On Stereotypes and Other Trends in YA

I was all set to make a post about stuff every author ought to have on their blog (I have a list I’ve been generating), but I’ll save that for another day.  Why?  Well, I just read a really scathing review of a YA book I happened to love.  I’m not mentioning titles or linking to the review because I don’t want to get into some kind of internet pissing match, but there are a few charges she levied that simply begged response.

  1. All main characters in YA are hot. Okay maybe this one half has merit.  This IS the case in a lot of YA, particularly YA that deals with the paranormal because it mostly seems that paranormal denizens of any genre are hot.  But one thing must be mentioned, about YA in particular.  A huge chunk of YA is written in first person.  Which means that the hero or heroine is talking in first person about his or her crush.  How many butt ugly people did you crush on in high school?  I know I thought every guy I had a crush on was hot, whether he was by model terms or not.  I can remember so many friends who had boyfriends they thought were the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they didn’t do a thing for me.  Attractiveness is wholly in he eye of the beholder, so yes, ESPECIALLY when romance is involved, the main characters are gonna think each other is hot.  It’s the nature of the beast.
  2. All the characters were stereotypes. This made me positive that the reviewer did not go to public high school.  Stereotypes exist for a reason.  Teenagers are exaggerations of themselves…WALKING stereotypes.  You have the jocks and the cheerleaders and the brainiacs and the quiet boy and all manner of typical pigeon-holing definitions.  Go to any high school in America and you will find oodles of the same.  Are there more to these kids?  Absolutely.  But when have you met a teenager that automatically looked beyond the surface of every person they meet?  Stereotypes in YA help draw you in and set the stage.  For those of us who are long out of high school, it brings us back and pulls us into those halls.  Almost every YA I’ve read that was set in a school setting (rather than out on some adventure somewhere) did the exact same thing.  It’s how they start out.  The point is that they emerge as deeper characters over the course of the story–which this reviewer totally missed because she stopped only 1/3 into the book.
  3. Hero was weak, heroine was a coward, and none of the mains was perfect. Okay I’m exaggerating a little bit, but the way this reviewer spoke, it sounded like she expected these teen characters to be grown up and mature and making the perfect decision right out of the gate.  Here’s the thing: Teens make bad decisions (so do adults, but we’re still talking YA here).  Teens make selfish decisions.  Teens wrestle over WHAT decision to make.  If you have a teen character who does the exact right thing from page one, then why am I reading your book?  The whole point of YA fiction is for teens to GROW and CHANGE.  And if the heroine starts out as a coward and lets something bad happen because she’s afraid to get involved–it haunts her the rest of the book and is the catalyst for her entire character arc. But oh, you wouldn’t know that because you STOPPED at the first third of the book.

I think that there is a tendency because we all read so much paranormal or supernaturally based YA that we have greater expectations for the characters in these stories.  So when someone comes out with truly authentic and flawed characters, characters that could have had the locker next to ours, some readers are disappointed that they aren’t reading about an Edward or a Jace or a Nick Ryvves.  That doesn’t make these books any less valid or wonderful.  And if you didn’t finish the book, fine, but don’t base a full review off 30% of a story.

5 thoughts on “On Stereotypes and Other Trends in YA

  1. I’ve been reading a lot of reviews lately, especially focusing on the bad reviews, trying to figure out what readers are thinking. Some of the indie authors I really like are getting some 1 star reviews along with their 4 and 5 star reviews. I’ve come to the conclusion that some readers enjoy writing hateful, scathing reviews. I think they get off on it. I wrote a post on my blog about why I don’t give bad reviews. I’ve had a couple of bad reviews on one of my books where the reviewer was honest and helpful, things that can make you a better writer. But the reviews that use hateful language and lots of sarcasm…I think it’s a kick for the reviewer. Just my opinion.

    But, on the other hand, opinions are just that…opinions. We have to learn to take the good ones and the bad ones. Sometimes we feel like we have to defend writers we really love. But there are some writers that some of the other indies rave about that I don’t really like that much. And, I’m sure, vice versa. So if a reviewer gives a 1 or 2 star to someone I really like, I just shrug and say that’s their opinion. It’s when the reviewer gets mean about it that I have a real problem.

    1. There was a scene in this particular book that the reviewer totally misinterpreted based on some personal experiences. It was obviously a hot button issue for her and it seemed that she took it out on the author without really seeing the scene for what it was. So I really don’t see this one as being a result of somebody who just likes being hateful. But yeah there are totally a lot of those out there too.

  2. The bit about all the characters being attractive in interesting, because it has been a problem in the romance genre. I believe that it was a rule of publication, at least an unwritten one, that main characters had to be attractive, because it was part of the escapist nature of the fiction. Beautiful people, exotic locales, heroes were never unemployed–unless they were retired ex-mercenaries sitting on a pile of cash or something. Now that the genre has broadened and sometimes includes more realistic, or at least grittier stuff, there are a number of readers who are put off by the everyone is beautiful thing. And I think it’s a valid criticism, when true.

    It’s a tricky thing to see, though. In the first person, you are absolutely talking about the narrator’s opinion. So when she’s looking at the guy she likes, of course she sees him as attractive. When she meets other girls, her opinion of their attractiveness could be colored by a number of factors. What others think (which matters in YA) and thus what she is “supposed” to think (even we, as adults, may find our views of what is and is not attractive affected by what our peers and the media suggest attractiveness is. This is how “it” girls happen.); and how the appearance of the other girls, how they are different from the narrator, makes her feel her own lack of place (a popular YA theme), are two examples.

    In stories which employ the third person, many are told through the eyes of the POV character. So, again, you’re talking about someone’s opinion. I think it’s when phrases like “she knew she was attractive” pop up, especially in some detailed physical description of a main character which contains no real physical flaws, that you get a definite sense that everyone really is beautiful in the story.

    But I think that romantic stories, as a whole, may suffer in the eyes of some tired readers, due to the glut of “perfect” main characters that came before.

  3. I think you also have to keep in mind that sometimes readers just don’t like a book. I think this has happened to everyone. You read something, and you don’t like it, and you try to come up with the reasons WHY you don’t like it. Sometimes it’s hard to figure that out…why don’t I like this? So you disect it and think about it and come up with some reasons why it didn’t work for you. Maybe those reasons are valid, maybe not. But you still don’t like the book. And that’s ok…it’s just not your thing. I think reviewers need to be careful of making their reviews too black/white, because obviously it’s subjective. But, I also think they have a right to stop reading a book and try to explain why it didn’t work for them.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Everybody totally has the right to stop reading a book and to not like it. There are plenty I’ve read that I’ve thrown against a wall, metaphorically or otherwise. I just kind of felt like this reviewer totally missed the point of this story, and it made me really angry on the author’s behalf.

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