Finding Authenticity In YA? Harder Than You Think

This post was inspired by YA Misfits “Ask a Teen” Twitter chats.  As an eighteen-year-old college student and literary agency intern, I have the opportunity to read excessive amounts of  YA fiction and submitted YA manuscripts.  And I find, that generally the depiction of young adults does not ring true with modern high school and tends to lean on Hollywood stereotypes found in film, television and advertising.  Generally, those stereotypes consist of teenagers behaving like hedonistic adults or angst-driven youth restricted by a high school caste-system.

If you’ve ever seen a show like Gossip Girl, where the teenagers run around Manhattan ordering drinks at bars and attending glamorous parties, or Glee, where there’s a rigid caste system of jocks, cheerleaders, and the losers who are “slushied,” than you’ve seen these stereotypes.  Below, you will find just a few of the more prevalent stereotypes alongside their actuality.

Expectation One: Defined Cliques

Reality: Everyone has friends in different social groups.

I see a lot of manuscripts that spend a few paragraphs detailing the social hierarchy of a high school, with the stereotypical “It” girls at their lunch table in the center of the cafeteria, the popular jocks whose elevators don’t reach the top floor, and all the other cliques—“goths” (note: that word is outdated. Most teens would say “emo.”), nerds, and general outsiders—in their pre-ordained places High School Musical or Mean Girls style.

This is not completely accurate. Sure, there are kids that are more popular than others, and friends form groups that share common interests, but for the most part, everyone has friends in other “cliques.”

The Breakfast Club

What’s changed? Well, the typical nerds with two left feet, glasses, who all their time in the chemistry lab just don’t make the cut any more when it comes to getting into their dream colleges. Unless they’re interning for NASA or cooking up the cure for the common cold, college admissions counselors expect more well-rounded students, kids who can play an instrument, a sport, involve themselves in extracurriculars, leadership roles, and hold a job. Instead of the typical nerd or jock, you get the over achiever who is captain of the field hockey team, president of the Student Council, maintains a 4.00 GPA, and parties hard on the weekends (or not).

Another reason for a change is that going against the crowd is the new definition of “cool.” This creates a whole population of hipsters and hipster wannabees. They search for obscure music on the Internet, steer clear of stores like American Eagle and Abercrombie and Fitch, and opt for “indie” over pop culture. These characters are not so visible in YA literature even though they compose a major portion of teens. Many of the “cool” kids come from this kind of crowd.

Expectation: All teens drink, smoke and have sex.

Reality: Some do. Most don’t.

Drinking: As far as alcohol is concerned, teens can usually be split into three groups. The first group are the frequent partiers who get drunk a few times a month. The second group has tried alcohol once or twice but doesn’t drink regularly. The last group has never tied alcohol. By far, I’ve found the highest groups to be the second and third. The perception that teens get drunk every weekend is overly-emphasized thanks to group number one.

Smoking: Smoking marijuana is much more common than cigarettes. Everyone knows the health dangers of tobacco, so when teenagers refer to “smoking” just as a general word, they usually mean marijuana. Again, as far as smokers are concerned, there are the three groups, though fewer teens have tried smoking than alcohol.

Remember when children were treated like children? Good times…

Sex: Statistics report that somewhere between 33-50% of high school students are sexually active. Yet it is a common trend in YA books, if not for the main character, for the protagonist’s best friend to have had sex with multiple partners, for the love interest to have sex before that “wasn’t important,” and for random hookups to be a thing. Sure, these happen, but they just aren’t as prevalent as books make them out to be. And teens are more educated about sexual health than adults think.

Overall, I’ve found that many manuscripts describe high schools as microcosms of American society populated by mature, sophisticated mini-adults who speak as if they are characters in a literary novel.  While this re-imagining of young adults makes for great stories, it does not read as authentic by the youthful readership for which it was meant.

A book that gets it right? In general, I find John Green’s relationships and characters to be fantastic, particularly in The Fault In Our Stars.