Smuggler Specialties YA Appreciation Month 2010

YA Appreciation Month – Guest Author: Sarah Rees Brennan on Why YA

Welcome to our third guest post in the YAAM – 2010 edition. As part of our celebration of all things YA, we invited authors from different genres to write articles about the books and the genres they write.

Today’s guest is Sarah Rees Brennan, one of Ana’s favourite writers, author of The Demon’s Lexicon and The Demon’s Covenant. We invited Sarah to talk about YA and to answer that infamous question: why should we read YA?

Here is what she has to say:

But Tell Me – When Are You Going To Write a REAL Book?

We’ve all heard someone say it.

I like agent Jennifer Laughran’s succinct reply on the subject: ‘YA writing is fine, but eventually you should “graduate” to writing grown-up books. Errr… screw you.’ But since I think Ana and Thea would scrag me if ‘screw you’ was the entirety of my guest blog, here are some more thoughts on Why YA.

Here’s a thing about YA, and I freely admit this is not a revelation I had myself, but rather something that I think fabulous YA writer Holly Black said first (and then I stole it, and then Scott Westerfeld stole it. Or possibly I do fabulous YA writer Mr Westerfeld a wrong, and he said it first, and then I stole it, and then Holly Black stole it. We YA writers are a scurvy bunch. All I’m sure of is that, I AM A THIEF OF WORDS.)

YA is about your first time. And not just that first time, though that’s often on the table as well.

It’s about the first time you ever get betrayed by a friend. The first time you fell in love. The first time you realised, on a bone-deep, gut-deep level, that the world was unfair, that something terrible and irreversible could happen to you, that nobody was coming to save you. And the first time is a really intense time – it’s shocking, it cuts deep. The world never comes as such a surprise again.

I’m not saying YA always gets this feeling down, but when it does, YA is like a knife that cuts both ways. (A… knife with no handle. …I’ve never really understood that song.)

An excellent example of what I mean about the questions raised by YA would be The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson, which is a funny, heartbreaking book – the best books, as we all know, are both funny and heartbreaking – which is about what happens when you start to feel disconnected from your first tightly knit group of friends, what happens when you find out you or someone you’re close to aren’t society’s idea of the norm before you realise how ridiculous those norms really are, what happens when you love someone, they betray you, and you keep loving them anyway.

Another thing about YA is that it’s a time when almost everyone is sometimes a jerk.

Think about it. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is a jerk. (And if Catcher in the Rye was published today it would be YA, and people who now love it would sneer at it. Yes it would! Yes they would! Which goes to show how silly judging quality by category really is.) Holden actually is enough of a jerk that he gets up my nose anyway, but it would be so much worse if he was an adult, and I’ve read enough books with grown-up Holdens in it that I am certain of this.

One movie that never fails to get on my nerves is As Good As It Gets. In which Jack Nicholson plays an assbucket.

RECEPTIONIST: How do you write women so well?
JACK NICHOLSON’S CHARACTER: I think of a man, and then I take away reason and accountability.
SARAH: Assbucket! He sounds like the worst writer in the world!

Now, of course Jack Nicholson’s character has OCD, which has given him a jaundiced view on life (not that everyone with OCD does, but it’s a reason if not an excuse for his behaviour) and Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear’s characters help redeem him and make him ease up on the misogyny and homophobia, and I am not saying that people can’t change/redeem themselves at any age.

But really. He is such an awful character. And he has been going around making the world unpleasant for people for at least fifty years. In fifty years, has he never noticed that he is terrible? At this point, I don’t care. I just wave my arms at the screen and yell ‘Assbucket!’

Whereas it’s okay for a teenager to have not realised yet what a huge jerk they’re being, how this affects the people around them, or what behaviour means they’re a jerk. Teens have a lot going on, and not that much time for it to go on in! Sorry Carlisle in Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover is an assbucket, and I love him. Ditto Felicity Worthington in Libba Bray’s A Great And Terrible Beauty.

The hero of the Demon’s Lexicon series, my own Nick? Yeah, I have to admit: total assbucket.

A genre in which you can explore the most flawed characters, with the most room for growth and change? How could anyone not want to write in that genre?

And at a time when everything seems like life or death, what if the situation really was life or death? That’s what draws me to YA fantasy the very most: because you can take that experience, and raise the stakes.

It is no secret to those who know me, or indeed to the world wide web, that I truly and deeply in my soul love cheesy teen movies. It is like my love for country music. I cannot explain it. I just feel it. I have seen all three High School Musical movies, I have seen Wild Child, I have seen 17 Again, I have seen this movie called The Derby Stallion starring Zac Efron, a movie that I cannot talk about without having deeply traumatic flashbacks.

And so of course, in the fullness of time, I came to see a made-for-TV Disney movie called The Wizards of Waverly Place. And actually, I really liked it. What is this movie even about, you say? I will tell you!

It’s about a family of wizards, who will all have magical powers until they reach the age of wizard majority or something, at which point they have a crazy tournament and only the winner gets to keep their magical powers. The family in question’s father deliberately lost his power so he could marry their nonwizard mother, and their aunt (who also lost her powers) is estranged from both her brothers. Anyway so the heroine of this movie is Alex, the middle child and the only girl, and she is by way of being kind of a thoughtless but charming rogue! Which I always like to see girls being, as they get to be unapologetic rogues less often than boys. And the hero of the movie is her older brother Justin, who is straight-laced, dedicated to his studies and also dedicated to scooping his little sister out of trouble. And the plot of the movie is that they have to go on an Epic Quest, which of course teaches them to appreciate each others’ abilities, rely on each other, save each other multiple times and of course heartbreakingly confess their love for each other. (See the picture. Hug it out, Alex and Justin. Hug it out.)

This movie intrigues me for two reasons. One is the fabulous premise, which as soon as I work out how to make my own I will be stealing from Disney and making it so that there is a lot of Gothic goings-on, including actually being tempted to kill your sibling. (Which you really might be! If they were competition for the most important thing to you in the world! And how could you have a normal family relationship if you were aware of that growing up anyway?) But in the end, of course, love would triumph. Because I am a big sap.

The other is that YA affords you more opportunities to tell stories like that. About the love between friends, which is the main subject of the aforementioned Bermudez Triangle.

And about the love between siblings. Having siblings as a teenager is a fascinating and frustrating thing. It’s a time when you’re fighting to be recognised as an individual in your own right, and trying to figure out exactly who that individual is, and thus a time in which you might realise that you are extremely different from the people with whom you’ll still be sharing a roof for a good few years. Passions run high! There’s sibling jealousy, sibling competition, siblings banding together against parents, and fierce sibling affection.

The first book of my Demon’s Lexicon series was very consciously constructed as a sibling romance. (No. Wait. Come back. I didn’t mean in a Flowers in the Attic way!) But many a romance goes like this: protagonist wonders about other character’s feelings for them. Protagonist is given serious reason to doubt other character’s feelings for them. Matters Build to a Climax, with things looking ever more dire for Our Protagonist, and then we and Protagonist discover other character’s secret: Other Character, as it turns out, loves Protagonist very much. It was fun to be able to use that structure to tell a story that wasn’t a romance, to say that there are more stories in heaven and earth than people dream of. Which is not to say that I don’t love a good romance. I do love a good romance, and there’s romance in my books. But the emotional heart of the books is familial love: between brothers Nick and Alan, brother and sister pair Mae and Jamie, Sin and her much younger brother and sister, and the complicated relationships all have with their separate parents. And I love that I can do that, in YA, and it’ll mean so much: I love that it was easier to do that in YA than it would’ve been for any other genre.

This woman is mad, you may say at this point. Mad and lacking in taste! She freely admits to enjoying a Disney movie more than a movie which won MANY OSCARS, including Jack Nicholson’s for Best Assbucket! No wonder she likes writing YA.

And therein lies the most important reason to the eternal question of Why YA: I really do like doing it. I love doing it, and I’m proud of it. To me, YA has some of the realest books there are. And that’s why YA.

About the author: Sarah Rees Brennan was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. The books most often found under her desk were Jane Austen, Margaret Mahy, Anthony Trollope, Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, and she still loves them all today.

After college she lived briefly in New York and somehow survived in spite of her habit of hitching lifts in fire engines. She began working on The Demon’s Lexicon while doing a Creative Writing MA and library work in Surrey, England. Since then she has returned to Ireland to write and use as a home base for future adventures. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it.

Thank you Sarah!

And we turn the question back to you, dear reader: why do YOU read YA?


  • Celine
    August 6, 2010 at 2:26 am

    Ha hah! Brilliant, Sarah! You totally nailed it.

    BTW, woman, Sept 12th, you and me on that stage. Say you can make it because I want my Demon’s Lex and Cov signed!!!!! *glares in case you’re even momentarily thinking of not being there*

  • Sean Wills
    August 6, 2010 at 4:04 am

    where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic)

    THANK YOU. You should put this on the front cover of your next book so I never again have to tell people whether I ‘speak Gaelic’.

    (Which I don’t, because I’m also terrible at it. Go, Irish education system, go.)

  • Celine
    August 6, 2010 at 4:08 am

    @Sean Wills: Yes! One of my ed’s had a terrible time convincing her fella that we don’t call it ‘Gaelic’. Even after I told him so!

  • Jackie Kessler
    August 6, 2010 at 4:13 am

    My new favorite word: “assbucket”

    Terrific post, Sarah!

  • Sass
    August 6, 2010 at 5:54 am

    I suffer from similar country music and cheesy teen movie addictions as Sarah (Wild Child is a misunderstood masterpiece!), so my taste can probably also be called into question, but…

    I read YA because I love it, too. The lens of adolescence makes the colours of the world so much brighter, the shadows so much deeper. Teen characters are less jaded than their adult counterparts, and that makes their stories full of so much incredible possibility.

    You’re so right about the ‘first’ thing, whoever originally said it. Everything in YA is fresher, somehow more real.

    And because it’s all lumped under the ‘YA’ banner, you see so much more genre-blending, so much more risk taking on the part of the author than in a lot of adult genres.

    So, yeah. I love YA. And if one more person starts talking about how I’m too old and too inteligent to be reading YA, I shall hit them, I swear.

  • MikeMagpuyo
    August 6, 2010 at 6:09 am

    Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.

  • KMont
    August 6, 2010 at 6:18 am

    I love this post. Although…I do feel the things that are pointed out and applied to Why YA can also be applied to Why Fantasy. Or Why Lit Fic. Or Why Romance, in some way or another. Jack Nicholson’s assbucket character might really enable an adult to identify in the same way some of the great points about Why YA do for kids or the adults who love YA. Because some of us are still a little lost as adults, and sometimes it just might take a lifetime to fully realize ourselves. It’s a constantly ongoing process.

    BUT, since this is Why YA – I’ve got to say I love the part in the post about familial love. I felt this way while reading Maureen Johnson’s Scarlett books just this past week. There’s some boy-meets-girl romance flitting in the wings for Scarlett, but it’s really the complicated familial love between her and her siblings that makes the books sing. I just wish I’d realized it was a three-book series, because I need that third book. Now.

  • Gerd D.
    August 6, 2010 at 7:48 am

    Why reading YA?
    Because nothing beats taking a slow stroll down memory lane. 🙂

  • Tina
    August 6, 2010 at 8:25 am

    I read Ya because there are people like Sarah writing it. People who love doing it and whose love for what they’re writing in turn makes me love what they’re writing. (There’s a lot of love going on.)
    I know a lot of people who call YA “fluff”. One woman I met called it “the lesser Chick Lit”. And admittedly, there are bad books in the YA genre. But there are also bad books in every other genre. For me, a bad book is when I don’t connect with the characters or when I have a surplus of issues with the author’s writing style or how they present issues. There have been “bad” classics, but people don’t bash them (much).

    There’s so much for authors to work with within the YA genre. When you’re a teen, you face that initial loss of innocence. I don’t necessarily mean sex so much as other things– no longer believing in Santa, questioning your faith, no longer seeing your parents as Mom and Dad but as actual people or whatever it may be. And if an author takes those issues an weave them into a story, it’s powerful, it’s beautiful, and it’s real. It’s YA.

  • Scott
    August 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    YA is about your first time. And not just that first time, though that’s often on the table as well.

    Sarah, it was Cory Doctorow who said it first, and I who stole it first. You stole it second, and Holly third. Priority is CLEAR.

  • draconismoi
    August 6, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I graduated out of YA when I was still in elementary school. My parents and teachers insisted upon this development. I needed to read only REAL BOOKS. And since I was rabidly defending my right to read scifi and horror instead of only classics and nonfiction…it didn’t even occur to me to go back to YA.

    Then I went to law school. The homework was intense, the people were all neurotic, I didn’t have a TV, and no time to spend haunting local independent bookstores searching for more books. The thought of reading even more made me nauseous.

    Then I found the only quiet room in the library. The Children’s Room. Every academic librarian in the world orders at least one copy of any book they hear has been banned, so we had quite a fabulous collection of YA books. I began ignoring my homework in favor of reading fabulous books about magic and apocalypse and surviving……

    It kept me sane. And so YA has a special place in this lawyer’s heart.

  • Etta
    August 6, 2010 at 1:45 pm


    Thank for this post. You summed up what’s great about YA so well, I’m not sure I can add anything, except to say whenever anyone sneers at my love for YA, I point out that I’ve read many wonderful books in this genre (including The Demon’s Lexicon, which I loved so much I just bought a second copy to give to a friend) and I won’t apologize for liking it (because good books are good books, no matter what the genre).

    Also, your post celebrates teen movies and bashes As Good As It Gets, and I secretly love the former and not so secretly loathe the latter.

  • Nancy Taylor
    August 6, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Why read YA?

    I’m a mother of 4 children, working in education, paying my bills, driving my minivan.


  • Tricia Sullivan
    August 6, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Hi Sarah, lovely post! If you liked the Wizards movie you ought to know that it’s a very successful TV show and if you didn’t know about that, you might not know about the fabulous i-Carly on Nickelodeon. (My kids watch it, that’s my excuse–but if you watched all those other teen movies you should check out i-Carly.)

    And on your opening point about ‘real grown up books’ and YA–I’ve been writing the former for years. imho YA is more challenging to write. That whole concept of writing for kids being easier, it should be stood on its head. 😀

  • Bella F.
    August 7, 2010 at 1:05 am

    what’s wrong with country music?! do people judge it as crappy?? lol guess I wouldn’t know since I’m a Texan but I love it :mrgreen:
    and I lurvs YA too! lately this genre just seems to have some of the best stories/series, but I also like that there’s always a bit (or more) of romance in them because I enjoy passion and few things are more passionate than ur 1st love 😀
    As for the whole business of some saying I “should graduate” from YA to general adult fiction, I completely agree with you that that’s just nonsense. For one thing, these labels and designations are mostly for marketing/targeting an audience to make sure it sells, or for us librarians to know where to shelve it so it can be found. But to hold to the idea that something YA is less than or dismiss it as not a fully capable literature in it’s own right is misguided and pretentious. I’ve had many books come into the library that are shelved in several areas like fiction, YA, romance and then mystery- all for the same book. Just as Catcher in the Rye would be categorized as an angsty YA if published today, so would Jane Austen be shelved in romance instead of classics if released today. 😉

    btw, I havent seen the movie but my boyfriend got me into watching the Waverly Place tv show and we love it lol
    Alex and her brothers are hilarious!

  • FD
    August 7, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I read YA because, well why not? A good book is a good book, and is there any reason why young people having drama / adventures are less interesting than older, or even old people? I think not.

    Incidentally, I always thought the thing about the knife with no handle meant that should you use it, you’d have to cut yourself in the process.

  • Michelle M
    August 8, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    How it is that every time you set out to write about a topic like this, you find the EXACT words which I would love to be able to say every time someone asks me this question. Mostly I just mumble out “cause it’s good” or something.

    Fabulous post!

    “A genre in which you can explore the most flawed characters, with the most room for growth and change? How could anyone not want to write in that genre?”

    Indeed how could you not?

  • beth
    August 9, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    I love this post so much I want to hug it.

    (AND HURRAH for liking Wizards of Waverly Place!!! But you and I are now in a competition to see who can steal that plot detail better. I LOVE that there’s a consequence and a choice and ahhhhh….I love it.)

  • NK
    August 9, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I loved your sibling romance, and indeed, a good sibling romance is one of my favorite things in the world, which is sad because they’re kind of rare.

    [spoilers for the Lymond chronicles below – I’m pretty sure you’ve already read them, but just in case -]

    I fell for Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles in a big way, in part because the first book is a sibling romance (also a friend romance? and a real romance? romance is just how Dunnett rolls…), and I liked it a lot. I continued to like the rest of the series a lot as well (for different reasons), but I always found it frustrating that, having written such a lovely sibling romance in the first one, she kept tearing it down and rewriting it from the ground up every book. Very frustrating, that.

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