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Why I Write YA

In two weeks I’ll be turning my (first-ever!) YA novel in to the publisher… I can’t even tell you how nervous I am. Also excited! So excited! I can’t stand how much I love this book, and much of that is because I loved writing it. It’s also about sisters and I absolutely adore my baby sister, which is surely being channeled into the book. I won’t deny it’s been hard—I’m struggling right now over a new version of the final chapter—but oh how worth it. There’s something about YA novels—all these amazing books coming out right now—that makes me know this is just where I want to be.

Why did I give up on wanting to write for adults? For me, the choice was easy.

These YA novels say why.

The possibility:

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.


The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Like Kizzy.

—from Lips Touch by Laini Taylor

The guts:

She goes back downstairs and gets on the phone again. She talks in a low, nervous voice. Terrible accident. Terrible. Terrible.

The thoughts in my head echo her words. It’s over. Over.

Each time she says Leah’s name, I get pulled back there, to the time when Leah and I were still best friends. The feelings come rushing into my chest. I try to shake my head. Swallow. Push them back down. Strengthen the mortar and rebuild my wall. But I see us anyway. One scene after another. Leah, always the leader, teaching me the complicated rules about trust and secrets and what it means to be her best friend. There were so many hard lessons. But what good are they now? What good are lessons from a dead girl?

—from Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

The memory:

“Here,” she says.

“What?” I say.

“Eat it.”

I lick her finger and it is salty.

“Am I supposed to swallow it?”

“Just let it dissolve.”

“Where are we going now?”

“James’s house.”

I say “Shit,” and it sounds ridiculous coming out of my mouth.

“You look good,” Alex says. “Don’t worry. He already wants you.”

She walks fast and I try to keep up, but I am dizzy with “he wants you.”

It is good that she’s so far ahead, that she can’t see the stupid smile on my face.

“It’s only about a mile,” she says, and we don’t talk until we get there.

We walk along the lake, on the sidewalk made for joggers and mothers with strollers. It’s strange how different the shore is here, all perfect and straight. Instead of sharp rocks, instead of seaweed and barnacles and other live things, this beach is flat and sandy and barren, marked only with goose crap and the occasional piece of litter.

Here I am with the first friend I’ve had in forever. Here I am on my way to meet a boy who wants me. My life on the island is over. I have a new face and a new body and new clothes. I have a new friend and nothing will ever be the same again.

—from Beautiful by Amy Reed

The truth:

My stepfather was right:

It did feel like sun worship, tanning in the backyard.

With my eyes closed but my gaze held up to that enormous burning globe, I could hear my own heartbeat (I am, I am) and I could feel the sweat at my pulse points, the way the water inside my body boiled before it rose to the surface and evaporated. “You’re going to be a wrinkled-up old lady with skin cancer,” my mother would warn me, as I stood in front of the full-length mirror in the hallway looking over my shoulder to study my tan lines. “Your skin will be leather by the time you’re forty.”

But we both knew I didn’t care. It didn’t matter.

Forty? Who ever imagined I’d someday be forty?

I was seventeen, with a perfect tan.

—from Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

The moment:

Hallowell High: The parking lot pulses with scantily clad life, and I’m in the middle of it all, wearing a sweater. My scraggly black hair is plastered to my forehead, and a couple people point and stare at me because I look that ridiculous, but I don’t care. I’m still better than them. It’s not hard. Hallowell is one of those in-between towns, stuck between a city and another city, and everyone here knows everyone else. It’s too small for a social landscape more complicated than this: You’re either someone or you’re not.

I’m someone.

I’m Regina Afton. I’m Anna Morrison’s best friend. These aren’t small things, and Kara’s right: They’re worth keeping my mouth shut for. So I kept my mouth shut the whole weekend, and I’m still Regina Afton and I’m still Anna Morrison’s best friend. Friday never happened.

—from Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers

The heart:

An old guy in a snowflake cardigan sits next to me. My hand is now half full of wooden strips. I feel him watching but I can’t stop. I want to say, What are you staring at? It’s hot, it’s June, and you’re wearing a Christmas sweater.

“Do you need help, darling?” the old guy asks. His mustache is wispy and white.

Without looking from the bench, I shake my head. No.

He takes a cell phone from his pocket. “Would you like to use my phone?”

My heart beats off rhythm and it makes me cough.

“May I call your mother?”

Ingrid has blond hair. She has blue eyes, which means that even though her father’s eyes are brown, he must have a recessive blue-eye gene.

A bus nears. The old guy stands, wavers.

“Darling,” he says.

He lifts his hand as if he’s going to pat my shoulder, but changes his mind.

My left hand is all the way full of wood now, and it’s starting to spill over. I am not a darling. I am a girl ready to explode into nothing.

—from Hold Still by Nina LaCour

The chills:

Once upon a time, I did not live in Shady Pines.

Once upon a time, my name was not Alice. Once upon a time, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

—from Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

The damage:

This is the thing: Pacifica is a stupid small town with only one real high school, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and the rumors never stop until some other kid is dumb enough to do something that makes a better story. But my story had the honor of holding the top spot for over two years running. I mean, a senior getting caught with his pants down on top of an eighth-grade girl, by the girls’ father (“No way! Her father? I’d just kill myself!”) was pretty hard to beat. That story had been told in hallways and locker rooms and parties and the back of classrooms since Tommy first came to school the morning after it happened. At which time he gave all the details to his friends, even though he knew it meant my brother, Darren, would kick his ass. (He did.) By the time I got to Terra Nova for ninth grade, the whole school already thought they knew everything there was to know about Deanna Lambert. Every time someone in school saw my face, I knew they were thinking about it. I knew this because every time I looked in the mirror, I thought about it, too.

—from Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

The cool:

It feels like everything should be different now. I don’t know how, exactly. Maybe, like, crackling sparks of divine energy should be shooting out from me in every direction. Something. I should be glowing with some kind of heavenly halo. An actual, literal aura of coolness. That is, if guys can have halos. Halos might be a chick thing.

Anyway. You get my point. I mean, I’m in a band now. So punk rock, right?

—from So Punk Rock by Micol Ostow

The beauty:

The dress itched a little. I suddenly felt awkward. For one thing, it looked really stupid with sneakers. But more than that, I guess it was because of what I wanted: I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to be like Francie, and I knew that I never, ever could. Standing there, in front of someone so different from me, in that ridiculous dress, I was revealing all of my stupidest ambitions.

But Francie was looking up at me from the bed with a dazzled smile.

“You should see yourself,” she said. “I mean, you should really see yourself. You look like a different person. You look amazing.”

And then I did see myself, like from far away, like from an airplane at night, and she was right. Somewhere in the glittering grid of the suburbs, I was there, in Francie’s bedroom, and I was glowing through it all. The brightest light. I was beautiful. Anyone could have seen it.

—from The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison

The miracles:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

—from Paper Towns John Green

(Also it may have something to do with how I’m perpetually fifteen, seventeen, or thirteen, depending on my mood and how stubborn I’m feeling about not cleaning my room or eating vegetables, but that’s just me—I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables; try to make sense of that.)

I could go on and add more excerpts. But I shouldn’t; I have to finish my own draft. DUE SO VERY SOON!

There’s just so much to read. Have any amazing, must-read YA novels to share? Slip them into the comments. On my to-read pile you’ll find Going Bovine by Libba Bray and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins and Chasing Brooklyn by Lisa Schroeder and After by Amy Efaw and Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margie Stohl, too… and once I’m done with the draft I’m diving in.

22 thoughts on “Why I Write YA

  1. Wow, so nice to be included with such amazing writers. You’ve just upped my to be read pile. I’m currently reading an ARC of The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. Everyone must read!

    • I am dying to read THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE… I keep hearing whispers about it. Must read.

      And thank you so much for being an inspiration to me, Micol!

  2. FABULOUS post, Nova! I will second BEAUTIFUL CREATURES to bump it up in your TBR pile. One of the best YAs I’ve read this year! And OMG I am an aspiring vegetarian who ALSO doesn’t like vegetables! Good to know it CAN be done!😉

    • Emily, it CAN be done… though you will have to eat vegetables sometimes! My husband has been known to puree them up in the blender and hide them in food to get me to eat them, but sometimes you have to be a little creative😉

      I can’t wait to read BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.

  3. Great post subject (and one which I fully intend to co-opt in the future).
    I write and read YA because although I am far from being a teen anymore I think that the genre covers a diverse, exciting and timely range of subjects in a truthful way. I still enjoy good adult literature but ever since I started reading YA I have read less of it mostly because I haven’t had the need. All the big human themes are covered and addressed in YA : Love, Betrayal, Lust, Friendship, Hatred, Ignorance, Prejudice, Intolerance, it’s all in there.
    By the way I used that same gorgeous quote from “Lips Touch” in my last workshop, “Teens writing YA”.

    • Jo, I agree: it’s all in there. And that quote from LIPS TOUCH floors me every time I read it… it’s so gorgeous. Hope the writers in your workshop thought so too!

  4. Also, Going Bovine and Hunger Games were both excellent (as is Catching Fire, the sequel to HG). I’m just finishing up Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver and I have Beautiful Creatures on my TBR pile along with Cassie Clare’s City Of Ashes, Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, Malinda Lo’s Ash, and Susannah Appelbaum’s Poisons of Caux (although that last one might be middle-grade, but hey I love MG books too!).

  5. Great post Nova! YA RULES!
    My recommendations:

    Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (and Speak by the same author)
    Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
    Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (if you’re not easily shocked…)

    • Cat, I forgot to mention WINTERGIRLS! I loved that book, too. I haven’t read ELSEWHERE yet, I can’t believe it. How did I miss that one?

      I’m definitely not easily shocked. So I’ll check out TENDER MORSELS for sure.

      Thanks so much for the recs!

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  7. THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher and one that you mentioned STORY OF A GIRL by Sarah Zarr are two of my latest models of inspiration.

    But my true blue, heart and soul reasons for writing are real girls with real pain. No one should ever feel alone. Teens are undervalued and under-served. Though I won’t be able to reach them all…Pheobe Prince is exactly the type of girl I am speaking of. She was 14 and allegedly committed suicide as a result of bullying. She is not the first in Western Ma and I’m sure won’t be the last.


    Depression and suicide are not easy to talk about. But it’s time we did.

    • Thank you so much for the link about Phoebe Prince. I agree that real stories for real girls are such an essential motivation for writing YA. Thank you, Loretta, for sharing this.

  8. For me, it was a natural fit with my voice… I had many people say, “This is just so… fun!” And then they’d scowl like “fun” had no place in literature (or Hulk Hogan for that matter.) I’m pretty sure I said it before, but I scoffed when my wife put LOOKING FOR ALASKA in front of me. But that book (and all the ones I’ve read since) solidified my decision to write “fun” books.

    But it’s more than just a natural fit, I think. It’s the sense of urgency and passion that teens have for the stuff that gets them excited. How they’re willing to do the most stupid things in order to achieve whatever they’re after. How they fall in love with sparkly vamp–

    Wait. Nevermind.

  9. Thanks for mentioning Beautiful! And thanks for the great topic. I have a couple of favorite quotes about this. I forget where I read this, but Lisa McMann said something along the lines of “I write for teens because I want them to know someone gives a damn about them.” I love that. I read somewhere about an interview with Sherman Alexie where a reporter was giving him grief for writing YA after such a distinguished career of writing “real” literature. In response, Alexie said (pardon his French), “YA is just like Adult fiction, except without all the bullshit.” I think that sums it up perfectly.

    I write YA because, in my opinion, the world of teenagers is the most fascinating and exciting world there is. Teenagers are more honest in their emotions, and the stakes are always high. So as a writer, they are really the most fun to write. More than that, however, writing for teens feels personally important to me. YA writers have the power to really make a difference in the lives of their readers, especially when writing about difficult subject matter. I like Loretta’s response about writing about depression and suicide. I feel the same about my work. I aim to write the kind of books I wished were around when I was a teen. Hopefully someone out there will feel less alone, and maybe it will start important discussions between teens and the adults in their lives.

    • Amy, Wow, thank you for commenting. I love BEAUTIFUL!

      And your explanation of why you write YA is incredible… and truly perfect. Thank you for writing it here.

  10. Pingback: YA Inspiration « Jo Treggiari/Feltus Ovalton blog

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