Tackling Tough Topics in YA

When I started working on my young adult novel My Life After Now, which is about a teenage girl who learns she is HIV-positive, the only thing I was thinking about was telling a good story.

Okay, I knew I specifically wanted to tackle the subject of HIV/AIDS because not only has teen literature largely skirted the issue, but society as a whole has become somewhat complacent about the virus, now that people aren’t dying from it at the rate they were twenty and thirty years ago. I also knew I wanted my character to contract HIV throughout the course of the book, as a direct result of her own actions, since that is how most people acquire it.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: juliette19 won.)


jessica-verdi-writer-author       my-life-after-now-cover

Column by Jessica Verdi, a young adult author who writes envelope-pushing
stories about not-so-pretty real-life issues, but always with a positive spin. She
received her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School and works as
an editor at a romance novel publisher. Her debut novel MY LIFE AFTER NOW
was published this past April and her second novel THE SUMMER I WASN’T ME
will be published April 2014, both by Sourcebooks Fire. She loves hearing from
her readers! Visit her at www.jessicaverdi.com and follow her on Twitter @jessverdi.



But other than that, I wasn’t too concerned with the “message” of the book—instead, I focused on my character. This one (fictional) girl’s journey is just that: one girl’s journey. Though people with HIV/AIDS certainly do have some shared experiences, their stories are ultimately all different. And so Lucy’s experience with HIV is only part of her story. She’s also a daughter, an actor, a friend, a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend, an enemy, a student, a teenager. Once I knew who she was as a person, the rest came easy.

Sometimes people write me emails or approach me at readings and say how “brave” it was of me to write a book like this. To those people I say, thank you for your kind words—but I’m not sure if brave is the right word. Because, honestly, I wasn’t thinking about the readers as I wrote—I was thinking much more selfishly. What kind of book would I like to read? What kind of book do I wish there were more of in the teen lit marketplace? What kind of book do I wish had been available when I was a teenager?

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I wrote My Life After Now while I was at The New School, pursuing my MFA in Writing for Children. I didn’t have an agent or a book deal; apart from some pop culture reporting and TV show recapping, I was unpublished. Getting this book on bookstore shelves was still a pipe dream at that time—so, because I didn’t know if anyone besides my classmates would be reading it, I felt free to tell the story of the sixteen-year-old rising theater star who runs away from a series of really bad days by getting drunk and having a one night stand only to test positive for HIV a month later, without worrying What People Would Think.

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And maybe that’s what makes this book special, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t set out to educate or enlighten the teens of today about the statistics surrounding HIV (though there is a list of facts and resources in the back of the book), and instead just set out to tell a story about a girl going through a rough time, that makes readers relate to the book on so many different levels.

I’ve attempted to recreate that separation from “telling the world a message” and “having an agenda” while writing my next book, The Summer I Wasn’t Me (April 2014). It’s the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who willingly goes to an ex-gay conversion camp in an attempt to keep her family from falling to pieces. The book definitely tackles some pretty challenging themes—including sexuality, gender, religion, and abuse—but it’s really a love story first and foremost. As a writer and reader, I truly believe it’s the characters, the emotions, the story, that makes a book—any book, no matter the themes—successful.

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Because when it comes down to it, no matter what a character in a book or person in the real world may be going through—be it disease, grief, fear, addiction, a crisis of faith, or any other number of things—we are also just people trying to live and love and be happy.

So that’s my number one piece of advice to anyone seeking to tackle difficult themes in YA—don’t forget the character while writing about the issue. If there’s a subject you are passionate about and want to write about, go for it, no matter how tricky the issue may be—teenagers can handle and understand a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. But readers of any age also want to connect with the characters they’re reading about. If you are able to find that balance, you’ll have a successful story.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: juliette19 won.)


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30 thoughts on “Tackling Tough Topics in YA

  1. james.ticknor

    Kudos, on writing, editing, and publishing your novel (each stage deserves separate congralutions, in my opinion). I do not typically hold an interest in these kinds of books. By “these kinds of books”, I mean books that do not have a readily identifiable plot. However, what I find interesting about this book is that it incorporates a lot of raw, realistic elements. Given the chance at reading this, I would gladly do so. Keep up the good work, and best of luck in your future writing!

    1. JessVerdi

      Thank you so much, James! It’s always nice to hear that something about my book made non-readers of the genre sit up and take notice. That’s such a lovely compliment. 🙂

  2. jamnettydiazroque

    I read this beautiful novel at the beginning of August. The topic was a different spin in what I usually read, but the writing was beautiful and the characters felt real. The topic on HIV/Aids did not feel pushed and Lucy’s journey did not feel rushed. HIV/Aids awareness, I feel has lessen, and I hope this novel brings some light into the actions we take when we are young and think we are indestructible.

    I started reading around five books since then and have not been able to get through them. How can I? When that last sentence in “My Life After Now”, left me breathless.

    Happy reading,

    1. JessVerdi

      Wow, thank you so much, Jamny! I’m so thrilled you enjoyed the book and that it’s stuck with you. That’s the highest compliment ever, and I so appreciate it. 🙂

  3. Lori

    Thank you for the great advice. As an author in the YA genre it is sometimes hard to know what you should and shouldn’t write about. To hear your story and know that it is okay to write from the heart and know that it is the right thing to do is inspiring. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Lori Carpenter

    1. JessVerdi

      So glad to hear it, Lori! Thank you! I think when you write from the heart, no matter the topic, that extra special “something” shines through onto the pages. Readers can absolutely tell when a book was written with passion, or love, or conviction — which is always a good thing! Happy writing!

  4. Katie

    This story sounds like a tear-jerker/heartstring-puller. (Can’t wait to read it!)

    Regardless of whether or not your original intent was to educate children with this story, I think it’s important that these topics are available in such a relatable, non-threatening medium. They need all the education they can get!

  5. sassy

    Is YA absolutely teenage? My book is an emotional saga about a 19 year old college student looking for love and career aspirations.

    I relate to your perspective and agree that character is the driving force in any story. Even the shoot-em-up high action plot needs a strong pro and antagonist to create an emotional entertaining read.

    Thanks for an excellent article.

    1. JessVerdi

      Thanks, Sassy! 🙂 Though the lines of any genre are easily blurred, from what I’ve been told YA is typically considered to be a book where the main character is between the ages of 13 and 19 (though I’ve mainly seen 15-17 year old main characters — old enough to be the hero of a story, but young enough that he/she is still stuck in an adult world, and at the mercy of the rules of parents, teachers, etc.). There’s also a new genre that’s quickly gaining popularity called “New Adult,” which generally focuses on college age (and recently post-college) characters. That might be a great fit for your project! Best of luck to you!

  6. andrewstancek

    Strong protagonist, gripping conflict, passion. Shake AND stir. An exciting YA novel should come out. I hope to have it completed by Christmas. Thanks for an excellent article, Jessica.

  7. juliette19

    Thank you for not being afraid to write about tough topics. I have a friend who recently found out he has HIV, and a book like this would’ve helped him to get through the horrible news.

    1. JessVerdi

      Hi Juliette,

      So sorry to hear that! I hope your friend knows the diagnosis isn’t the “death sentence” it was 20 or 30 years ago. I have several HIV+ friends who are living perfectly regular lives. That’s one of the things I hoped to convey in My Life After Now — that it doesn’t have to be all bad! Best of luck to you and your friend!

  8. kiwinene

    Same dilemma here on how to go about handling a sensitive subject and how to do it without coming off as preachy. Thanks for the article, and can’t wait to check out your next book.

  9. Je55ieMullin5

    Thanks for the wonderful advice! The novel I’m writing is on one of those hard topics, and I have tried to make sure I am not spreading a message. Your advice not to forget the character helps so much!

    1. JessVerdi

      Glad to hear it! And remember, if you find yourself getting too preachy and forgetting the character in favor of the issue, you can always go back and take that stuff out later. I had to do that a few times while writing My Life After Now. Thank goodness for revisions! 🙂

  10. LisaF

    This sounds like a great topic for Y/A. I, too, am tackling tough subjects in my Y/A manuscripts and know how draining it can be for the writer. Congrats on your publication and can’t wait to read it!

  11. JoeCoolReview

    I have been toying with the idea of my own stories. I have several that linger in my mind and won’t let go. I often am looking at them as books I want my daughter to read. I’m hoping that I can be brave enough to actually give it to someone else to read…..I have one mostly finished, but I guess I will never feel it is really finished. Is it hard to just be DONE? Or will I lose that feeling that it isn’t enough when I get it better? I am very critical of myself because I read so much and I am actually a grammarian and formatter at my day job…lol

    1. JessVerdi

      Well, the bad news is, trying to figure out when you’re DONE is one of the hardest things about writing. I’m like you — I want things to be perfect. But the GOOD news is, agents and editors don’t expect a perfect product in the submission stages. They of course expect it to be polished and revised and as good as you can make it, but they know that there’s also a long way to go before publication. That’s what editors are for, after all. So don’t be so hard on yourself! If you wait for perfect, it’s never going to happen. Sometimes you just have to take that leap.

  12. Lina Moder

    This is so so true – it’s much more important to tell the story of a particular person, a character, and not try to preach a theme. It’s much more poignant that way – to give the specifics, the journey. The theme or issue will shine through as something the character goes through, not the one defining factor in their life.

    You’re so right about there not being enough novels about this subject – and about conversion camp. I’m wondering, did you interview people who went through that? Read their interviews? It’s such a difficult subject, so personal, I’m sure it will be a book lots of readers of all ages will connect with.

    Thank you!!

    linamoder at gmail dot com

    1. JessVerdi

      Hi Lina,

      For the HIV book I did several different types of research, including interviewing people with HIV/AIDS. For the conversion camp book I unfortunately wasn’t able to do any first person interviews but I did read a ton of interviews and memoirs and watched documentaries.

      Thanks so much for your comment!


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