Agency Lessons: A teen character does not a YA novel make

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Who loves YA novels. Oh, it's me. I do. And now that they are popular again tons of writers are coming out of the wood work to write more YA novels. To this I say, Woohoo! More YA books for me to read.

However (you knew that was coming), there seems to be some confusion on what exactly a YA novel is. I'm seeing this a lot in my query box. Some authors seem to think that if their book has a teen character, their book is automatically YA. Game of Thrones has children in it, but I wouldn't hand it to my 6-yr-old. Context is everything folks.

You've got to think about the larger arc of the story and who is driving the plot. And yes, is this story line targeted to teens? There's a big difference between appropriate audience and target audience. I'm sure there are plenty of teens who have read the Game of Thrones series and were able to handle the difficult scenes and adult themes. But I'm guessing if we ask George R. R., he'd tell us that his book was targeted to adults. Just a guess.

And then there is the idea that you can take an adult situation and substitute a teen in for what would normally be an adult. Like, hey look, teen assassins, teen secret service, teen doctors. I love several projects that have teens acting in adult roles (I love you Doogie Howser, MD), but these work for two very simple reasons. They have a clear explanation for why the teen is in this adult situation AND they don't ask teens to be adults.

So let's use Doogie Howser because I love him and apparently feel the need to show just how old I am. The child doc with perfect hair was a prodigy and went to med school when he wasn't even old enough to shave. Slightly impractical, but we accept it (and there are real world examples that are similar). And once he was a doctor, young Doogie still found himself in loads of typical teen hi-jinx and struggled with the ladies. Because that's what was appropriate for his age. Another great example of this is the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. Teen girls in a school for spies who use their skills to stalk their crushes. Yes please.

All of this to say than when an agent (raising my hand) asks for a YA National Treasure, I'm not asking for you to substitute in a teen for an adult character and let 'em ride. I want a book with similar action, themes and goals that is appropriate for a teen character. That means they need to struggle with finding themselves and where they fit in the big world they live in. They need to experiment with independence and find a streak of defiance. They need to question everything and let the hormones rage. In essence, you need to let your teen characters be teens.

And when you do that, you'll have an awesome YA novel.