Six Things That Bug Me About Modern Young Adult Fiction

young adult fictionI love modern young adult fiction. I read it more now than I did when I was a young adult. I’m constantly stunned by the variety in genre, the talent of many of the writers, and the pure inventiveness of many YA books. But there are a few things that annoy me that pop up more frequently than I would like. (Books and authors will remain nameless as these are issues that appear in more than one book and often in books I really like otherwise.)

1. Too much power and authority handed over to teens. I’ve read a few too many YA books where kids are given an insane amount of authority, as if there are no adults who can lead a community, save the world, overthrow a totalitarian government or catch a criminal. I know there’s often an element wish-fulfillment in YA fiction, but one of the major things that defines being a kid/teen is powerlessness. Unless all the adults are dead (and yes, there are some books like that) having the kids in charge makes little sense.

2. The story is written in present tense. I know, I know — it’s all the rage now. Supposedly, stories written in present tense have more of a sense of immediacy, but it drives me up the wall. For some reason, I can tolerate first person present tense, but when it’s in third person, I rarely finish the book. It reminds me too much of poorly written fanfic.

3. Love triangles. I don’t like them. There, I said it. They make a female protagonist look fickle and a male protagonist look like a dog. No Team This or Team That for me. The thing I really don’t understand is, why would a writer want to intentionally piss off a huge chunk of their readership? Because that’s what happens, no matter how the story resolves.

4. Bitchy female secondary characters who exist solely to make it more difficult for the heroine to get the guy. Come on, a lot of YA is written by women, can we please get rid of this trope forever? I’ve come across some truly unpleasant secondary female characters in otherwise amazing books. That doesn’t mean they have to be nice, but at times these characters are closer to caricatures. A little bit of depth would be appreciated.

5. Throwing a romance in the story just to have one. There’s nothing better than a wonderful love story, but if it doesn’t evolve organically from the story, why have it? Friendship and familial love can carry a story just as well.

6. Not having the guts to kill off major characters if the genre demands it. If a story is in a genre where there is going to be a high body count – if it’s about war, or an apocalyptic event, or some other dangerous setting, then you gotta kill off some major characters. I read one post-apocalyptic series where not one of the protagonist’s family members dies, even though they are spread out all over the country and millions of people are wiped out from the initial event and the aftermath. That is impossible to imagine. Sure, it’s fiction, but again, there has to be some sense of reality.

Are there things that bother you about YA books? Let us know in the comments section!

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34 thoughts on “Six Things That Bug Me About Modern Young Adult Fiction

  1. Paragraphs upon paragraphs of physical description always bother me. Also, I hate how so many male love interests have to be some hot dude with no other development, and the female love interest just cares that he’s hot, even if he has a terrible personality.
    The present tense thing bothers me as well. It reminds me of a Wikipedia plot summary.

    1. I agree! I don’t like stories where female characters are nothing more than objects of desire. Male characters shouldn’t be treated that way, either.

    2. Frankly, I’m sick of 1st person–period. Nearly every book, always the same. And always with the female protag. I know that publishers buy work that fits a safe model–something they feel will sell because it ALWAYS sold in the past (maybe because that’s all that’s ever offered?) but sheesh! Something different, please!

  2. The present tense style I think is a carry-over from screenwriting formats — the novelist wants to make the story seem cinematic, so Hollywood powers-that-be can already see it as a movie and beg to purchase the rights to adapt it for the big screen.

  3. 1. But when you’re a kid you totally love that. Last year I went back and reread some of my favourite books from decades ago. How we change. How the world changes. But I noticed this too, but subconsciously kids want to be Pippi Longstocking or in the Famous Five. Adults? What adults? Oh, you mean those silly, ineffectual, unimportant incompetents like the police or our parents?

    I find 4 and 5 especially annoying. You just know someone’s editor said they had to have a romance, but the writer clearly didn’t want one.

    1. One of the things I loved about The Hunger Games was even though Katniss was the face of the revolution, none of it was her choice. Collins managed to convey her powerlessness even as she helps to change her society.

      Oh, totally agree that some books feel like agents or editors insisted on a romance when the author didn’t want one.

      1. Yes, that does work excellently in the Hunger Games. I should check if you have posted on the Hunger Games, especially in relation to the film. I’d love to hear your take on it.

  4. My ultimate pet peeve relates to what’s on the outside of many of the books: beautiful white girls in floofy dresses posing passively all over the place. Ugh!

    1. Absolutely! There have been some fantastic blog posts around the web about YA covers, and I will probably add my own thoughts about the issue in a future post. An issue definitely deserving of its own article.

  5. Great article! I’m relieved to see that I haven’t broken any of these rules… especially not number 6.

    I wonder why love triangles in YA fiction are always female-male-male? I’m struggling to think of any counter examples.

    1. Thanks so much!

      I think the male-female-female triangle does exist, but the third point is usually the “bitchy girl” I mention in #4, and not a serious contender for the male character’s affection.

  6. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with all your points – very interesting….but I fear writers are at the mercy of insensitive, materialistic, money-minded, sales-obsessed publishers!

  7. Okay, I have to disagree with number one. Not because it is not true, but because you specifically said it is a problem with MODERN YA Fiction. This has been a problem with YA fiction for at least the last hundred years. Off the top of my head I can think of Jack Armstrong, Tom Swift, Johnny Quest, the Scooby-Doo Gang, The Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew all who were mid to late teens, some early teens, who operated in an adult world.

    1. I don’t disagree — but lately, I’ve come across books where teens take charge of their society (I promised not to name names, and in this case, it’s a series I otherwise like a lot), or when they are charged by their society to hunt down a criminal (a book I didn’t like much, but I still promised). In the latter case, the character is only 15 years old and has virtually no real world experience, so why is she being put in charge of that kind of mission?

      That’s a bit different from kids defying Mom and Dad or investigating a crime on their own.

  8. This is a great post, Debbie! I write YA and these are good things to think about. Some of these things have bothered me, too, particularly the bitchy girl added just for artificial conflict. Another one I’ve run into are time shifts done in a way that is confusing and not really necessary to the plot.

  9. My biggest pet peeve in modern YA fiction is the huge number of female protagonists. How about we get some stories for the boys? There are a few and Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series stands out, but there are so many girl-centric YA books out there. The boys are being ignored.

    1. This is so true! I’m constantly hunting for reading that will appeal to a couple of young teen boys that I would really like to turn into readers. There just isn’t that much good YA with boy appeal.

      1. Can’t go wrong with a Kenneth Oppel or Neal Shusterman book for boys. Depending on the age of the teen, I also liked Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, which older boys will probably like.

    2. There are a lot of theories about why that is, the main one being that boys don’t read as much as girls. Kind of like the theory that boys go to movies more than girls, and that’s why there are more male-centric movies. I think it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The industry caters to girls because they think that’s where the money is, just like the movie industry caters to boys for the same reason.

      There are some good series with male protagonists, i.e. Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and Oppel’s Matt Cruse series. Neal Shusterman writes a lot of books with male main characters. The nice thing about all those series is they write pretty great girl characters, too.

      I think it’s wrong to have a gender imbalance, whether it’s in favor of boys or girls. Hopefully, that will change soon, both with YA books AND movies.

      1. I agree again! My only gripe about the Percy Jackson series is that it’s geared for a slightly younger age. My son (age 12) has been through of the Rick Riordan books and all the Dashner books. The books you mention fall into the ages 7-12 categories in the book stores, and he’s ready to move out into the teen section. We were looking for something geared for 12 and up (he’s a great reader) and so far Jonathan Maberry fits the bill. I actually just did a blog series on YA dystopian literature and the gender gap and how Maberry’s books fill the void nicely.

        Even some male writers are resorting to female protagonists (I’m thinking of China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun here). Is this just to sell better? I don’t blame them for that, but come on, take a risk!

        The idea that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy is spot on. However, I will also argue that almost everything is marketed more heavily toward girls. Do you know how hard it is to find a good variety of boys’ clothes? Many catalogs don’t even carry boy-themed items or clothing anymore. And there are plenty of girl themed movies– Tangled and the recent Brave. Maybe this is because girls are assumed to be the “shoppers” or the ones that will hound their parents more for something? Either way, it’s unfortunate and sad.

  10. Everyone has their own opinion and the right to express it. I can’t argue with this list of pet peeves this writer expresses. I especially agree with the abhorrence of a love triangle. Most teenage girls are lucky to have one boy hunger for her and having two fighting over her doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially since in YA fiction not all of the heroines are your typical beauties who would attract boys. I also tend to agree that some major characters have to be sacrificed to add to the tension of the tale. In LOST, for instance, any number of main characters were killed off — characters viewers had become attached to. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games the death toll of significant characters hits epic proportions in the final book. In my own Shamra Chronicles I kill off several characters I truly loved, as I crafted them. But, their deaths were required. Killing significant characters for no reason at all makes little sense, but it is moves the plot along and increases the tension it is the right thing to do.

  11. One of my main annoyances about books is chapter upon chapter of descriptive. That to me slows down the character development because the author is too busy describing the scenery or they go off on a tangent describing something similar that has nothing to do with what’s actually happening to the characters. Another thing is the lack of motivation for characters. I hate when I don’t why certain things are happening. It’s like it’s happening just because it prolongs the story not because the characters had some connection to it or memories or interest…

  12. This is an interesting post. The only modern YA fiction series I have read recently is The Hunger Games, which I loved – but I noticed a lot of these characteristics applied to the series. It is interesting you mention #1 because just the other day I was thinking about how almost all of my favorite YA heroes from childhood are either parentless or their parents don’t play a huge role in their lives: I’m talking about Harry Potter, Matilda, the Baudelaires from A Series of Unfortunate Events and some others I can’t remember atm. I remember that feature contributing to their strength and independence, which is why I admired them. However, it did so at the expense of celebrating parental love/relationships.

    Actually you gave me an idea to write a possible blogpost about. Thanks!

    1. I’m a BIG fan of The Hunger Games, but yes, it does have some of these issues. Well, nothing’s perfect. I often wonder why Panem is SO isolated from the rest of the world. Is the rest of the world gone? Maybe that isolation is deliberate, but it’s still strange.

      The orphan hero is extremely common in middle grade and young adult fiction. I recently read someone explain that when it comes to young protagonists, the missing parents trope is necessary, or the hero would not be permitted to go on the adventure. There’s something to that, I think.

      1. I wondered that about Panem as well! I decided to just assume they imposed North Korea-esque isolationist policies. (It would explain the strictly regulated economy/division of labor in Panem)

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