How to Write About Difficult Topics in Young Adult Fiction - Writer's Digest

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.)
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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?

(How to help an author promote their new book: 11 tips.)

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.

(Learn why "Keep Moving Forward" may be the best advice for writers everywhere.)

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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