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Why I Made The Switch To Writing Young Adult Novels, by Catherine Ryan Hyde (guest article)

Don't Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I made the switch to Young Adult fiction before it was popular to do so. Before YA was seen as the last great frontier for fiction authors. The gold rush had not yet begun.

The most common question I was asked: “Why?” In a rather incredulous tone, as if I had just given myself a demotion. Just a couple of years later a tactless acquaintance asked if I was writing YA because my agent had told me to. It had already become that popular for authors to switch. But that’s not why I did.

I was looking for something that a woman in a bookstore once labeled, “The freedom to be sincere.” It was part of a search for where my writing truly belongs…which leads me to look more deeply into how much I know about where my writing belongs. That’s not a negative statement. It’s an acknowledgment of the simple fact that readers will determine who my readers will be. It’s not really my call.

Another question I’m often asked is, “How do you know what’s YA and what isn’t?” My answer? “In most instances, I don’t.”

Case in point, my novel Becoming Chloe was written for adults. And it had plenty of adult material in it, too. Only later, when I had written other YA novels, did I consider it might work for a younger audience. So I shortened it. I took out a couple of subplots that made it move at more of an adult pace. I did not make other changes. I didn’t remove the adult content, because it was not removable. It was essential to the story. (And I got very few complaints about it from the grownups who oversee YA fiction. Probably because it was essential to the story.) I didn’t change the tone or reading level, because, in my opinion, there’s no discernable difference between an adult and a teen reader in terms of reading level or sophistication. The difference seems to rest in issues of what themes are relevant to teen lives.

It helps to remind myself that when I was 14, my favorite book and movie was Midnight Cowboy, though my parents didn’t know it. That’s how I assess the reading level of a teen.

Perhaps an even better example of how little I/we know about the subject is my novel Chasing Windmills. I wrote it as YA, and presented it to my editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers. She liked it a lot. But she didn’t think it was YA. So I lengthened it by creating a second character viewpoint, that of Maria. Maria is 23, has two children, and lives (lived) with an abusive boyfriend. I figured going into her point of view would make the novel cleanly, undeniably adult. I presented it to my adult editor at Doubleday. Doubleday purchased and published the novel…which immediately crossed over to YA with a glowing review in School Library Journal. They labeled it High School through Adult.

So much for knowing the difference. But again, I don’t say that in a negative way. It’s taught me something. In general, we will always be a bunch of adults sitting around deciding what teens want to read. As such, we will often miss the mark. Even if the person reading this is a teen, you’re only one teen. Not every teen. And we all know that no two readers are alike.

The novel I just finished is probably coming-of-age literature for adults (though of course I could be wrong) despite the fact that my protagonist is 14 when the story begins, 17 when it ends. Her older friend is teaching her to fish, and he tells her that sometimes the fish are biting, other times they’re not. She wants to know how you judge the difference. He says, “By casting a baited hook into the water and seeing if they bite it. If there was a way of knowing before you left the house, and I knew it, I wouldn’t have had to work in a bank all my life. I’d have bottled the secret and sold it to fishermen all over the world. I’d be a rich man indeed.”

My suggestion is that, rather than sitting in the (figurative) house and deciding what teens want to – and should – read, we might give them access to tons of great literature. When we see what they pick up in large numbers, we’ll have our answer. And when we see what any teens pick up, no matter how small the numbers, we’ll have a broader answer that encompasses more than just your average teen.


Catherine Ryan Hyde’s author website:

Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of many novels, including the internationally bestselling Pay It Forward which became a film starring Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt.

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Becoming ChloeWhen You Were OlderDon't Let Me GoPay it Forward     Girl, StolenVibesThe Final Four

Writing Teen Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Really interesting post! It’s reassuring to hear that good stories find a market and readers. I like to hear that you don’t dumb down your writing for teens but only clarify the plot. The line between YA and adult fiction is blurring.

    January 26, 2013
  2. Love your post. I teach high school and have been thinking a lot about what kids read and why they like it. Interesting to think in your choice as a writer “the freedom to be sincere” may be a part of the answer. At least with the good literature they pick up anyway.

    January 26, 2013

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