Why I Write for Young Adults

29 Dec

by Julie Eshbaugh


Today is my birthday, *throws confetti* so I thought that, instead of a typical “Julie post” centering on a specific writing technique, I would post a more philosophical post (what I tend to think of as a “Savannah post” ;D) about why I write Young Adult fiction. My birthday seemed a proper occasion to discuss the reasons why a writer who has moved beyond her own “young adulthood” might continue to write about characters in their teens. Tucked in with my “reasons why” are a few “reasons why not.” In other words, YA isn’t for everyone. In explaining why I continue to write for young adults, maybe I can help other writers see why YA might be right – or wrong – for them.

Reason #1 – Teen Protagonists Rock

Why are teen protagonists so fabulous? I could list dozens of reasons, but here are my favorite characteristics of teens, in no particular order:

• They are still discovering who they are. They can do something incredible and not seem to be acting out of character, or be going against everything that has defined them for the past ten years.
• They aren’t jaded yet. They may think they are, but their ideas are still flexible. Compare your favorite teen hero to his or her parent to see what I mean. Katniss did things in THE HUNGER GAMES that her mother could never have done. Well, maybe her mother could have done those things, before she’d been broken by life. In other words, back when she, herself, was a teenager.
• Teenagers are resilient. Their young bodies bounce back. If Haymitch survived some of the physical challenges Katniss survived, the writer might lose some credibility. Imagine Dumbledore in Harry’s place and I’m sure you can see what I mean.
• One of the universal truths of humanity is that we all started out young and naïve. We all were children once. We all were teenagers. The experience of seeing the world through young eyes is universal.

Reason #2 – I LOVE teenagers

This is a pretty important reason to me, and should be considered carefully by any writer beyond their own young adulthood before deciding to write for young adults. If you don’t truly enjoy the company of teenagers, I think you should reconsider if this is the audience you should write for. There are a lot of adults who feel they have something to “teach” teenagers. Those adults should consider ways other than YA novels to reach out to young people. Teenagers are smart. They know if they are being preached to or if the book they are reading is meant to deliver a moral lesson. YA editors recognize these “lessons” disguised as “fiction” too, and reject them. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that a book shouldn’t have meaning. But there is a difference between a story with meaning and a sermon written as a story.

Personally, I know I love teenagers because I’ve been working as a mentor for teens for about twelve years now. My favorite hour of my week is the hour I spend with about fifteen teenagers. I also know that not everyone my age feels this way. That’s understandable. Young adults invigorate some people; others they drain. Keep this in mind if you want to write YA. If you can’t imagine yourself spending time with your characters and their friends, then maybe you should write for a different audience.

Reason #3 – I choose to read YA books

I don’t read YA exclusively. My favorite genre to read is YA, followed closely by literary fiction. However, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite non-YA books have teenaged protagonists. The action of ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan is set in motion by an event that involved young adult characters. LOLITA by Nabokov involves a young girl and her complex relationship with an adult man. CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE LOVELY BONES revolve around teenagers, even though they are not generally seen as YA novels. I count all of these books among my favorites.

But the truth is, when I walk into a bookstore, I head straight for the Young Adult section. My favorite books of 2010 were THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. I absolutely devoured them, and I know that they will forever remain near the top of my “favorite books of all time” list. Though it sometimes may be unpopular to admit this, I truly enjoyed the TWILIGHT saga. I recently read THE POISON DIARIES by Maryrose Wood (a book that really deserved more attention than it received) and wondered, as I closed the last page, how I would endure the wait for the next installment. Add the realistic worlds of books by writers like Laurie Halse Anderson to the sci-fi/fantasy worlds of writers like Suzanne Collins, and there is nothing my literary appetite craves that can’t be found in the YA section of the bookstore.

So these are my personal reasons for writing YA. My husband says the true reason is that I have never stopped being a teenager. Sadly, I know that isn’t true. But it is true that I have never forgotten what it feels like to be a teenager. And I hope that by reading and writing YA, I never will forget.

Long live my teenaged self! Because “young Julie” was flexible, unafraid, resilient, and unjaded. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep young Julie’s spirit alive inside “not-so-young Julie.” If reading and writing Young Adult fiction have contributed to that, may I NEVER EVER stop!

Do you write for young adults? Are you still in that age group yourself? Do you know that the adult market is the only market for you? What about middle grade or children’s? Please share your opinions with me in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.



36 Responses to “Why I Write for Young Adults”

  1. Carol Riggs December 29, 2010 at 1:37 AM #

    Hey, happy birthday, Julie!!! Hope you had a delightful one. I commented on your abbreviated post on your other site too, but I just have to say, this is my FAVE line:

    Long live my teenaged self!

    That is so great. I totally agree, and even though my body may be 50 this year (eek!), I always will keep that teenaged mind, and can let it out to play in my YA novels. I almost exclusively read YA novels, or novels with teen characters.

    • Savannah J. Foley December 29, 2010 at 9:26 AM #

      That’s my favorite line, too! I love how Julie kept her teen spirit alive. I’m kind of terrified of losing mine.

      • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 11:24 AM #

        Savannah, you will never lose that spirit because you are a writer, and what I know about you tells me that you observe and remember as much of your experiences as possible. I doubt you will ever forget what it feels like to be young! 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 11:22 AM #

      Hey Carol! To think, I almost cut that line for fear it was too corny! But it is true in a lot of ways. Somehow the thoughts and feelings of those years soaked into me and I’ve never let them go. Sounds like the same thing happened to you. Isn’t it great to never have to lose that?

  2. Myra December 29, 2010 at 1:45 AM #

    I don’t like teenagers much, but since I am one, I write YA. I wonder if I’ll stop writing YA once I become an adult? (If that ever happen, haha.)

    Also–happy birthday! It’s my sister’s birthday too. 🙂 She’s turning the, ahem, Bitter Sixteen. That’s what I like to call it, if it gives you any indication of how much I like the teenage years. :p They are fun to write about, though.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 11:28 AM #

      LOL Myra, you are so funny! I don’t think I always liked being a teen while I was one, either! There’s a duality to it; you’re old enough to do a lot, but not old enough (in the eyes of the world, at least,) to do everything and anything. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t look back someday and smile a little at how much you hated it. 😉 Thanks for commenting!

  3. CA Marshall December 29, 2010 at 5:15 AM #

    Happy birthday!! ❤

  4. Savannah J. Foley December 29, 2010 at 9:27 AM #

    Thanks for the shoutout, Julie. I do tend to get a wee bit philosophical, don’t I? ❤

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 11:55 AM #

      Ah Savannah! I wondered how you would react to that. I was specifically thinking of your post about dealing with the reality that you would not be published as a teenager. I found that post so moving. I don’t have the courage you have to put my soul into a post; I’m too much of a coward. But I do enjoy reading your more philosophical posts! I’m glad you appreciated the shoutout! 🙂

  5. Ashley December 29, 2010 at 12:01 PM #

    Hey Julie, great post!

    I’m turning 18 this June, and this was a very reflective post for me. I don’t always like being a teen, but I’ll always like and remember our spirit! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 12:14 PM #

      Hey Ashley, I know just what you mean! It’s the spirit of teenagers that makes them so great to be around. I think a lot of adults expect young people to be negative and fearful of the future. My experience has always been just the opposite! Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  6. Ellen December 29, 2010 at 12:19 PM #

    I write for young adults, but not exclusively. It’s actually kind of ironic. I’m not a teenager anymore, and the book I’m writing is YA. When I was sixteen, seventeen, the book I was writing was an adult novel. I think I’ll just continue to go one working with whatever my new idea is at the time. That’s the best way for me–personally–to do it.

    Great post, though. Really made me think.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 12:25 PM #

      Hey Ellen! It’s fascinating how you’ve noticed a pattern of writing for an age group other than your own! But I appreciate the point you make – that the project comes first, then the age group of the audience. That’s a very credible way to approach writing and I appreciate you bringing it up. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  7. Ella December 29, 2010 at 12:36 PM #

    I guess I’m a little bit odd – I’m a teenager who writes adults. XD;; That means it’s harder for me to identify with my protagonists, but it also gives me more to work with. Teens are free spirits, yes – but sometimes they lack experience, and wisdom, and the ability to see things bigger than themselves.

    Teens tend to get swept into the story by forces they can’t control. Adults are the ones who make the prophecy, or assassinate the president, or start the war. Teens get plot-device parents who are often offed to get them out of the picture; adults get children and husbands and lovers and enemies and relationships outside of “sassy best friend” / “love interest.” Teens are limited by the fact that they don’t have a lot of years to fall back on. There’s not much you can do with one if you want a doctor, or a spy, or a con artist or a federal agent.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love writing characters in my own age group. I do it all the time. But that flexibility also comes with its own restraints – and as much as I enjoy YA, I feel like like a lot of it relies on Great and Terrible things (love, destiny, talents, problems) falling into the protagonist’s laps.

    Maybe it’s just that I read too much fantasy; I think it’s more prevalent there than in contemporary YA (which I admit I don’t read much of – honestly, guys, high school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. >3>)

    • Ella December 29, 2010 at 12:39 PM #

      Oh! I almost forgot. >_>; Happy Birthday, Julie! We love you!

      • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 1:24 PM #

        Awww! Thanks Ella! 😀

        • Ashley December 29, 2010 at 2:12 PM #

          Right almost forgot: HAPPY BIRTHDAY JULIE!!!! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 1:23 PM #

      Hey Ella! All of these are great points, and, actually, are very similar to the points my husband likes to make when he tells me why he would always prefer adult to YA literature. You are definitely correct when you say that teen characters can be limited, but I do think that a teen character could be a spy or a con artist, though maybe not a doctor or a federal agent. 😉

      Thanks for the comment! Good luck with your writing!

  8. Brandi December 29, 2010 at 12:41 PM #

    I’ve recently jumped to my mid-twenties but I am so a YA writer. Mostly because of what reading YA did for me growing up. I love teenagers – their overactive hormones make them so passionate, giving me plenty of fodder for my books.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 1:28 PM #

      I agree with both points Brandi! The books I read as a teen really had a big impact on me, but YES, teen hormones do help keep the passion in the story!!! 😉

  9. Aya Tsintziras December 29, 2010 at 12:50 PM #

    Happy Birthday Julie! Amazing post, I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 1:25 PM #

      Thanks Aya!!! I’m glad you liked the post!

  10. TymCon December 29, 2010 at 2:58 PM #

    Happy B-day! 9second time i’ve said that to someone today) Very interesting. I think I might do I why I write fantasy on my blog…if that’s not like copying.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 3:01 PM #

      LOL Tim I would LOVE to read your Why I Write Fantasy post so definitely DO IT! And thanks for the b-day wishes! 🙂

  11. Theresa Milstein December 29, 2010 at 2:58 PM #

    Happy birthday!

    I agree with this entire post. It’s why I read and write a lot of YA.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 3:01 PM #

      Thanks Theresa! Always great to have people agreeing with me. 😉 Glad you liked it.

  12. Martha Ramirez December 29, 2010 at 3:45 PM #

    Great post! I LOVE YA. Love reading it. Love writing it. There is just something about it that draws me into it.
    Happy writing!!
    Yay YA!!!!

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 3:47 PM #

      Hey Martha! I loved your comment – Yay YA!!! 🙂

  13. Brenda Agaro December 29, 2010 at 4:17 PM #

    Before I called myself a YA writer, I was unconsciously writing for the target audience. Back then I just want to tell stories. I like reading adult books, but the majority are YA (definitely the type to head for the YA section in libraries/bookstores.)

    There’s no way I could write an adult book (maybe one day.) The themes and concepts I’ve explored so far seems more fitting for YA, like something I would want to read when I was younger.

    I totally agree with reason number one! From my view, I find teens to be more active than adults. When involved in non-profit organizations, protests, etc. the majority of volunteers in my area were under twenty-one. I actually find it inspiring.

    And Happy Birthday today! 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 29, 2010 at 4:29 PM #

      Thanks Brenda! And YES to what you say about the volunteering and activism! So much energy and still idealistic. *sigh*

  14. Madeleine December 30, 2010 at 1:09 PM #

    Great post!

    I *am* still a teen (I turned 15 at the end of October), but I have an odd sort of feeling that I’ll feel the urge/the call/what have you to write YA novels for a long while – And there’s no doubt whatsoever that I’ll keep reading.

    The interesting thing, however, is that it wasn’t until this past year that I started reading them. Before that, I had jumped from children’s (never read much of those anyway, as I could barely read until I was 7 or 8) to adult literature. I scorned YA, primarily because it seemed silly. (You have to admit some of the synopses – even to fantastic books – sound a bit corny.)

    And then, somehow, somewhere along the line, I started reading YA. And then writing it. And I love it. It’s okay for the characters to make mistakes – It’s okay for the characters to make the same mistakes TWICE – because, at the end of the day, all their rights and wrongs lead them toward better versions of themselves. They can bounce back. (At least that’s what happens in the better books.)

    YA is promising. It’s characters are promising. When done right, YA is remarkably inspiring and hopeful.

    • Julie Eshbaugh December 30, 2010 at 1:19 PM #

      Hey Madeleine! Thanks for the comment! That comment is so beautifully written, it could be a post in itself! I just jumped over to your blog. I hope to read more of your insight into reading and writing there. 🙂

  15. Vanessa Di Gregorio March 7, 2011 at 11:18 PM #

    AHHH Julie! I can’t believe I missed this post (I was a bit MIA during Dec and Jan).

    This was such a great post. I’d actually been meaning to write a post on why I write genre – specifically, fantasy. I don’t like to think that I only write fantasy (I do have a historical adult WIP that has been shelved for quite some time), but my passion truly lies in creating fantastical worlds. And my other passion lies in YA – and I completely agree with you, you need to be able to relive your teenage years and enjoy being around teens in order to write for them.

    Great post Julie. And Happy Super-Belated Birthday! ❤

    • Julie Eshbaugh March 8, 2011 at 7:32 AM #

      Thanks Vanessa! No worries; I know you had a lot going on when this post went up. Reading your comment, I can’t help but think how great it would be for you to post about why you write fantasy. A lot of the readers of LTWF are into the fantasy genre, and I think it would be well received. Thanks for the comment and the b-day wishes! 🙂

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