Adults and YA books

For obvious reasons I keep an eye on reviews of YA books—both online and offline, in magazines, journals, and blogs. And I gotta tell you reviews written by adults are close to collapsing under the weight of their insane expectations about what YA books should do and rigid ideas about what teenagers are like. Apparently humans only become diverse when they turn twenty. Teenagers, it seems, are all the same.

I’m not going to link to any of the examples I give below because this is not about beating up on any one particular reviewer. Nor will I identify the books on account of that would only help identify the dodgy reviews. I have employed exaggeration and caricature to further disguise some of my examples.

I just came across a review that dismissed a book because it had a character in it who has sex and doesn’t die or suffer any other dire consequences. Except that the character in question turns into a monster courtesy of having sex. Quite a horrible consequence I would have thought. That aside—really? YA books have to show sex as evil and wrong?

One felt the use of swear words in the book in question was inappropriate because teens don’t talk like that. The irony was that of the two words singled out, one didn’t appear in the book at all, and the other wasn’t used anywhere in the dialogue of the teenage characters.

Another reviewer automatically dismissed all YA books with unhappy endings. Teenagers don’t need grimness, this reviewer opined, they need sunshine and rainbows and lollipops. One of the books this reviewer didn’t like ended with the fifteen-year-old female protag being stronger and more sure of who she was in the world but without a boyfriend. Fifteen years old and no man of her own? Yes, what a horribly unhappy ending that is.

My favourite one complained that using contractions in the dialogue of teenagers was jarring because teenagers don’t—I am sorry, do not—speak like that. Huh? Does anyone speak without using contractions? Other than robots, I mean.

Another reviewer panned a book because it offered no moral lessons. Since the book featured a protag dealing with an addict parent and learning to take care of themself, their addict parent, and their siblings, and showing much resilience, fortitude and guts in the process, I couldn’t help but be bewildered by the reviewer’s objection.

Billions of reviewers objected to books that were too smart, sophisticated, or adult for teenagers because teenagers, apparently, don’t think about sex, or philopsophy, or social injustice, and they definitely never question the way things are.

Billions of other reviewers worried that YA books are too stupid and trashy for teenagers and teach them the wrong lessons about consumerism.

From all these reviews I learned that teenagers are robots who don’t swear or speak in contractions or have sex and they read books only in order to learn moral lessons which, as robots they desperately need. Cause how does a robot become a model human adult without an instruction manual?

I will adjust the book I am working on accordingly.

P.S. I apologise for the contractions used in this post which may encourage teenagers to start using them too. However, I’m an adult and we can’t help ourselves.


  1. Gabrielle on #

    Funny caricaturing. (I don’t know how you use that word in English, caricature, which is funny, because it’s actually a French word)
    And sadly, those reviews do happen a lot.
    I don’t know wether to laugh or cry about the contractions.

  2. Kate Larking on #

    I’m actually a reviewer for YA books and have been for 4 years for CanWest. I agree, there are a lot of stupid critics out there who don’t—err, do not—understand pushing the genre further. I try to look at the genre in a new way, which isn’t hard provided some of the reviewers out there with VERY traditional tastes. Teens do NOT have much for traditional anymore, and unhappy endings, or unending endings, are definitely for us.

    *insert eyeroll about the contractions* Because, hell, I certainly never speak and use contractions. Or have sex. With my lesbian partner. Wow, I wonder if I’d be banned from a school library for being me.

  3. Rebecca on #

    i do not trust reviews. i always read the book myself and it bugs me when i’m trying to find out what a book’s about on amazon and i get a snarky review instead. *grumble grumble* i really just have to start ignoring stuff like this, b/c otherwise i’d spend every waking minute ranting, bitching, and carrying on about it. and of course, there’s the crowd that’s like, “GASP. Sex in teen books? NO.” Or “GASP. There’s underage drinking in this book? WE MUST BAN IT.” there’s probably plenty of reviews that are more about whether these things should be in the books, rather than whether they’re realistic portrayals of teen life or not. some people are just asses.

  4. Kelly on #

    When I was a teenager, I was reading adult books because I didn’t like what I’d found in the YA section (too unrealistic, moralistic, I didn’t connect with the characters, etc.). Now that I’m in my 30’s, I’ve discovered some really great YA out there (including yours and Scott’s) that feels more real than any I remember when I was a teen. I buy them as gifts as well.

    Teens swear, they develop character through the (sometimes tragic) events in their lives, and they deal with the issue of sex whether or not they decide to have it — and if YA doesn’t include some realism, teens are going to pass on it and just jump into adult books anyway. I certainly did. I wish some of these books had been at the library back when I was the target age for them.

  5. lili on #

    isn’t it funny the way people (particularly reviewers) never talk about books for any other age group?

    you never hear them say “books for women who are going through menopause should only have happy endings”


    “books for people over 75 should contain no sex because old people don’t have sex”


    “books for mid-life-crisis men should only contain young leggy blonde girls because that’s what all middle-aged men want”

  6. Edwina on #

    I sometimes wonder whether reviewers even lived their teenage years.

    Maybe they were the ones who sat in their bedrooms trying to learn calculus in Year 7. ***

    As a teenager/YA, I reckon at this age we are more open to the new concepts being thrown at us like sex, drugs and all the things reviewers say we cannot handle.

    Sure, they are huge issues, but then again we can see it from a different angle. Adults have their moral values pretty much straightened out(to a certain degree) compared to teens.

    In other words, YA’s are open to new opinions and concepts, and adults can be naive and unforgiving to new opinions expressed by others.

    My point is, you can throw some heavy stuff at teenagers, and most of the junk will bounce off, and the things that actually matter to them will stick like glue for the rest of their lives.

    *** Amazingly true. I have seen it with my own two eyes. Actually it’s kind of sad really. :S

  7. Donna on #

    …have any of these reviewers ever MET a teenager?

    Since when do they not use contractions (or, for that matter, swear and/or have sex)?

  8. Matt Cheney on #

    Wow. What sticks out to me is how the adult reviewers seem to think teens are completely incapable of critical thinking, completely impressionable. The most skeptical readers I know are my high school students. (Who all use contractions and quite a variety of swear words, too.) It’s kind of cute, though, how much faith moralistic reviewers have in the power of fiction to immediately and irrevocably change lives.

  9. Tim Walker on #

    *joining the collective eyeroll, esp. re contractions*

    This reminds me of my “wtf?” reaction when I first learned that Sendak’s “In the night kitchen” had been banned in some libraries **because it shows Mickey’s weenie**!! out there in public! and we mustn’t acknowledge that boys have penises! oh, the horror!!

    which sort of thinking *always* evokes my *most* condescending version of “give me a f******g break”.

  10. Justine on #

    Lili: It’s because YA and children’s are the genres defined by the age of the audience, which is so weird when you think about it. Of course, as you know and I know, oodles and schoodles of people read YA who are not teenagers. I’ve had fan letters from ten year olds and from people who are 60+ years old.

    Edwina: Yup. I really do think these kinds of reviewers have completely forgotten what they were like twenty years ago or they only remember what they were like and can’t remember that lots of their peers were nothing like them.

    Some teenagers I meet are totally into exploring everything and some are totally resistant, some are religious, some are not etc. etc.—what bugs me most is the assumption that they’re all the same. As if five year olds are all the same or sixty year olds. Please!

    Matt: It’s kind of cute, though, how much faith moralistic reviewers have in the power of fiction to immediately and irrevocably change lives.

    I know you’re being ironic but the cuteness is completely wiped out by the fact that these are the people who are out there banning books that don’t fit their morals. I swear, there seems to be a new book banned every day.

  11. Dawn on #

    I’m officially 20 years old, but I’m still outraged by the fact that all these reviewers are making comments like this about YA books. In book I’m writing, most of the time the sex doesn’t happen until after marriage, but one of the mains does end up having sex before she gets married. She also ends up getting pregnant, and though the other mains don’t exactly react very happy about it at first, they accept it and love her as they always have. They don’t shun her and treat her horribly because she had sex and got pregnant. People have sex before they get married. Sometimes girls get pregnant. This is real life, and books shouldn’t be doctored to avoid life. That’s just not right.

    Teenagers don’t use swear words? What planet are these reviewers from? Maybe they should come out and walk around the halls of the high school I went to. They might learn a whole new list of dirty words.

  12. jenny davidson on #

    you’re in good form today, you know that the ranting vein is really one of my favorites!

  13. Oyce on #

    I boggle!

    I just came across a review that dismissed a book because it had a character in it who has sex and doesn’t die or suffer any other dire consequences.

    I had to read this about three times to get it; I’ve seen lots of reviews that critique books for depicting sex with dire consequences, but never the opposite!

    It’s probably a good thing you’re not linking back, as I value my brain in an unexploded state.

  14. kim on #

    i agree with dawn. the reviewers. they should come to my high school and see the way that kids talk. they must use a bad or a curse word in every sentence.

  15. Patrick on #


    Now I want a robot that speaks only in contractions and has sex…

  16. David Moles on #

    I want to read the sunshine and lollipops version of sex is evil and wrong and you always get punished for it.

  17. Justine on #

    David, I imagine it involves uni***ns

  18. David Moles on #

    oh, god, it would, wouldn’t it.

  19. Patrick Shepherd on #

    As one of those who studied calculus very early (not quite 7, but close), I must protest a (little) bit, as I didn’t stay in the bedroom that much. As a parent of a 22 and 17 year old, I also agree that teens who don’t swear, at least think about sex, or don’t use contractions don’t exist, and books that try and portray teens this way are seriously missing the boat. Reviewers who object to portrayals that have some semblance to reality are doing neither the book or themselves any favors.

    Still, today’s publishing environment for YA is far different from what it was in the fifties. I note that Heinlein’s Red Planet had to have the statement that Martians reproduce by laying eggs (!) excised on the demand of his editor. He got back at her at little later with his crack in the Star Beast about Lummox raising John Thomases, which apparently flew under his editor’s radar. The current environment and the types of books it has been encouraging has to be better – real life has sex and nasty things happening; teens know this, and the books they read had better reflect this.

  20. Diana on #

    sigh. sing it, sister.

    and yes, David, it does.

  21. hillary! on #

    I gotta agree with you, I never, ever use contractions, not even in a hurry, i just can’t stand it, oops. Nor do I read books for their moral lessons, because I am too dense to read a book thats not sci-fi or fantasy says in very delicate undertones ” Hey, you know what, crossing over to the dark side is not a good idea, no matter how cool it seems”, nor do I ever cuss, not even when I am angry, because I have no emotions!


    I don’t cuss much, but I am not gonna lie and say I never do, but 13 year old brother cusses more than I do and so does my 63 year old Nanna. Just shows how different people are. And I’ve never met a person who doesn’t use contractions, especially not teenagers. And when has a book never had a moral, even if the author didn’t know it, ‘Persevere! stay true to you! your friends! your family! your pets! ambition! hopes and dreams! Don’t be evil! Be happy! “IT’S OK TO BE SAD!” Yeah, some books never have morals!

  22. Justine on #

    Hillary!: I loved your comment so much I gave you some of your capital letters back!

  23. hillary! on #

    No teenager is the same, I know this because HEY! I am one, but we all think of sex, we talk about it costantly, and we dream alot! And we all cuss to a degree, hasn’t anyone seen saved! though? But I do have to ask “what is the girly fascination with uni***ns, horses, and vampires”? I am a girl, but I have only fallen pray to the vampires (sorry justine!). But still why? I’d like a book that explores and identifies why most girls, or just my friends, have a fascination with these things.

  24. hillary! on #


  25. Matthew on #

    I think a lot of reviewers simply discount all YA for some reason. If you don’t like the genre, don’t read it.

    I’m 26 and I prefer YA. I don’t know why, but the stories just seem more real to me. Maybe it’s because I remember being in high school and I remember how hard it was at times.

    From looking at the scifi/fantasy section of the bookstore, compared to the YA section, I’ve figured out that my own writing is closer to the YA. I think it’s a great market and I hope it continues to grow.

  26. hillary! on #

    I gotta agree with matthew, YA is better than it used to be. I want to be a librarian, but I’d rather work in a school than a public library, because then you can specialize, and always have good YA novels at hand. YA has a whole range of sub-genre that’s so fool that most teens, my friends at least, would rather stay a teen than grow up and be expected to hone their reading taste. They don’t understand that even if you’re a grown up you can still read children’s and YA novels, no matter how smart they are. I’m 17 and I jsut finished reading The Princess and The Goblin, which is one of the cutest books ever! Reading has no age limit.

  27. amy fiske on #

    yipes! i’m a reviewer for voya…

    *runs and rereads all her reviews*

    phew. i think you’re talking about other people. paranoia aside, i have seen reviews like you describe, as well as diatribes against ya in general (why don’t teens read classics? and things of that ilk). what strikes me about reviews and articles like that, is that they are more focused on the reviewer’s opinions than on the book or books in question. which is a cardinal sin of reviewing…

  28. ariel cooke on #

    “I swear, there seems to be a new book banned every day.” (justine). But the good news is, hardly anything boosts book sales like being banned. you would think these book-banning types would realize it but then they’re clueless enough to want to ban books in the first place.

  29. Justine on #

    Ariel Cooke: See that’s what everyone thinks but many, many books are taken off school shelves because of one person’s protest and no one ever hears about it. The book just disappears from that school or district. No fuss and no increased sales.

    Maureen Johnson’s book The Bermudez Triangle was banned in Oklahoma and if the librarian hadn’t let her know she would never have heard. From what I’ve heard the sales of her book have not increased dramatically as a result of the ban.

  30. K on #

    personally, i find stories that have to have a moral quite annoying. why do people want to diss books when they are being realistic? plenty of teens have sex or drink-and they don’t die. sorry to disappoint, but they don’t die.

    i am a teenager. i don’t want to read about rainbows and unicorns and morals and crap like that. i mean, i guess it’s nice to read some “happy-happy-joy-joy” book sometimes, but i’d rather read books that seem more realistic. as for contractions, i use contractions all of the time. it just does not make sense.

    plenty of teens care about things like social injustice, poverty, politics, ect. we may not be quite as informed as adults, but we really do care about the world. we care about things other than a sale at amercrombie o getting a date or something.

  31. K on #

    I agree with Hillary! in one of her first comments. I don’t see how unicorns and horses considered intersting. I do like vampire stories though.

  32. Justine on #

    Don’t look at me. I hates the uni***ns and was never obsessed with horses when I was a littlie. Or vampires.

    Dunno why so many girls are. Maybe because they’re brainwashed into it? Or maybe they just really like horses.

    I did know one boy who was horse mad but he didn’t have lots of horse books he just owned a horse and rode it whenever he could.

  33. Shara Saunsaucie on #

    I’m so behind reading your blog, and that’s a shame, cause it’s so much fun (and educational!).

    But, I’ve been reading Magic or Madness, so that’s good, right? I really enjoyed it, and I’m beating myself up for not having picked up the second title in the trilogy when I had the chance. I posted the review in my LJ, in case you’re interested.

    And I’m relatively “new” to reading YA fiction, but I don’t *think* I’m committed any of the grevious sins mentioned above. And I’ll keep them in mind for later YA reviews as well. 🙂


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