It’s not that my YA characters aren’t sometimes funny or snarky. But I have to admit that my books, like those of many contemporary YA novelists, tend toward the dark side. It isn’t only the murders in the mysteries I write, but all the other stuff going on in my characters’ lives, whether it be parental abandonment, cyberbullying, or dating violence. Not exactly cheery subjects.
All I can say is that in my experience, we all want to read about characters we can identify with—preferably those who come out on the other side of some difficult experiences in some way, and that resonate with our own lives.
And truthfully, the teens I’ve taught and counseled over the years have given me no shortage of material. There was the young man from a tiny town in eastern Kentucky who told me he’d prayed and prayed to stop having “homosexual feelings” because his minister told him that was a sure pathway to hell, and he knew his parents would disown him. Then there was the young woman who was literally dying before my eyes from an eating disorder that had begun when her teachers insisted she was “too fat” to become a dancer. And in a memoir one of my students wrote, he spoke of growing up in a household of junkies and having no food or warm clothes to wear because he was trying to feed, clothe, and protect his little brothers.
Even when problems are not overtly this dramatic, they’re there. As a writer, I try to write honestly about the struggles that teens go through trying to grow up. Coming of age is rarely a picnic.
But I also try to write honestly and hopefully about the power of resilience and moving forward, despite having a painful past. As so many of my students have taught me, a lousy childhood doesn’t have to sentence you to a terrible life.