Eric Gansworth started reading adult novels in middle school in the 1970s because he didn’t know that YA novels existed. “The adult novels I found tended to have at least one meaningfully realized adolescent character—the person I could identify with,” he says. “As a result of those influences, my work has long been about the ways young life shapes adult life. I always treated childhood and adolescence as meaningful and defining.” Gansworth’s 2020 YA memoir-in-verse, Apple (Skin to the Core), received the American Indian Youth Literature Award and a Printz Honor, and was longlisted for the National Book Award.
Young adulthood is formative and young adult literature is potent—changing alongside culture and society. It is exactly this dynamism of form and content that draws many writers to YA, Gansworth notes. PW spoke with Gansworth and seven other authors about why they write for teens.
Many YA authors bring their talents in other spheres to bear on their work. Tochi Onyebuchi writes fantasy and science fiction for young adults (and adults), as well as comics and video games. Writing across genres and audiences “reminds me that part of my mandate is to have fun, and not to take myself too seriously,” he says, especially when writing with young people in mind. “They are such intelligent readers. They’ll get every subtle, thematic thing you’re trying to do. While clarity is a governing principle in YA literature, I think we underestimate just how much young readers appreciate being challenged.” His most recent YA books—War Girls and Rebel Sisters—explore colonization, family, and the injustices of war in a futuristic Nigeria ravaged by climate change and nuclear disaster.
Riot Baby, Onyebuchi’s 2020 adult fiction debut, won an Alex Award, given by the American Library Association to 10 books written for adults that have special appeal for young adults. “Young readers are the same age as Kev and Ella in the ‘South Central’ and ‘Harlem’ sections of the book,” he says. “The things that happen to those characters are happening to some of our readers. It can be powerful to see not only yourself but your situation—which might otherwise be denigrated or outright ignored—reflected in a piece of fantastical fiction.”
Tiffany Jackson is well regarded not only for her novels, including her forthcoming thriller The Weight of Blood (HarperCollins/Tegen, Sept.), but also for her short stories and collaborative books. “I’m writing for kids who were just like me, looking for thrilling stories that they can see themselves in,” she says. “The challenge is keeping the stories fresh and relevant. The last thing you want is to be dragged by a kid for not knowing what high school is really like.”
Blackout, a novel in six stories, brought together six prominent Black YA authors: Jackson, Dhonielle Clayton, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. “I’m a long-winded writer, so condensing three acts, character development, and tension into just a few thousand words is difficult,” Jackson says. “I look up to short story, poetry, and picture book writers for that reason. But collaborating on a novel means there’s more cooks in the kitchen to help your meal come out perfect rather than doing it all alone. It takes off some of the pressure, and you can also learn from other brilliant authors in close environments.”
Apple (Skin to the Core) draws on Gansworth’s skills as a visual artist. He grew up a comics reader, during the period where the concept album was popular in rock music. Consequently, album art was created to complement the songs, and stage shows also augmented the experience. “My work owes a lot to those forms, as I was always excited by the interaction of forms, any time I encountered it,” he says. “When I was finishing the last revision of My Good Man”—his novel from Levine Querido coming this fall—“I worried this would be my first book in a long time with no images. Right as I finished, I suddenly started seeing the image. When a good idea delivers itself, I feel responsible to clear everything out, as much as I can, to serve the idea. That undoubtedly comes from my experiences in those other cross-genre forms and their lasting impact on my life as a creator.”
The YA authors we spoke with stress doing right by their readers; they emphasize radical honesty. “It isn’t easy to be honest on the page,” says Aminah Mae Safi, author of several YA romances. “And adults, as we see in so many of the recent book banning efforts, aren’t always going to thank you for telling that truth, either. But when you’ve written the truth and a young reader has felt seen, they write the best letters—about how they felt for once like they could be okay being whoever they are.”
Safi especially enjoys writing romance. “I love all forms of love,” she says. “There’s also something beautiful about writing stories in which young women aren’t sexual objects, but instead get to find their own sexual subjectivity. Teen sexuality is something we get very pearl-clutching about. It’s a real joy to put young women on the page who can fall in love and have ambitions and build their own sense of family and community and not have their sexuality be taboo for them. That’s a vulnerable place to be, both as a reader and as the writer.”
Anna-Marie McLemore is an author of magical realist YA novels, best known for their Stonewall Honor-winning When the Moon Was Ours. “I like writing magic that’s trying to get characters’ attention, to get them to address what’s gone unspoken or to notice what’s gone unseen,” they say.
Their forthcoming novel Self-Made Boys (Feiwel and Friends, Sept.), a remix of The Great Gatsby, is about what goes unsaid in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. “When Self-Made Boys was announced, I also found that a lot of readers were seeing what I was seeing [in Gatsby]: not only Nick’s longing for Gatsby, but the ways in which Gatsby seemed, to many of us, trans-coded,” they say. “Self-Made Boys became a conversation not only between me and the original Gatsby, but between The Great Gatsby and the communities I belong to, between that text and—to quote the original—the ‘gay and exciting things’ so many of us saw in those pages.”
F.T. Lukens, whose 2017 book The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths & Magic was a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Gold Winner for YA fiction, won the Bisexual Book Award for Speculative Fiction, and was included on ALA’s 2019 Rainbow Book List, is drawn to fantasy and speculative fiction because it gives them “the ability to create worlds with whatever elements I choose,” they say. “Be it magic or dragons or just a world without the prejudices many teens face as part of their daily lives. In spec fic, the only limit is your imagination.”
Their latest novel, So This Is Ever After, was born from a desire to write a romantic comedy and is a love letter to all the things they adore in fiction—romance tropes, fantasy, comedy, and role-playing games. “One of the big themes that runs through the novel is that people are so much more than the roles that society or the world would assign them, and that you don’t have to accept what people think you are or want you to be,” they say. “It’s humbling to think that a book that is geared toward a young person may help them feel less alone or bring them some joy or portray a situation or character in a way that allows them to see themselves reflected in media.”
New to form
Joanna Ho, author of the bestselling 2021 picture book Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, is making her YA debut this year: The Silence That Binds Us (HarperCollins, June) centers on high school student May, whose older brother has died by suicide. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Chen family faces racist accusations that they drove him to his death. “I love that everything is on the table in YA,” Ho says. “I loved being able to write about difficult ideas including suicide, racism, grief, and erasure without reframing through a more ‘age-appropriate’ lens. Teenagers live such complex lives with worlds within worlds, and it was exciting to explore characters experiencing trauma, love, healing, humor, family, friendship, and joy in the pages of one story.”
The shift from picture books to YA was intimidating at first, Ho says. “The idea of weaving together a long plot with setting and a host of characters seemed like an impossible task,” she explains. But Ho has worked in high schools for most of her career as an educator, so writing for this audience felt like a natural leap. “Young adults are wise, critical, passionate, hilarious, and full of dreams and hope,” she says. “They miss nothing and will call you on it in a heartbeat, and they are compassionate, insightful, and inspiring. I love pushing my own craft and art as a storyteller, and I still have so much to learn.”
Sayantani DasGupta, author of the popular Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond middle grade series, has also pivoted to YA in 2022. This spring’s Debating Darcy is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in the world of high school forensics. PW’s starred review called DasGupta’s YA debut “an astute, buoyant comedy of manners [that] employs witty, rat-a-tat dialogue alongside social commentary about subjects including classism, colorism, and sexism.”
DasGupta believes in the power of stories; this belief is reinforced by her experiences as a pediatrician and a professor of narrative medicine. “Stories heal; stories bring meaning to life; stories are good medicine,” she says. “When read at a young age, stories can also become incorporated into the building blocks of our personalities. They can scaffold our psyches, help us understand truths about ourselves and the world.”
She calls it a privilege to write for young readers, even if her academic colleagues think that writing for them is somehow less-than or not as serious as writing for adults. “I detest that,” she says. “What can be more important than writing for young people? Not only are they our future leaders, change makers, and teachers, they are pretty wonderful human beings right here and now.”
Switching gears from middle grade to YA required her to rethink voice and the sort of humor each age group demands. “I do enjoy a good middle grade snot joke, but my YA tends to be more witty, fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek humor,” she says. “And of course, there’s the kissing. My children really shamed me into making sure there was kissing. ‘You’re writing a rom-com, Mom,’ they scolded. ‘Of course there has to be kissing!’ ”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.