I love reading YA. I get both an immediate--and lasting--pleasure from digging into a good young-adult novel that I rarely get from "grownup books." That's why I write YA. Because I'm one of the "Lost Boys" of bibliophilia.
However, one of the problems of:
a) being in a Master's Program in Children's Literature, which requires me to basically read a book a day, and
b) approaching the aforementioned novel with the critical eye of a writer,
is that you begin to see patterns, some troubling, in the way YA novelists cast characters in their novels. I've decided to list some of the character prototypes that I would like to see banned from all YA books in the near future.
1. THE UBER-COOL CHICK WHO HAS A THING FOR NERDS
I know what you're thinking. "But Kyle, you used to be/currently are/will always be a nerd. You write children's books for Pete's sake. Surely you can't begrudge a dorky protagonist for getting it on."
While I respect and encourage nerd love, my problem lies not with the nerd but with the girls who ultimately fall in (and usually out of) love with them. This prototype, which basically worms its way into a large portion of teenage male protagonist books, tends to be unbearably tolerant toward the protagonist when he goofs and is placed on a pedestal by not just the hero, but by the author as well.
2. THE COLD MOTHER
The Cold Mother (or TCM) pops up in a lot of female protagonist problem novels; I can only guess that, in order to develop more tension in the household, the author writes the mother as being initially sterile and insensitive when it comes to handling her daughter's [insert problem, insecurity, or unplanned pregnancy here]. But you can bet by story's end that, while TCM won't completely melt, she will defrost just enough to begin to connect with her daughter. Which leads us to...
3. THE BUMBLING FATHER
Oh, poor, oblivious, bumbling father. You will make valiant attempts to connect with your daughter, but you will fail miserably, and probably take solace in some sort of hobby or home remodeling project instead, which you will invite your daughter to partake in, and she will spurn you. Don't you know what she's going through?
4. THE ASSHOLE FATHER AND TIRED MOTHER
Problem novel girls have Cold Mothers and Bumbling Fathers; Problem novel boys have fathers who drink too much/are overly invested in their business/are heavy-handed in the raising of their children. Their mothers will be much more sympathetic to the plight of their boychild, but will continually act exhausted with their marriage.
I'd love to see these parent stereotypes dissected from a gender studies perspective. Or by Freud.
5. ANGELS & DEVILS: THE INSENSITIVE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR
AND THE SENSITIVE SCHOOLTEACHER
You can bet that, for every school principal or assistant principal who doesn't understand what your child is going through, there is that one cool, probably late twenty-something teacher, who will take an active interest in your child.
I'm not particularly bothered by this one--I understand the need to show adults with a spectrum of sensitivity and understanding. But my high school principal was a great man who was diplomatic and kindhearted in his dealings with both agents of chaos and victims, so treating high school administrators as draconian forces of evil seems a bit outdated to me.
6. SIDEKICKS THAT TRY TO HARD
We all love supporting characters and if they're funny, even better. I applaud witty banter in YA novels, and use it heavily myself; with all of the social networking opportunities out there, kids today are wittier than ever. But some YA novels are taking the sidekick thing a little too far and relying on absurdist dialogue which is so scripted that it crashes and burns in the Land of Disbelief. I'm okay suspending my disbelief and indulging in some dialogue that goes too far; but at a certain point, I start to become too aware of the giggling puppeteer lurking behind the typewriter, and the dialogue face-plants.
When I write comic dialogue, I use the rules I learned when I was doing standup comedy. Effortless is good; but a joke that tries too hard will always fall flat.
7. JOCKS THAT TURN OUT TO BE NICE PEOPLE
This one isn't to say that athletes aren't nice people. On the contrary--I think that athletes--high school, college, and the like--tend to be really friendly. That's why I'm frustrated when, every single time I read a novel from the perspective of the introverted boy, he's always surprised when, by the end of the story, the athletes are partying with him or by his side as he saves the day.
Well, someone outside just screamed "It's Snowing!" so I think that's my cue to shut up, make breakfast, and return to Revision Land. Here's to breaking the character molds in 2010.