When you write young-adult fiction, do you have to “dumb it down” to the level of teens, or can you write as if they were adults?
Kathleen posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Randy — I’m writing YA and have begun to realize that I’m not really holding back when it comes to reading level or word choice. In other words, for me, it’s reading at the level of general commercial fiction. My protaganist is a very bright 14-year-old and I’m writing from his POV. Still, I keep reading that there are different conventions for YA and adult.
Randy sez: In recent years, there’ve been several major YA novel series that have been big hits with adults. Let’s look at each of them:
HARRY POTTER. The first book in this series is written at a bit lower level than any of the others. It’s shorter and tends to have a bit more juvenile humor. The next couple of books really stepped up the level until by book 4, the reading level was clearly for adults.
TWILIGHT and its sequels. Even the first book in this series was clearly written for older teens and so the word usage is at an adult level. Adults may gag at the massive amounts of teen-girl angst in the story, but they certainly won’t feel that the vocabulary is limited. And most adults can remember their own teen angst.
THE HUNGER GAMES and its sequels. This series has been first-rate from the get-go. The language and style work just fine for adults. (I’m hoping my copy of MOCKINGJAY arrives today!) The only reason this series was classified as YA is that the protagonist is 16 years old.
I’m not an expert on the conventions of YA, but it seems to me that the above examples prove that you can write a very successful YA series without limiting the language or treating your readers like dummies. I’m also reminded that Orson Scott Card’s books ENDER’S GAME and ENDER’S SHADOW featured preteen characters, but the books were targeted to adults. Card was criticized for making his characters “too smart.” Fans of the series know that a lot of kids that age really are that smart. Many fans of the series actually were that smart when they were kids.
So I’d say, go for it Kathleen. There’s no reason to dumb down the reading level on a YA book. Teens are not stupid and they don’t like being talked down to. Many 7th graders are completely able to handle adult-level books. Write a great story and you’ll have no shortage of fans.
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