Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Helen Mallon, guest Blogger Discusses Contrasts in Adult & YA Fiction

I've invited over Helen Mallon, author extraordinaire.
She writes mostly for adults, but has a few short stories aimed for the teen/crossover market. She says her proudest moment came when she received her first royalty check for her e-story entitled "Did You Put The Cat to Bed?" Currently, she's working on a novel entitled Quaker Playboy Leaves Legacy of Confusion. She also loves her work as an editorial consultant for writers of all stripes. Learn more at

Today, I've asked her to speak to the differences and similarities between the adult and YA markets.

Helen: Obviously, publishers market to different audiences, YA or adult, but the writing itself also addresses different points of view. Not only the point of views of characters, but of readers. For example, in my adult short story with a teen protagonist. You Say You Want a Revolution, coming out soon with It's a dark tale about a girl who's gotten involved with a teacher, and told from alternating points of view: the teacher and Sarah's. If a teen asked me about reading it, I'd say "Check with your parents first."

Mark hadn't planned to get involved with a student when Sarah came to him for math tutoring. But her long brown hair as she sat beside him in the tiny study room had reflected tints of roam, even peach. Then unexpectedly, the florescent light overhead stopped buzzing and she had looked up at him, startled... so Mark convinced himself that... it was she who had seduced him.

Yes, YA can and should deal with tough subjects and nothing should be taboo. However, if this story were written for a YA audience, I would have emphasized Sarah's voice because ethically speaking, the two voices are not equally "valid." Adult readers are generally better equipped to untangle moral ambiguity, and authors have a responsibility to respect the developmental level of their readers, without "talking down" to them.

At the story's end, Sarah discovers her own power when she and the teacher encounter another teenager being mocked. "Keep going!" Sarah's hands were fists. She was buoyant and upright, and she wanted to run like hell as soon as she knew that Greg was safe. She had never before saved anyone.

Including the point of view of a child molester is not the only thing that makes this an adult story. The Beatles inspired title makes an ironic reference to the sexual revolution, which hints at Sarah's victimization and emerging power from a decidedly adult, poignant distance.

In contrast, my story I Want to be Just Regular is intended as a crossover piece--for both teens and adults. Olivia's dad has moved into the bathroom and won't come out. Will Dad emerge to attend her high school graduation or will he let her down? Here, Olivia describes an English elective she took, hoping to understand him better.

"Shakespeare and Madness" wasn't explaining my father better to me. Shakespeare's crazies were either faking it or they pretty much brought it on themselves. I thought Ophelia was kind of a twit. My father wasn't filled with hubris or sick with love. He owned a big moving company whose motto was 'We Bring Them Home.' And before that, he liked to fart around in his vegetable garden.

What makes this YA appropriate is the lightness around Olivia and her nutty father. Olivia sets the tone... I believe that the same first person character would speak differently in a book intended for adults... as a child speaking to an adult audience is regarded from a terrain of years and experience. What we might consider narcissism in teens is actually a path to discovery in which common events such as falling in love, breaking up and making career decisions are fresh experiences that never have happened to them before!

Consider an adult book with universal appeal, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's first person narration is often from a child's innocent point of view, yet it's also moderated as she looks back from a position of adult experience.

What about you? What differences do you see between writing for teens and adults?


  1. I think teens are all about emotions. They don't fully understand their emotions and that makes the feelings that much more intense.

  2. I also think that a lot of YA writing needs to address the teen's journey of self discovery and trying to find where they fit in

  3. I'm honored to be here, and many thanks to Catherine for the invite. It's so easy to miss where teens really are, and if so, you end up writing down to them even if you don't mean to.

  4. Yes, emotions, emotions, and more emotions.

  5. Great post! Teenagers think they know it all, and adults really do know it all. (At least more than the teens.)

  6. Great question! And Madeline is so right! That pretty much sums it up. I'd say emotional maturity is what separates adults from teens. Some material may just be too mature for teens to full grasp, however reading about it can only expand their horizons.

  7. I agree with your guest, and the truly good YAs carry off that youthful voice, yet can pack a wallop when it comes to insights about emotional immaturity and coming of age.

    Enjoyed the visit as usual, Katherine.

  8. Good points here about opening up the bigger issues for YA's.
    Catherine, you'll be happy to know my copy of A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND arrived yesterday and my 10yr old daughter actually jumped up and down on the spot. She was so excited to read a 'choose your own' story - she's heard of them but hadn't read one. She sat down and read it in one sitting and loved it.
    She'll blog a review about your book soon at her blog (I'll let you know when it goes up). Good work!
    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  9. I agree with everyone else. :)

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  10. I agree that teen reads area all about their emotions and their developing psyches.
    I'm now following your blog and looking forward to your posts.
    Fellow MG-YA Campaigner

  11. Interesting post. Mom was pretty strict, and once she let up the reigns I just went straight to adult fiction, so I'm not particularly familiar with YA. So I learned a lot from this interview.

    Also, I've chosen your blog for the Versatile Blogger Award. Here it is if you want it :)

  12. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments, everyone. It's always a good exercise to have to clarify in words what you believe about writing. A discovery process, and even better when it's done in community!

  13. Hmm, I guess I never stopped to consider that it was possible to write a book that appealed to both an adult and a youth. I'm either one way or another. I like the teacher/student topic though. :) There's always a controversy there.

  14. I teach YA, but I still can't write that genre. Sometimes the language is the same. I think the difference is in their understanding, though I agree with your guest. You've made me think.

  15. lol, madeline's comment cracked me up, but maybe it's more of teens think they know it all and adults realize that they (adults) know nothing. At least I feel that way sometimes and supposedly I'm an adult, so hmm... I like the idea of contrasting what should be in adult fiction vs. YA. I've been reading a lot of YA and writing a fair bit too. In fact I've been reading more YA now as an adult than I ever did when I was a tween or teen.

    Also, Catherine, like Sam I have tagged you for the versatile blogger award, but only if you want it. Since I can't seem to figure out how to link my blog (maybe I need to tie it to my google id, its

  16. Melissa, thanks so much!!! Of course I'll accept it.

  17. Everyone, thanks for your comments! Wasn't it Mark Twain who said, (to the effect that) "When I was 17 I thought my father was the stupidest man on earth. When I was 22, I was surprised how much the old man had learned." I guess the trick is it write in the adolescent POV without condescension. Maybe Mark Twain's father was condescending ?? Biggest youth turnoff there is.