Writing Young Adult Books: Finding the Humor Inside Teenage Angst

It seems when kids turn 13, one word sums up their lives: melodrama. Emotions hover on the surface; every event is huge. Adults are idiots who don’t understand them, and their classmates are constantly watching to make sure they don’t do anything stupid (which includes wearing the wrong clothes to saying the wrong thing to listening to the wrong music). Oh. My. God. As adults on the receiving end of this hysteria, we may roll our eyes or deliberately show up at Back to School Night with wet hair, just to see our child’s response. But as authors, we can mine the drama for its flip side: humor.

Many books for teens feature characters who are on the edge of the abyss and facing life-or-death situations, extreme moral choices, or have been dealt a tough hand and have to somehow live with it. Their drama is achingly real. Or, a protagonist might be self-assured enough to rise above the sniping judgements of his peers. Both characters are admirable, but often not funny. Humor comes from a flawed character the reader genuinely likes, who’s in a sticky situation the reader can easily imagine. Then the author turns it up a notch. The reader gets to laugh at someone who’s like her, but from the safety of not having to actually suffer the humiliation personally.

In Denise Vega’s click here (to find out how i survived seventh grade), Erin Swift is not having the best start to middle school. Her big feet are the butt of jokes, she lands the role of Corn Cob in the school play, and the Cute Boy she has a crush on becomes infatuated with her best friend Jilly. But Erin’s a whiz with computers, and joins the Intranet Club to become the lead designer for the school’s web site. She also keeps a secret blog where she spills all her innermost thoughts and true feelings about everyone at her school. When her blog accidentally gets posted on the school web site, Erin’s convinced she’s going to die. Vega’s taken traditional middle school dynamics and filtered them through Erin’s self-deprecating lens, which lightens up the angst of the genuinely heart-wrenching scenes (Cute Boy’s attraction to Jilly, Erin overhearing girls criticizing her in the bathroom). Then Vega throws in every middle schooler’s worst fear: that they’ll be stripped metaphorically naked in front of their peers and revealed for who they really are. If Erin’s public blog was the only drama in the book, we’d pity Erin but not really identify with her. But because of the melodrama in earlier scenes, we know that Erin’s learning to laugh at herself, and she’ll find a way to survive this very real problem.

Parents offer endless inspiration for melodrama. If you’re looking for a good adolescent plot twist, simply ask yourself, “What the most embarrassing thing a parent could do to this character?” Your answer might give you a whole book. The opening line of Shelley Pearsall’s All Shook Up says it all: “Looking back, I would say everything in my life changed the summer I turned thirteen and my dad turned into Elvis.”

Like Vega, Pearsall keeps close to comforting upper middle grade territory but then cranks up the embarrassment. Josh is sent to live with his father in Chicago one summer when his mother has to take care of his sick grandmother. Josh hasn’t seen his dad for a while, and assumes he’s still the scatterbrained shoe salesman he remembered. But Dad’s got a new gig as an Elvis impersonator. And what’s more, when Josh’s visit is extended into the fall and he starts school in Chicago, one of his classmates leaves him anonymous notes about Elvis. Josh’s dwindling ability to keep his dad’s identity a secret is completely shattered when Dad is invited to perform at the school’s 1950s concert, and Josh must take drastic action that threatens to ruin his relationship with his father forever. Readers will certainly emphasize with Josh, but also observe how he and his father learn to compromise and respect the person each has become. Josh is forced to think about someone other than himself, which (along with the fact that Dad is a terrific performer) helps deflate the social suicide of having Elvis for a dad.

For my money, one of the best young adult beach reads you’ll find is Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About The Grapes of Wrath by Steven Goldman. 17-year-old Mitchell is a slightly scrawny, socially inept, average student, whose best (and only real) friend tells Mitchell he’s gay one day at lunch. Mitchell’s junior high school year is marked by trying to talk to girls (Does his sister and her best friend count?), navigating the school hierarchy, reassessing his friendship with David, and turning in a slightly pornographic claymation film in lieu of an English paper on a book he hasn’t read. Much of the humor comes from Mitchell’s dry, somewhat clueless first-person voice. He’s hovering outside the whirl of popularity, and so can comment on high school without having much to lose. School Library Journal called the book “A side-splitting slice of male adolescence, [that] turns the spotlight on the ridiculousness that is the average, contemporary American high school experience.”

When I asked Goldman how he writes humor, he said, “I was just trying to capture some of the feelings I could remember from high school, and really see the world through the eyes and the running narration of a character with a particular view of the world and a particular way of expressing his feelings. One of the things I really enjoy about writing YA is that I find high school students to be funny. Frankly, I think they have better senses of humor than adults. They are willing to put themselves in situations that no one with a brain would, and yet they have the intelligence to realize that they are doing it. That risk-taking extends to language as well — they will say things that are brutally honest and horrible and therefore frequently funny.” This brutal honesty, both with each other and themselves, creates those situations bordering on melodrama. Once of my favorite scenes from Two Parties is at prom, when Mitchell is in the bathroom thinking about his date who’s abandoned him, and he accidentally pees on his white tux pants. While laughing at Mitchell’s description of himself, I couldn’t help but cringe at the image of him walking through the school gym with wet pants. Even as an adult, I still feel I share in Mitchell’s experience. That’s why writing humor for teens may be easier than you think. As Goldman said, “We never really recover from our adolescence; those years starting in middle school and continuing through high school are so formative that they we can still find them in a lot of the ways that we feel about things as an adult. I might be 45, but when I walk into a party I swear I’m still 17 and clueless about what to do next. We may leave high school, but we never really escape it.”

Interested in learning how to write a book and send it to children’s book publishers? Come on over to cbiclubhouse.com for audios, videos, insider writing tips and much, much more!


Advice for Writing a Children’s Book: How to Master “The Slow Reveal”

A while back, I took up karate. It’s a wonderful workout, but the biggest reason I train is I want to be a formidable senior citizen. If someone tries to grab my purse or deny my senior discount at Denny’s, I’ll be able to answer with a quick roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. By laying the foundation now, I’ll be a badass when I’m 65.

But the neatest thing about taking up karate when you’re a woman in her mid-40′s is that people don’t automatically expect it. If you’re just a casual acquaintance, you won’t know I’m working toward my black belt. And by the time I’m collecting Social Security, the possibility won’t even cross your mind. Unless you try to steal my purse.

In life most people become more complex as we get to know them. This should also be true for characters in children’s books. At a conference I recently attended, Lyron Bennett, editor for Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, called it “the slow reveal”. It means investing your characters with enough varied qualities that some can be withheld until called for in the plot.

The slow reveal is particularly important when writing a series. If J.K. Rowling had allowed Harry Potter to reach his full power as a wizard in Book 1, would fans have waited nine years and six more books to discover if he finally defeated you-know-who? But equally important is planting the seeds early on for who you want your character to become. From the beginning, readers saw Harry’s potential, and Rowling allowed greatness to surface in Harry when it was least expected. Those qualities expanded along with Harry as the series unfolded.

You don’t want to reveal everything at once in stand-alone books either. Picture books and easy readers, with their lower word counts and straightforward plots, do best with characters who have one or two surprises up their sleeve. In Peggy Parish’s classic easy reader Amelia Bedelia, the child sees that Amelia is doing a poor job on her first day as a housekeeper because she can’t understand the list her employer left her. But even before Amelia begins on the list, she whips up a lemon merengue pie. What the reader doesn’t know is that Amelia makes the most delicious pies anywhere, which eventually saves her job at the end of the book.

Doling out your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses keeps the tension taut in a novel. In Gary Paulsen’s timeless Hatchet (ages 11-14), Brian, a city kid, is stranded in the Canadian wilderness after the his bush plane crashes, killing the pilot. Neither Brian nor the reader know if he’s got what it takes to survive on his own. Can he figure out how to start a fire? Yes, quite by accident. Can he fish? Eventually. Kill and cook a bird? How about live through a moose attack or weather a tornado? Brian evolves from reacting to his predicament and stumbling upon solutions to thoughtfully taking control of his situation. But nothing Brian does is out of character. Though he must teach himself to live in the wild, he draws upon bits of information he learned from watching TV or at school, and reserves of strength that were in him all along.

Even if you’re writing a single title, make your children’s book characters complex enough to carry on for several books, just in case. Fans loved Brian so much that Paulsen was persuaded to reprise the character in several other wilderness adventures. Picture book series (such as Mo Willem’s Pigeon books) or easy reader series like Amelia Bedelia typically grow because the protagonist’s quirks are open-ended and funny enough that readers don’t mind exploring them over and over in different circumstances.

The slow reveal works particularly well in mysteries. In this genre, the readers slowly get to know the victim (perhaps an honor student who is discovered to be running an Internet business selling test answers), and the villain (who may seem like a nice guy at the beginning of the book). Or, how about a first person narrator in any genre who appears normal and likable early on, but becomes less and less reliable as the story unfolds? Read Robert Cormier’s outstanding young adult I Am the Cheese for a superb example of a shifting first person reality. If you prefer a broader perspective, try Avi’s Nothing But the Truth: A Documentary Novel for ages 11-14, which looks at one incident from several viewpoints, gradually separating fact from fiction. So when you first breath life into your characters, don’t stop too soon. Add layers that can be exposed later on. These surprises will keep readers , whether you’re writing about a boy wizard, a demanding pigeon, or a ninja grandma.

Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about how to write children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at http://write4kids.com and the CBI Clubhouse at http://cbiclubhouse.com


Is Your Story Young Adult….or Just Plain Adult?

Sorry for the limited posts — my time is being taken up entirely by a top-secret ultra-cool project that I’ll be telling you about after the new year.  It’s gonna be really amazing.  But good lord, I need sleep.  :)

Anyway, before I head back to the salt mines, here’s a link to a superb post by the always superb Nathan Bransford.  it’s about the fine (and sometimes non-existent) line between young adult and adult when it comes to novels.

Really good stuff:



From Picture Books to Young Adult: Learn the Rules of Writing Children’s Books

Let’s continue our series which will take us, step-by-step, from absolute beginner to published author. The topic of the previous issue: What Should You Write About? If you missed it, you can read it here.

If you’ve been with us since the start of this series you’re (hopefully) well motivated, you know who your audience is and what you’re going to write about. Now it’s time to learn the rules of the game. Because kids grow and change so quickly, children’s book genres are far more structured and tiered than adult genres. What a 2nd grader and 6th grader read are worlds apart, and the “rules of the game” reflect that.

These rules, which cover page length, word count, subject matter and other elements of a book, aren’t really official. There’s no rule book, and no one standard to adhere to. They’re pretty much an unwritten set of expectations that editors have when they’re looking at a particular type of manuscript.

So, let’s fix that — by writing some of them down. For whatever age group you’re targeting, find the rules and follow them closely when drafting your first manuscript. (A note: As with all “unwritten rules”, these aren’t written in stone and can be a bit flexible from publisher to publisher. But our interpretation of the rules should work for most cases. Also, experienced, successful writers can and do sometimes get away with breaking these rules — but newer writers should stick closely to them.) Read more


Staying Young as a Children’s Book Writer

I got my first solicitation from AARP yesterday. I’m not 50 — not even close. Well, I can see 50 peeking over the horizon, but it’s still blurry unless I’m wearing my reading glasses.

Whenever I’m feeling more mature than I’d like, I read children’s books. A great book for kids pulls me right back to my childhood. A stellar novel for young adults makes me feel like a teen again, only now I’ve got some perspective on the experience and can actually laugh about it. And interestingly enough, many of the most popular authors, the ones who really get their audience, are old enough that their own childhoods would be considered historical fiction by their readers (or at the very least, retro).

Two of my favorites are Lauren Myracle, beloved author of contemporary middle grade and teen fiction, and Mo Willems, hero of the picture book and easy reader crowd. Lauren and Mo have got it — they know exactly how to speak to their audiences without sounding like stuffy grown-ups, and yet we could have all gone to school together (OK, just to clarify, I would have been in sixth grade when they were in kindergarten, but I’m sure they were so cool even back then that I would have hung out with them). Read more


The Booming Young Adult Fiction Market

Young adult fiction is hot right now, especially for older readers ages 14 and up. New publishers and imprints are popping up all the time. Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Evelyn Fazio, publisher of WestSide Books, in the November issue of Children’s Book Insider. WestSide will debut its list of contemporary, realistic teen fiction in Spring 09.

When I teach writing workshops around the country, I meet aspiring authors who want to try their hand at YA, but sometimes feel a disconnect with the grittier, more realistic fiction being published today. They want to study the market, they want to understand the genre and try to write it, but it’s so different from the novels they read as teens that it feels alien to them. Of course, I’m speaking to those of you over 40 right now. You youngsters can just skip to the next post.

Check out Monica Edinger’s Educating Alice blog post about putting aside her personal prejudices and tastes while serving on the Newbery and NCTE Notable Books committees. Judges have to read outside their comfort zones all the time, and they learn to appreciate literature that they don’t think they’re going to like. If the new crop of YA books makes you squirm, but you’re open to learning what they’re all about, Edinger’s advice may be just the ticket.


Interview with Young Adult author Nancy Werlin

Nancy Werlin’s new YA novel Impossible is already creating lots of positive buzz.  To learn a bit more about this talented author, have a look at this excellent interview by Carlie Webber of the Librarilly Blonde blog:


To read Carlie’s review of the book, visit:



YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author Simon Rose Interview

Canadian YA (young adult) Sci-Fi/Fantasy Author Simon Rose is profiled in this excellent interview on Carma’s Window (a very useful blog, BTW).

Have a look at:



Download "11 Steps to Writing Your First Children's Book" Instantly... and Free!