In the last few months I’ve spent some time immersing myself in young adult romance: not only was I reading books, but I was also doing beta reads for writers in the genre. It’s not that I’m interested in writing one (though I’m still thinking about that fat-teen-finds-love story that I tried and failed to finish in seventh grade) but I found myself appreciating the effort that YA writers put into their writing.
I don’t know how I know this (except for the fact that I was a teenager myself) but young readers–and especially those from marginalized communities–have a well-tuned BS meter when it comes to other people telling their stories. One of the reasons why I couldn’t get into the Sweet Valley books while I was younger was that I knew I couldn’t relate to anyone who was rich, blonde, and perfect in every way. (Which was strange, considering that I was reading Jane Eyre at that time and was telling everyone that I was a “slattern.”) And, yes, there were romances that were written about Filipino characters, but any source of Pinoy Pride(TM) that I may have had evaporated when friends would give me spoilers about how they got the language wrong.
Now, between the launch of #romanceclassFlicker and the upcoming release of YA and MG titles from Filipino writers around the world, there’s little excuse any more to not feed the hunger for stories featuring young Filipino readers in uniquely Filipino situations.
Or is there?
Because, again, let’s not forget the built-in BS-o-meter that young Filipino readers have, especially when it comes to contemporary stories. This isn’t just a matter of which stories get published or who controls the gates. It’s a matter of showing young readers what it’s like to be a young adult in the specific cultural situations that they’re in.
To be specific: You have to make the reader believe that your character could be one of them. And in order to do that, you have to eliminate the traces of authorship that give away the fact that the story is not being told by a young person. You don’t just have to show what the character sees, but you have to see as the character sees as well.
I’m not saying that I have the answers–far from it. (Says the person who’s always writing characters who are ten years older than they were at their high school graduation.) But I have to say that writing YA requires a certain depth of perception. Think of the first 10% of The Hunger Games and how it pulls the reader deeply into Katniss’ POV; it’s as if the author has stepped aside and let Katniss tell the story herself, describing the circumstances that would lead her to protect her sister and “volunteer as tribute” later on. If that didn’t pull me in to want to read the book later on, nothing else will.
And more than writing adult fiction, writing for young people requires reading a lot of fiction about young people–not just casual reading, but a certain degree of immersion. This is the problem that a few writer friends have encountered while writing YA; some have admitted to me that they haven’t read enough YA for themselves to determine if they’re doing it justice.
What is true for YA, then, is true for every genre: Unless you have a genuine passion for what you’re writing, your skill may not be enough to carry you through. And for what it’s worth, even the best writers have the same problem, so it’s a matter of reconciling skill with depth.
Now I’m not saying that this is proof that I can never write a YA book. (Hey, never say never!) But after reading some of the books that have come out lately, my respect for YA authors have gone up so much that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do what they’ve done, which is nothing short of amazing.
So if you’re writing a book for young people, I salute you. You’ve got a tough audience ahead, but if you can win their hearts and minds and souls with your writing, you’ve done your job. Thank you, always and forever.