aren’t the only defining themes in teen fiction, but they are the ones that leap out at me.
For further reading on this topic, Jo Wyton has an interesting discussion on her blog about what makes teen fiction, using my book Code Name Verity as an example.
Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com
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