With the young adult genre in children’s literature, we’re getting to the “almost adult” crowd. In fact, some of these kids, who are generally thought to be between 12 and 15, are already reading adult books. I know I was by that time, and am guessing that serious readers are, too.
Kids this age love to relate to the protagonist. They want to “be” the person in the book, going through the problems and ending up the hero. So, it’s very important to have a strong lead that’s maybe just a tad older — say seventeen to nineteen, since kids always want to be older than they really are. Why? Because older kids get to do more stuff. They’re able to drive, stay out later, and just do more adult things. So, slightly advanced age is attractive to them.
One book that I always think of when considering young adult fiction is S. E. Hinton‘s The Outsiders. Hinton was only 15 herself when she wrote the book and was probably going through a lot of the same conflicts of peer pressure and acceptance that her characters do in the book. She understood the crowd she was writing for through and through and it’s why that book has become a modern classic.
These kids are particularly having a rough time of it and are generally either on the “in” side or the “out” side, and it’s affecting them in ways that only show up in later life.
They’re also into relationships with the opposite sex and may already be sexually active. Considering the lower end of the age range, that’s rather disturbing to many adults, but it’s true. It’s happening, so get over it. If you want to write for teens, you have to understand who they are and why they do what they do.
Plenty of young adult fiction is addressing these more adult issues. Consider the popularity of the Twilight series. It’s all about the relationship between a girl and her vampire and what it means to be on either side of the fence. Think of it kind of like Romeo and Juliet go gothic.
In the nonfiction genre for this group, any topic is cool, as long as it’s of interests to them. They seem to love the paranormal and fantasy because it takes them outside their mundane lives of school and parental observation, so these are good topics for nonfiction, too.
My own The Navajo is considered a young adult book and it talks about the serious issues involving the Navajo Nation in the late 19th Century, the massacre of so many who would not yield to government sanctions, and the dirty politics and policies of the camp where they were detained. I just told it like it was with no veils. The topics are adult in nature, though it’s written in young adult style.
The main thing to consider when writing for young adults is who they are. That’s very important. As with the other groups, figure out what they like and dislike, where they like to hangout, what they like to watch, do, drink, eat, and wear. Know what they want first, and then realize that no topic at their level is taboo.