Is There a Perceived Age Limit for YA Authors?

I hope you had a pleasant St. Patrick’s Day. Though I’m not Irish by any stretch of the imagination, I celebrated with some friends who throw a fabulous party every year.

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Jordie mistakenly believes that the wearing of the green means this.

Moving on, last week I had an eye-opening conversation with a teen. I’ll call her Sarah, though that isn’t her name. We started off talking about Veronica Roth’s announcement on Twitter concerning her new book contract. If you have no idea who Veronica Roth is, I’ll tell you. She’s the author of the Divergent trilogy, a young adult dystopian series. A movie adaptation of book 2, Insurgent, will premiere on Friday, March 20.

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When Sarah asked what type of book Roth would write, I shrugged, having only read the Twitter announcement, which was understandably succinct. Here’s how part of the conversation went.

Me: What if the new series is for adults? Some YA writers go in that direction once they have a successful series under their belt.
Sarah (frowning): She’s still in her 20s, right?
Me: (shrugging; remembering back to the time when I saw Roth at Anderson’s Bookshop, an independent bookstore in Naperville): I guess.
Sarah: Well, she should write YA.

We continued talking about the issue until Sarah’s brother asked me which videogames I’m looking forward to this year. But I couldn’t help reflecting on whether or not other teens had a perceived age limit for young adult authors. I’ve written young adult fiction. While I won’t tell you how old I am, I can say that I was in my 20s when Noah got the call to build the ark. Does that mean I shouldn’t write YA novels if I’m not in my 20s or even early 30s? (And yes, I could keep going higher up the age chain.)

Perhaps the question sounds ridiculous to you in light of authors you know who are “seasoned” in age, yet write YA novels. But some teens, as Sarah proved, have definite assumptions about age. I think she would be surprised to learn that the average age of the people in my grad school program, writing for children and young adults, was well above 30.

Oddly enough, when I was in my 20s, I tried my hand at writing adult fiction—the result of being told that “real” writers wrote adult fiction. I failed miserably at it, but at least had entertained myself for a time.

f1f21692fb02f3442735a930b8b09539A friend and I started writing YA fiction when we were 14 and 13 respectively—the result of reading a boatload of outdated books from the 1950s at our local branch library. (That library really needed some new books.) The stories involved people “going steady” while hanging out at the “soda shop” and listening to records on the “jukebox.” Never mind the fact that neither of us had seen any of those things outside of an Archie comic book. So those stories weren’t realistic. Actually, they were closer to parodies than anything else.

Since we also were heavily influenced by Harlequin romance books, we wrote novels with adult protagonists also. We made sure that we included first-kiss scenes that took place around page 106 in our handwritten novels and a betrayal three quarters of the way through the story, as per the formula.

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Old Harlequin romance books

I never once thought I had to be a specific age in order to produce a story for a certain age level. I guess I’m weird that way. So when someone has a preconceived idea about the age “best suited” for a project, and I don’t fit whatever mold he or she describes, I usually feel the need to challenge that expectation. After all, sometimes you have to take a metaphorical rock and send it flying through the glass window of a preconceived notion. That’s the only way to evoke change.

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Whether you’re 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, or 150, if you’ve got a story for a particular age level, write it. And don’t let anyone else—especially society’s preconceived ideas—stop you. If someone tries, feel free to give that person the look.

gopher-lookBy the way Cleveland.com had the scoop on Roth’s new series:

“I want to continue to write for my teenage readers,” [Roth] says. “I finally can announce my new project. It’s going to be a space opera. I’m still in the early stages of writing, but I’m really excited about it.”

What story are you excited about? Have you ever been told that there are certain age levels for certain audiences? How did you respond?

Veronica Roth from hollywoodchicago.com. Book covers from Goodreads. Shattered glass from jazzadvice.com. Dramatic prairie dog gif from boingboing.net. Archie comic book from pinterest.com. Harlequin books from etsy.com.

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43 thoughts on “Is There a Perceived Age Limit for YA Authors?

  1. I wondered the same thing not long ago in regard to John Green. I guess the age limit is when the author no longer understands the culture of the time. I think, as we often write from our experience that maturing, getting married, having children must lead the YA author to the next age group.

  2. I think you should write the story you need to write. If the readers want to think you are the “correct” age for writing about the group, then doesn’t that just mean you have made the connections you need to make and used the proper voice? Plus, I don’t think authenticity is limited to age appropriateness. While times are different, we’ve all felt the feelings of young adults. We just need to be aware of the differences.

    • Great point, Lisa. Authenticity is very key. When I was younger, I wasn’t ready to tell the stories I’m writing now. I was too full of my own angst. But I remember the hope and anger and joy and giddiness I felt when I was a teen wanting to be noticed and loved.

  3. The phrase ‘only as old as you feel’ should come into play here.

    Though I guess this mentality is fair since you have something similar about who should be reading YA. Some people give odd looks to adults that enjoy those books. That is unless it’s the big series of the month and then it’s totally acceptable. There’s also some confusion as to the ages, maturity, and intelligence of the YA target audience. I’ve been told to avoid all sex (never the violence), use simple words, keep the books to 150-170 pages, and all these things that feel like they’re acts of condensation. So it really isn’t surprising that there are those out there who think an author can age out of writing YA. Honestly, whatever happened to just having fun with books and not judging people who read them?

    • I remember reading an article that adults should be “ashamed” about reading YA books. Many, many people reacted negatively to that article. I agree that a person should not be judged for wanting to read a YA book.

      I can understand the confusion about what’s appropriate in a YA book. There are so many lists going around with page lengths and content tips. Yet I see so many books that defy those lists. I have a stack of YA books that are over 400 pages in length. Many have tons of violence and mention sex. One of my YA books has a lot of violence (the fruit of war and revenge) and is well over 300 pages long. You can’t write a book about a person determined to take revenge to its natural limit without having people die.

      • I remember that article. Caused a really big uproar among my friends. Most of the good, non-depressing fantasy are found in YA.

        It’s probably people claiming preferences as ‘rules’. I’m always reminded of Captain Barbosa saying ‘the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.’

  4. I agree, we should write what we want to write, no matter our age. I think I would have asked Sarah her thoughts on children’s books. They can only be written by children? I love the prairie dog, L. Marie!

    • Good point, Jill. When I think about the stories I wrote when I was a kid, well, I wouldn’t want a kid to read them.
      I found that gif on the internet. I was glad they had it. It always cracks me up.

  5. I would think that the idea of how old a YA author should be would age along with the age of the reader. Sarah may think differently in 20 years.
    I’ve been in book group that has been meeting for 27 years. We try to read one YA each year and almost always have a lively discussion. I have noticed, however, that since the YA designation, there is a lot of confusion over who the target audience might be.
    A provocative post. Thank you – and I wore my green “flower” yesterday 🙂 AND I love the prairie dog. One of our daughters had one for a pet – not a good idea, but, lots of family stories. tee hee

    • Wow. What YA books have your book club read recently? Sounds like a fun group.
      Glad you wore your flower. Ha! I’m picturing having a prairie dog as a pet. That would be interesting!

      • Gosh, off of the top of my aging head, we’ve done Little Woman, Gary Paulson, I think it was Hatchet, but, we did one of his adult books at another time. One of the books he wrote about the Iditarod. Anne of Green Gables. Hunger Games, which almost no one liked, mostly because it was marketed to young children. That issue with age range for the YA designation is where they were hung up, I think. Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. She’s floated between youth and adult pretty well.
        We are a fun group and sometimes take field trips that relate to what we’ve been reading. There are a few of us from the original group. We’ve lost one to cancer, another to Alztheimer’s, gain a few over time.
        I still don’t how I let our younger daughter talk me into the prairie dog. Her name was Timone (think Lion King) and she would bark whenever the squeaky bathroom door opened and when I sneezed. I could go on, but, have already taken up enough of your space. I’m so happy to have met you and to get to know you through your posts. Thanks.

      • Glad to have you!
        Your group has read an interesting range of books. You didn’t happen to make it up to Prince Edward Island did you? 😀

      • I love that book. A friend told me about it. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about it before. It’s the kind of story I love to read.

  6. Age is just a number that helps us place memories on a timeline from Birth to Death.

    Some authors write with relevance for teens, tweens, and YA. Others do not. It depends more on mindset, experience, and passion than date of birth.

    That said, if “Grandma Moses” wants to sell YA novels, she may need a pseudonym. 😎

    • I was thinking about using Grandma Moses as my other pseudonym. 😀 I would write a Sweet Valley High-like series, only one focused on a “soda shop” with a “jukebox.”
      Very true though, Nancy. I think authors like Neil Gaiman can write for any age at anytime. So can Dave Barry, apparently.

      • Haha! Grandma Moses is the perfect pseudonym for a Sweet Valley High-like series . . . with Young Agains rocking around the jukebox.

  7. With access to writers more available than ever, it’s easy to understand how readers fold their “off-book” details into expectations for their writing. So much of what writers “should” do and genres “should” be are just excuses not to read in the first place. I hope writers write what makes them happy, be in someone with Veronica Roth’s fame or someone struggling for readers.

    • And that’s the key, isn’t it, Andra? Writing the stories that make your heart sing. Of course that means I should be writing Prince Zuko fan fiction. But my other stories make me happy too. 😀

  8. That whole idea seems a little silly. Sure, it could be that younger authors have their ears “closer to the ground” on what matters to today’s teens, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. Every human past their teens has gone through that experience and likely has vivid memories of what it was like.

    • Very true, Phillip. And teens are so widely read. Some adult books really spoke to me when I was a teen, while many YA books speak to me now that I’m an adult. You just never know. I remember reading an interview with Anthony Doerr who mentioned teens loving his adult novel, All the Light We Cannot See. And with good reason. It’s gorgeous.

  9. I say I write YA historical fiction because I’m “historical.” That said, I don’t think there’s an upper limit for writing YA as long as you can capture the voice and sensibility, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it harder to sell contemporary realistic fiction and easier to sell historical fiction. I may end up self-publishing my contemporary manuscript (something I wrote about in my latest blog post), but the fact that I actually lived through the events I write about in my historical novels is a huge selling point. Overall, I’ve noticed that older writers of YA tend to gravitate toward, or are pushed toward, historical fiction and fantasy, while the younger writers end up in contemporary and futuristic speculative (dystopian and sci-fi) fiction.

    • I saw your post, Lyn. I can understand the need to be a hybrid author. I’ve thought about that myself. Since I write historical fantasy, I don’t mind being pushed toward that end of the publishing pool. 🙂

      • Lyn’s comment above captures my exact fear. Even at VCFA, it seemed that women of a certain age wrote historical and the younger women wrote contemporary and few people were writing fantasy. As a confirmed fan of contemporary, I have boatloads of fear that I won’t be able to sell my books because of my age. I’d love for someone to throw a metaphorical rock through that window, but until I actually sell a book, I think it will be impossible for me to let go of that perception.

  10. “I can say that I was in my 20s when Noah got the call to build the ark.”
    ROFL!!!! I love you, Linda. Yes. Yes I do. You have made my day. 😀
    I wouldn’t have thought of this, but it makes sense that people would have preconceived notions regarding age and what kind of book you can write. The notion itself makes no sense, but that people would think it does. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea of someone they perceive to be very different than themselves relating to them.

    • Glad I could. 😀
      I guess we all have an idea of what “sounds” true, based on our own preconceived notions. Voice is everything in YA. So, I can see why some people think authors closer to the age can best capture the voice. All I can say is that when I was in my teens and 20s, I was too busy channeling my rebellion and anger toward writing adult novels. When I finally decided to pay attention to my love of books for kids and teens, I looked up and found that I was older. It didn’t negate the desire to write books for kids and teens though.

  11. Interesting post! I never thought about age being a limitation in what a person writes. Obviously, children don’t write children’s books, so why should it be assumed that younger people write YA? It’s not like older writers haven’t lived through those times themselves. I’ll have to think about it some more. I like thought-provoking posts. And the prairie dog look is priceless.

  12. You exhibited an eye towards marketing at an early age. Seeing a hole in the library selection of relevant books, you and your friend took pen in hand and remedied said situation. I love that!
    😉

    • Thank you. We were avid readers chasing a dollar. 😀 Actually, we were fond of entertaining ourselves with stories. I wish I still had some of them. They were hilariously bad.

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