YA (Young Adult) books are consistently among the biggest bestsellers. In Nielsen’s latest annual list of top-selling books, eight of the Top 10 titles in 2014 were YA, including No. 1: the paperback version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. What you might not realize, though, is that many authors penning successful YA series aren’t young — they’re boomers.
Suzanne Collins (the Hunger Games trilogy) is 52. Rick Riordan, creator of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, is 50. Chris Crutcher, author of Period 8, Deadline and Angry Management, is 68. Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, who writes the popular Morganville Vampires series as Rachel Caine, is 52.
Pluses and Minuses of Writing YA After 50
Caine says her age is a plus, not a minus, as a YA writer. It “helps in the mechanical sense of craft; you have a lifetime of skill and observation to bring to the story,” she notes.
YA author and English professor Brad Strickland, 67, also thinks boomers have an advantage in this genre. Says Strickland, who finished a couple of books by the late YA mystery writer John Bellairs and has published his own series (some titles with Thomas E. Fuller), including Pirate Hunter and Mars: Years One: “I think the danger for younger YA writers is believing there’s a right, proper, moral way to write for that audience, and I don’t think there is.”
Bruce Coville, 64, who’s been writing YA novels since he was 19 and has published more than 80 (including the Unicorn Chronicles and Magic Shop series), says boomers’ age can be an obstacle for this genre, however.
“It’s a struggle even for those of us who have been doing this for years to keep up with where kids are today,” Coville notes.
Bryan Gillis, Associate Professor of English Education and Literacy at Kennesaw State University and director of the upcoming 24thKSU Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults doesn’t see a difference between YA writers of different generations.
“Good writers, regardless of when they were born, pull not only from past and present experiences but also from their imaginations,” says Gillis. “I don’t believe that one’s imagination or experiences are bound by a birthdate.”
Gillis notes that many of YA author Chris Crutcher’s characters, for instance, have been inspired by his work as a child therapist; Crutcher (Running Loose), 67, won the American Library Association’s Margaret Edwards Award for his lifetime contribution in writing for teens.
Advice for Would-Be YA Authors
“Many ‘young adult’ authors, including Crutcher, Andrew A. Smith, [Winger and Grasshopper Jungle] and Newbery Award-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis [Bud, Not Buddy] have stated repeatedly that they don’t specifically write for young adults, they write books that happen to contain young adult characters,” says Gillis.
Strickland agrees with that sentiment: “You’re not writing a YA story; you’re writing a story, a good solid story that YAs and adults alike can enjoy. The same things that make a story for adults excellent or poor apply to YAs, too.”
Caine has two pieces of advice for people 50+ eager to take a shot writing YA novels.
“You should always bear in mind that you’re not writing a character who has the same experience that you do. As you’re writing, ask yourself what it felt like the first time you encountered a similar situation: the first time someone confronted you at school, or dropped you as a friend, or you realized someone would never like you the way you liked them,” says Caine. “Those are strong, powerful emotions, and much more powerful the younger you are because you have no scale on which to mark the tides.”
Her other tip: “The most important thing is to realize that you’re simply writing a story, and the age of your characters defines the world in which they live and how they will react to it. Young adult characters come to most situations brand new, just learning who they are and want to be. It’s important to let them learn and grow during your story.”
Coville’s recommendation: “The one piece of advice I have is simple: Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s the best single place to get a grounding in the field.”
You may be wondering: with so many YA books out there, is there really room for more? “There will always be room for well-written literature,” says Gillis.
Stephen L. Antczak is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who writes for Next Avenue and other outlets. He is the author of four books and more than 50 short stories.