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Writing Teen Novels With Timeless Appeal, by Diane Lee Wilson

I Rode A Horse Of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson - California novelist

Lists of “favorite teen novels” usually include several “hot” titles that will only be lukewarm in another few years and may eventually drop off new favourite lists completely. Yet decades can go by and one finds that certain teen titles continue to claim a spot on these lists of favorites. What makes a teen novel timeless rather than trendy?

I’m fortunate to be good friends with Patty Campbell, a career librarian, author, and critic, and well-known champion of young adult literature. She is the 2001 recipient of the ALAN award given by the National Council of Teachers of English for “outstanding contributions to the field of adolescent literature” and the 1989 recipient of the Grolier award given by the American Library Association for “distinguished service to young adults and reading.” I decided to seek her opinion on what makes certain teen novels transcend time.

Her initial answer to my question was, “A timeless young adult novel is one that is in touch with the times; it’s the right book for the time.” She mentioned Forever by Judy Blume as a novel that meets those criteria. Published in 1975, Blume’s novel deals quite openly with teen sexuality, and some 35 years later is still a target of censorship. “With the sexual awakening that was taking place in America in the 70s,” says Patty, “the book was perfect for opening that taboo topic to teens. It got them talking. I think that’s another characteristic of a timeless novel: it marks a significant change in history.”

Campbell went on to ponder the possibility that a teen novel of sufficient literary quality and critical praise will enshrine it for posterity, and concludes otherwise. While she agreed that skillful writing is preferable to the opposite, she believes that, “Literary quality alone is not necessarily enough, nor is winning awards.” She laughed then, adding, “And teacher acceptance is certainly not an indicator of a classic,” mentioning a few “teacher’s favorite” titles and shaking her head. “Awful.”

Ultimately, she said, a timeless teen novel “has to have that quality that kids take to their hearts.” She brought up S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published back in 1967. Upon its 40th anniversary, a review in the New York Times by author Dale Peck acknowledged the book’s “sometimes workmanlike prose” but went on to say that not only did The Outsiders change the way young adult fiction was written, it “changed the way teenagers read as well, empowering a generation to demand stories that reflected their realities.” Patty concurred. “Although it was published so many years ago, this book resonates with kids even today. My own grandson fell in love with it and couldn’t wait to talk about it with me. A timeless book seems to be a rite of passage for its readers; it marks a certain level of maturity, a broader understanding of how the world works.”

I know my own daughter encountered that novel only a few years ago and was moved by it. Having missed it during my own adolescence, I sat down to read it, too, and enjoyed it, finding it fast-paced and believable. The story definitely had an authenticity to it, which is understandable since the author was still in her teens when she wrote it.

“A timeless novel,” said Patty at the end of our conversation,“is all about making that connection with the reader. It’s about fine writing and touching something in kids, reaching the young adult heart.”

Here’s to writing that novel that resonates with the teens of today… and tomorrow!


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Writing Teen Novels

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