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What Are You Teaching These Kids?

YA Highway teen contributor Kody Keplinger's debut, THE DUFF, will be published by Little, Brown/Poppy in September 2010. For more about Kody, visit our Who We Are page.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a published author whom I greatly admire when the topic of teaching lessons in YA fiction came up. She said that much of her negative feedback was from adults criticizing the “lesson” she was teaching young readers. This struck a nerve with me, as both a teenager and a writer. The subject came up again a few weeks later while talking to an aspiring teenage writer, concerned that she wasn’t teaching a “lesson.”

So today I want to speak to you both as a teenager and a writer, but mostly as a teenager who really, really loves to read YA books.

Your novel does NOT have to teach kids a lesson.

Here’s the cold, hard, honest truth. No matter what profound lesson you are attempting to teach – be it that kindness to others is important or that sex should be saved until marriage – it is not going to entice teens to read your book. No teenagers (well, not any that I know) go to bookstores looking for novels that are going to teach them lessons.

Teens read books because they are funny.

Teens read books because they have action.

Teens read books because they will be entertaining in some way.

I have never seen a teenager pick a book up off the shelf and say, “Oh, this is going to teach me how to respect my elders. I think I should buy it.”

Now, this is not to exclude accountability/responsibility for your characters’ actions. In the words of our own Kirsten Hubbard, “Lessons aren't necessary, but that doesn't mean we can write about free drugs for everyone and unprotected sex in alleys, ftw.”

If your characters are doing something dangerous and stupid, then maybe they should have a moment where they realize it was dangerous and stupid. Having a character learn a lesson is good – it’s a huge part of growth and character development – but setting out to teach your audience a lesson often comes off as condescending, and no teenager likes to be talked down to while reading a book that should be meant to entertain.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking up at that top paragraph and saying to yourself, “But you just said that one author got criticized for not having a lesson . . .” Well, if you look closely, I said that her critics were adults.

Honestly, there are some adults out there who believe that all children’s literature should teach kids a lesson. Some parents may get angry if your characters have sex or do drugs or use swear words, even if you DO hold the character accountable at the end. These adults might get upset and might complain, but, to put it simply, who cares about them? If you are writing YA, then you want to please teenagers. Sure, it would be great if you could make everyone happy, but that’s just impossible.

In the end, it comes down to your characters and your story. If your characters learn a lesson and it is important to the story, then go for it. But if your characters make a ton of mistakes and the story doesn’t really call for them to regret it or repent later, then don’t force it. Teenagers can tell when you’re forcing an unnecessary or uncalled for lesson upon them.

So next time you sit down to write and you come across the question of “What kind of lesson does this teach to my reader?” just remember that your reader isn’t seeking lessons. They’re looking for entertainment. And they are the ones you want to please.

~Kody Keplinger
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. I second that Amen!

    When I tell people that I write YA; I can see them going through these three questions in their mind. Why? Don't you want to write a REAL book? and then of course the topping on the cake, "OH I get it, you are trying to teach kids a lesson." All these adults have one thing in common, they have kids or have nieces and nephews.

    When I try to explain that reading should be fun and entertaining, they roll their eyes at me.

    I'm a parent and I do select my child's book. Hey, he's only nine with a reading age of 12. So he's right at the top end of MG and some YA books. I check for contents because he's a child. That said, I can't wait for him to be older so he can sink his teeth into the meatiest of YA books.

    I don't understand why parents censor children's literature. Shouldn't we be glad that the kids are reading? Apparently reading is good as long as it's not Edgy YA.

    My advice to parents, LET THE KIDS READ WHAT THEY WANT!!! Every book, intended or not, has a plot with consequences which will indirectly teach a lesson to the reader. Even if it doesn't sound preachy.

    I still remember my mother trying to censor SE Hinton books when I was 10. And you know what, even if she forbade me to read them at home, I read them at school... and in other places. It didn't turn me into a runaway, nor a greaser nor a Soc. It taught me about the lives of all those characters and the consequences of their actions.

  2. I'm also a YA writer, aiming at older teens and 20-somethings, and my books do carry a positive message of hope.
    But even I've been knocked by adults who claim that my 'inspirational' books should not show young adults having premaritual sex. I do show consequences for some of these incidents, though. (I also wonder, "On what planet does this NOT happen?")
    Let kids read!

  3. Wha--no unprotected sex in alleys FTW? Curses! *goes to delete scene from novel*

    Great post, Kody, and very, very true! And I think it's universal, for the most part. As an adult, I don't like messages crammed down my throat while I read, either. I just want to be entertained.

  4. Great post, Kody! This past January, I had to attend a 10-day residency as part of my MFA program. One of my classmates (who's also a mother) got on her soapbox and mentioned how it "pissed her off" when novels geared toward teens feature sex and curse words. I'm the only student in my program who writes YA and yes, my writing does feature some sex and curse words (shocker!), so I felt personally attacked by her comment. Needless to say, we didn't have much to say to each other throughout the rest of the residency.

    I respect parents who want to screen certain things from their children, but they can't pretend like their children will never be exposed to these things through friends, school, and the media. Also, I feel that since me and my classmate are both writers, she should have found a more respectful way to share her opinion. Oh well. Can't win them all.

  5. Excellent post, Kody!

  6. AWESOME post! And so, so, so true.

  7. Excellent, excellent post, Kody.

    I think what it boils down to is if we tell a story that is true to life, "lessons" will be about as present in our novels as they our in our lives. But setting out to write with the intent of teaching something...well, write a scholarly essay, if that's what you want.

  8. I agree with all your points but I think there is another reason teens read a particular book. The peer pressure. They read what other teens read so that they are "in" the know. They don't want to be the only one that's not read "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" although there are still thoses who wait till it comes out at the movies.
    I wish half these excellent YA authors and books had been around when I was growing up. I can remember going to the library and being totally pissed that the teen corner at the library had maybe 50 books, most of which I'd read when I was 12 or 13 and not being allowed to take books from adult stacks. Luckily, my mom was an avid reader and was great about letting me pick out the books I wanted and checking them out on her card as the librarian would let a 15/16 year old check out "adult" fiction.

  9. It's crazy that this is even an issue. We live in a free society. While those parents have a right to complain about those books, we have a right to write them. Instead of getting all up in arms about books with sex and cussing (oooooooohhh!), why don't they A.) not buy books for their teens that they don't feel are appropriate for their family or B.) use these books as a learning opportunity, i.e., "we don't approve of this kind of behavior and this is why..." or "this is the situation in which this type of behavior is acceptable..."

    I think as writers we SHOULD be thinking about what lessons our books teach, but not until the very end of the creative process and only then to be self-aware. Lessons inherently and organically will weave themselves into a story, and it is important to be aware of what your book "says" or how it will be perceived, but no author should have to sanitize or change their book to make it neat or appropriate.


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Item Reviewed: What Are You Teaching These Kids? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard