By Steve Burt
They’re not just “small adults.” Writing for young readers and young adults requires some forethought and knowing the unique preferences of the audience.
When I’m on author panels I’m often asked: What’s the secret to writing for young adults? For me, there are at least two answers.
- Don’t dumb down. I write at the adult reading level, expecting readers (even younger ones) to read and grasp it, even if they have to look up words. I believe 11- and 12-year-olds should read at an adult level.
- Feature young adult protagonists who learn to deal with the issues they face—without adults always coming to the rescue.
Most of my books are described by librarians as “crossover books.” They attract three age groups: (1) pre-teens and young readers, (2) teens and young adults, and (3) adults.
Group one likes reading about kids slightly older; group two demands a story written at the adult reading level that shows them protagonists their own age; group three also appreciates an adult reading level but has always loved the pace, plots, and complexity of a Y.A. novel.
Hence the term “crossover;” it spans the three age groups: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight vampire series, Hunger Games series, or even farther back, Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer.
In my FreeKs psychic teen detective series (FreeK Camp, FreeK Show, FreeK Week), readers meet a dozen kids who start in book one as middle-schoolers then in books two and three become high-schoolers. FreeK Camp opens with 10 kids heading for a rural Maine camp where, under the tutelage of three former circus sideshow performers, they will be helped in discovering/developing their unique psychic gifts: levitation, precognitive dreaming, telekinesis, out-of-body travel, extreme empathy, etc. Five make it to camp, five are taken prisoner by a crazy man.
Each five must get acquainted, develop their gifts in a hurry during crisis, and learn to work together—the safe group at the camp doing detective work, the captive group trying to escape. They must all learn to work together. All three of my audiences (preteens, teens, and adults) can identify with the characters and enjoy the mystery/thriller.
Half of the 39 short stories in my collections (Odd Lot, Even Odder, Oddest Yet, Wicked Odd) are aimed at preteens and younger teens (not so much at adults). While written at an adult reading level, the protagonists are preteens, so they aren’t as appealing to older teens and adults. The secret to grabbing younger readers here, though, is to give them characters their own age in situations they can identify with. Using a first-person narration helps.
For example, 10 of what I call my “four cousins” stories each start with an not-so-exciting incident from my own childhood, but then go beyond what really happened.
In Beneath the Streets my three cousins and I explore the drainage systems that run beneath the downtown streets in our village (true). We come upon a nest of rats, the mother rat the size of a hog. Not only are many rats suckling at her breast, but so is a crazy man we recognize from town. They give chase, and we run like crazy, covering each other’s escape in pairs by firing slingshots. (made up story)
In Too Deep we four cousins dig tunnels (true) but break into a cross tunnel belonging to a giant worm (made up) that we battle with, using our shovels and kerosene lanterns. (made up)
In The Tattooist three of us four cousins run away from home by hitchhiking to another state in winter (true), only to come upon a convenience store robbery, the hoods taking us prisoner. (made up)
You see how it works. I’m using my own preteen years to launch the story, but then watch things go haywire. Readers identify with the characters and with the early part of a familiar story, but then get surprised by the new (made-up) material.
My latest novel, The Bookseller’s Daughter, is another crossover. Adult reading level and a 17-year-old protagonist who, along with her best friend, works at her mother’s bookstore in Maine. Enter a stranger who comes to the bookstore looking like a squatty hunchbacked nun, every inch of her covered by the garment and hood.
The bookseller’s daughter is drawn into helping the visitor, which pulls in the best friend and the mother—four females, three of them human, on a quest together to find a certain Civil War grave in one of the small town’s 200+ graveyards. Did I mention there’s a murderous villain also seeking the same prize?
So there are Steve Burt’s keys to attracting and engaging young adult readers: (1) adult reading level, (2) younger protagonists, (3) familiar, relatable settings and situations that change from the expected.
Remember that Stephen King’s Carrie was about everyday school bullying that ended with a major dustup at a school dance.
Steve Burt is a Ray Bradbury and Bram Stoker Award-winning (Oddest Yet, 2004) young adult author from The Villages, Florida. His novel FreeK Week was named grand prize winner at the 2015 Florida Book Festival. His latest, The Bookseller’s Daughter, won a trifecta: a Mom’s Choice gold medal, the 2019 New York Book Festival grand prize, and the 2020 New England Book Festival Best Young Adult Novel.