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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.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website:

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom    My Brother's ShadowGenesisA World Away

Writing Teen Novels

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for a great post, Elizabeth! You clarify so well what authors need to focus on if they are writing for young adults.
    I can also identify completely with your first paragraph. I too have never set out to write for teens. It just happens that my characters need to be young in order for me to write on the themes I care about.

    January 2, 2013
  2. ewein2412 #

    Thanks, Linda! I kind of feel like I am defending my own writing rather than giving direction to other writers. I often get asked about my books, “Why is this YA?” and I have had to think hard about what to answer!

    January 2, 2013
  3. Elizabeth, this was a really helpful post for writers, especially in the light of the New Adult vs Young Adult debate. I’d add that YA books tend to end with a sense of hope. Even tragic YA and dystopian YA tend to be less bleak than some adult books.

    WTN, this is a wonderful blog. I shall be back.

    January 3, 2013
    • ewein2412 #

      I actually prepared this blog post before Liz Burns tackled the New Adult thing on her School Library Journal blog, which you may have seen:


      I might have taken a slightly different slant on what I’ve said here if I’d taken the NA stuff into account. But I don’t really think so. I still feel like my fiction counts as YA.

      Your mention of tragic and dystopian YA having a sense of hope *really* calls to my mind THE ENNEAD by Jan Mark. It is a sci-fi dystopia that ends in the bleakest way possible, as I recall, with the two lead characters chained together and exiled into a desert land with no way back to their community and no tools with which to start a new life. And yet they have freed themselves from the evil constrictions of the community they are fleeing. I remember being amazed at how hopeful and triumphant I felt at the end of that book, despite the bleakness of the ending – and also how *cheated* I felt at the end of Cormier’s THE CHOCOLATE WAR, exactly the way I felt cheated at the end of Orwell’s 1984. Where’s the hope?

      I do think that tends to be a feature – there is hope for the soul if not the body.

      January 3, 2013
  4. Elizabeth, yes, I did read Liz Burns’s NA posts. Somehow I found this earlier blog post via twitter afterwards. To me these labels are marketing categories. I believe it’s the agent’s or publisher’s job to decide where a book fits. I’m hoping the success of Code Name Verity will encourage others to broaden the YA genre, while focusing on the story, but not as a marketing gimmick. NA imprints might also encourage others to write more stories for 18-25 year olds.

    Yes, what made both 1984 (and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ihisguro) so hard to read was the death of hope in the end. Still, they were fabulous books. I read 1984 in high school but was aware that it was an adult book.

    I was puzzled by why the NYT article focused so much on sex in NA vs YA since violence, moral message, horror and hope all factor into what makes a book more appropriate for teens vs. adults. Writing style can factor too.

    Anyway, I’m more interested in reading what you write next than how others might classify it.

    January 3, 2013
  5. I confess I don’t think a lot about how it’s going to be classified while I’m writing it!

    I think the remark about sex is totally fatuous. There are plenty of YA books that include the discovery of sex – THE FAULT IN OUR STARS springs to mind this year, as does LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM. Both books handle the issue with sensitivity, lyricism and a touch of humor. The sex portrayed is not in the least lascivious and I certainly haven’t heard ANYONE say, “Oh, he or she is too young to read TFiOS, it has sex in it.”

    Sometimes I think these people say this stuff just to watch all the writers go “WHAT WHAT WHAT!!!!” and then they can laugh at us. (But I am also the person who thought an online petition supporting the idea of arming classroom teachers was meant as a sarcastic dig at the NRA. So I am maybe not the best judge!)

    It’s always great to hear someone’s interesting in reading my next book!

    January 3, 2013
    • Yes, an eager reader is waiting so I won’t distract you with further discussion. Write on. My favorite FB meme was: put a teacher in every gun store. I don’t blame you for moving to Scotland. If only all of this real world violence were fiction…

      January 3, 2013
  6. hah, I hadn’t seen that meme. very good.

    We moved to Scotland in 2000… only 4 years after the Dunblane massacre, in which a bunch of 2nd graders were shot, which ushered in the UK’s handgun ban. Dunblane is about 20 miles from us. It was still quite raw when we moved here and the events in CT have re-opened those wounds a little, but you are so right – I sit here going, thank GOD my kids live in a place where they don’t have to worry about being shot in their schoolroom. (And, incidentally, in a place where we don’t have to pay for their braces or glasses or appendectomies.) There are certainly plenty of “cons” to being here but the “pros” are pretty epic.

    But yes, real world violence as opposed to fiction? I think this is why I don’t write fantasy, although I do enjoy reading it and my short stories often venture in the direction of fantasy. I feel like the potential for harm in *this* world needs pointing up, and that’s part of my job.

    I will go get back to work now and do my job! 😀

    January 4, 2013

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