A couple months ago it came to my attention that several teenage book bloggers felt uncomfortable in the YA community. Some complained about authors making offhanded ageist remarks. Others complained about outright harassment. Some had been mocked by authors, who essentially said they were too immature to give proper reviews.
As a result, this post is mostly focused on YA authors, but I hope adult authors will take this advice to heart as well—teenagers shouldn't be restricted to YA any more than adults are banned from reading YA.
The bloggers didn't name the authors who harassed them, not wanting to encourage further harassment towards anyone, so this is a reminder for the entire community:
YA literature is fiction for and about teenagers. It is supposed to tackle the specific issues they face, to help them face those problems themselves. It's supposed to give them escape and encouragement.
Of course, many adults also love YA. Our culture is obsessed with youth, and many of the challenges teenagers face are simplified versions of adult issues. We understand them, because we've lived through them before and are living through similar things again. This is part of what makes YA so successful; it appeals to a massive audience.
But YA is for teenagers first, and the community should be too. We should encourage teenagers to not only join but actively shape the YA community. We definitely shouldn't make them feel uncomfortable sharing their age.
With that said, here are four ways you can make teens welcome in the YA community:
1) Watch out for casual ageism in your language
We don't talk about it much, but ageism is one of the most deeply ingrained biases in our society. Ageism affects both young people and elderly people, but for obvious—I hope—reasons I'm going to focus on how it affects young people.
I'm sure you're already familiar with the prevailing stereotypes about teenagers: they're shallow and immature, they have no idea who they are, and they can't be relied upon. There's one deep, brooding kid in every school, but beyond that, the entire young population of the world apparently fits this mold.
These stereotypes are reinforced everywhere. We've been taught to expect only vapid, obnoxious teenagers since we were kids watching shows about the teenagers we would soon become. I'd argue that middle schoolers are frequently treated more like adults, as if teenage hormones are so severe that they infantilize a person.
When a teenager exceeds those expectations, adults are often shocked. I was a teen in the book community a few short years ago, and almost every time I disclosed my age I got the same reaction:
"You're so mature for your age."
I used to take this as a compliment, because I never fit in with anyone my own age (I've got obscure taste in… Well, everything), and because it always came from people who otherwise treated me with respect. But I've spent a lot of the past two years studying internalized biases and how they impact our language, and I realized that this sentence is actually the ultimate backhanded compliment. It does praise me, but only at the expense of my entire generation.
Two months away from my 24th birthday, I still hear this all the time, and now it drives me crazy. How immature am I supposed to be at 24? Is THAT why I frequently struggle to keep my roster of clients full? Because people still expect me to act like a child?
Maturity isn't about the number of years you've lived on this earth. It's about the amount you've lived during the time you've been given. We cannot guess how mature a person will be based on an arguably arbitrary number. So let's stop assuming someone's age based on their apparent maturity level, and let's stop discounting an entire generation just because they're still young.
2) Actively encourage teen fans to connect with you
Social anxiety is a common problem for teenagers, especially when trying to reach out to adults they admire. Even the fiercest, most confident teen has to some extent internalized the societal bias against them. They don't believe their opinion matters enough for them to deserve an ARC of your book. They don't believe they are worthy of your time.
Sometimes their anxiety is also rooted in experience. They're used to being talked down to and ignored by adults. Maybe they've even been insulted, harassed, or disregarded by other YA authors in the past.
Often all they need is a little encouragement. Actively say that you want to support teen reviewers and bloggers on your social media feeds. Encourage teenage fans to send you their opinions and questions.
Many publishers now actively state that they want to support diverse voices in their submission guidelines. My challenge to you, as an author, is to state on your website and social media platforms that you want to support teen voices.
3) Amplify teenage bloggers' and reviewers' voices
The vast majority of teenage bloggers and reviewers are entering the book community for the first time. They have smaller followings, and if they publicly disclose their age, they're fighting a constant uphill battle for respect.
As YA authors, these are the voices we should be paying most attention to—our books may appeal to all ages, but they're really for teens. To serve them better, we need to know what they think. So we should already be reading teens' reviews.
My final challenge is for you to take this one step further. Share their blogs with your own following. If you love the same books they do, let them know. If they're actively seeking authors to be guests on a new blog, reach out. Help their voices reach further across the community, so they can shape it in the way they should have been able to shape it from the beginning.
4) Only interact when you're wanted
Sometimes teenagers don't want to interact with authors in the YA space. They only want to interact with other teens. This can be for a whole myriad of reasons, but it's important to pay attention when a teen says they're uncomfortable. If they say a conversation is not for you, it's not for you.
There are already few safe spaces for teenagers to gather in the real world. Their access to everything is restricted by either age or money. The internet makes it easy for them to connect with other teens and form safe spaces of their own. We need to respect those spaces.
All of the above can really be summed up with one easy rule: treat teenagers with the same level of respect that you treat adults. They may have a different set of problems, but they really aren't as far from being actual adults as most people seem to think.
Dianna Gunn is author of YA fantasy novella Keeper of the Dawn and columnist at Writer's Corner, writing both Professional Interaction for Authors and Creating Great Characters. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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