Talking To Teens Through Literature

Hello, folks! My name is Lila and today I’m going to be discussing YA lit.

Today’s discussion is about talking to teens through literature. This discussion is partly inspired by Cait’s discussion of age and YA and partly inspired by the recent controversy concerning the adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code into a “teen novel.” Basically, a lot of people (readers, bloggers, and authors) in the YA community have been saying that teen novels don’t need to be watered down (i.e. teens aren’t dumb or naive). And before I get into this discussion, I want to say that I 100% agree. But the questions I’m asking here are, “How do adult books differ from YA in theme, content, and message?” and “How do we speak to teens through literature in an authentic way?”

Now, obviously, adult books differ from YA in that adult books generally contain more graphic sex and violence scenes than YA. I say generally because YA sometimes does include graphic sex and violence scenes and honestly I think that’s okay–as I mentioned before, teens aren’t dumb or naive, they know that sex and violence exist.

Then there’s the age issue. YA books generally have protagonists in the 14-18 age range. Generally. This is not a law, just a guideline. A YA book can have a younger or an older protagonist. There are many adult books which feature teen or child protagonists, despite the book being categorized as “adult” for the sake of content and message.

This brings me to my next point. What I really want to get at is the difference in tone, theme, and message that may exist between YA and adult books. Because, honestly, I think this is the biggest difference between YA and adult.

In my opinion, most YA books boil down to a main theme of finding yourself and discovering who you are in a very big, very chaotic world. Why do most YA books boil down to this theme? Because everyone’s teenage years are some of the biggest years of self discovery (in society’s opinion–I would argue that we are always discovering and rediscovering ourselves, which is why YA is so popular among all age demographics. But that’s a totally different topic).

Adults, on the other hand, are viewed by society as having already discovered themselves, meaning that their books boil down to different themes than the “self discovery” theme. It is not that teens are too stupid or naive to understand these varying themes. Rather, because teens are in a different stage of their lives, they may not find those themes as interesting or sympathetic.

This being said, I want to pose this question: “How do we speak to teens through literature in an authentic way?”Obviously, this is already being done, or YA books written by adults (or anyone, honestly) wouldn’t be so popular with actual teens. But I’m interested in how this is being done.

What do you think? What is the difference between YA and adult books? Is there a difference between YA and adult books in theme and message? How do we write authentic books for teens? What are some books with themes and messages that spoke to you as a teen?

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Lila is a 27-year-old college student studying physics and a lover of literature. When she's not busy reading or saving the world through science, Lila can be found singing jazz and blues and obsessing over hedgehogs (a.k.a. the cutest animals in the multiverse!)

8 thoughts on “Talking To Teens Through Literature

  1. I completely agree with you about the difference in tone. I also think that YA is tailer made for those who have been reading since they left the womb but also those who just picked up a book for recreational reading for the first time. Most adult lit is more for those who have had more experience reading. Of course there are exceptions for both but that’s always been my idea of it.

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    1. i never thought about the reading difference, but i guess it is generally true that if you pick up an adult book AS an adult, usually you do have already built up a love of reading! great thoughts!

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  2. Excellent post! I agree that we should not water down books for teens – I had no idea they were writing a teen Da Vinci Code! Bleh! I think you are right that the age of the protagonist distinguishes the genre as well as the fact that the self-discovery theme is more prevalent in YA than in adult, though some adult definitely has mid-life self-discovery too. I also think that a big factor is vocabulary level and type of experience – you won’t see any YA novels taking place in a corporate office or talking about going through a divorce – topics more relate-able to adults. You can certainly convey similar themes through different types of stories. Themes of the importance of friendship can be found across all genres and ages, it often depends on the setting or plot. Lots to discuss about this issue, but I’ll stop there, haha! Again, great post!

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    1. there definitely are universal themes that can be conveyed across a multitude of experiences, which is probably why cross age bracket reading is so popular (ie adults reading “teen” books and teens reading “adult” books). i never though about vocabulary level as a factor, but that definitely could be one of the differences.

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  3. As a teen I never read YA books, I just think the theme of ‘self discovery’ doesn’t have to be so blatant, you can discover parts of yourself in anything you read. I read books to broaden my mind, among other reasons, not necessarily because I want something to relate to, although I do find myself sympathising with characters in adult books, because human emotion has no age… I like this post though and your points are interesting, I think you’re right in the differences between the two

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