Your Hypocrisy About “Realistic” Teens in YA: Why Do You Hate Us For Being Too Much of a Teenager, but Also Too Much of an Adult?

Oh, hi, just me with another discussion post!

I feel like I haven’t written a proper discussion in a long time!! (Whether or not I actually have is besides the point, it’s been established that I have a terrible memory.) I just keep drafting different ones and then ditching them when I lose my steam.

But this topic is something I’ve been seeing around in the book community for a while now, mainly in different reviews of different YA books, and if you couldn’t read the title, the topic is: the hypocrisy when it comes to the “realistic” portrayal of teens in YA.

I wanted to talk about it today because 1) I just felt like I finally had the right words to say everything I wanted to, 2) it’s something I’ve seen for some time now and wanted to finally bring up, and 3) while it’s terribly hypocritical, it’s also somewhat interesting. (At least to me!!) I also feel like I can offer some unique perspective on it, seeing as I’m both a teen and a reader of YA myself!

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For a while now, I’ve noticed this glaring hypocrisy when it comes to teenagers in young adult fiction, where it seems like they can never satisfy adult readers. They act one way and get criticized, and then they act the opposite way and get criticized as well, all under the excuse of not being “realistic” teenagers.

(Funny how the adults, people who aren’t YA’s target audience, are the ones criticizing the teens that YA is supposed to be written for, but that’s a discussion for another day!)

Radio Silence  Foolish Hearts  The Weight of the Stars
books I thought teens were realistically portrayed in

One common complaint I see in reviews of YA books (and very often more about female characters than male characters, might I add, but that’s yet again a discussion for another day) is that the protagonist acts too immature or like “too much of a teenager”. It’s hilarious to me that I see “[character] is a teenager” written as a complaint in reviews of YA books because… that’s who the book is about, my dude!! It’s about teenagers!!!

And how do you even act like “too much of a teen”? What does that even mean?? I don’t understand it, especially because there is no one way to be a teen because every single teenager has different experiences and different lives!! It also just tells me that you are attributing certain characteristics to teens in real life that you don’t like, so when you see them in reflected in fiction, you’re annoyed and irritated by them. And if you’re annoyed by a teen literally existing, then you shouldn’t be reading YA.

And then on the other hand, there are people saying that some characters are not realistically teenagers and that there is no way that they can be mature enough to handle certain things or are smart enough to do x thing. For this complaint, there IS some certain validity to it, because there are authors who are actually unable to write realistic teens/teen experiences.

But those books aside, it’s incredibly demeaning to assume that teenage characters can’t handle or aren’t clever enough to do certain things, just because they’re teenagers. I know so many teens who are intelligent and mature (I like to think I’m maybe at least half of those qualities). And the amount of times I’ve seen this said about marginalized characters who have been forced to mature and grow up more quickly because of their oppression? I hate to say it, but yikes!!!

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There are definitely a lot of valid criticisms of the way that teens are written in certain books! Like I said before, some authors truly don’t know how to write teens realistically, and that’s an issue when you’re writing a book about and for teens. And I’m not saying that being an adult means you automatically don’t know anything about teens either. Opinions are subjective! I get it!! 

But I think there’s a difference between calling out the entire character as a teenager, versus calling out the aspects of the character that contribute to how realistic they are as a teen. For example, I wrote in a review that I thought a 15 year old character’s writing in his letters were too pretentious to be realistically representative of modern teens’ writing, but I didn’t criticize his character as a realistic teenager.

It may seem very minor, but these tiny distinctions are important in differentiating between critically analyzing the way the author wrote the character, and just griping about the character. (At least to me, a nerd who likes to analyze literature, it is!)

With the Fire on High  Far from the Tree  How to Make a Wish
more books I thought teens were realistically portrayed in

And also, probably the biggest part, I just really hate that these hypocritical expectations are forced upon teenage characters in YA by adult readers (and even some teens themselves!), because it perpetuates—and is reflective of—the same kind of attitude towards teens in real life. If teenage characters aren’t allowed to be “too teen” or “too adult” in teen books without people complaining about how “unrealistic” that is, then what’s to say about teenagers in the real world?

These things people say about fictional characters don’t just go into the void; fiction—and literature as a whole—do not exist on their own. You give responsibilities to teens and expect us to act like adults, but then you say we don’t understand the “real world” or that there are things we won’t understand until we’re older, wiser. You say we are lucky that we are still young children who don’t have to face the horrors of adult life, but then you punish us for allowing ourselves to be immature and have fun for a few moments.

And this is the more petty side of me coming out, but also, so what if it’s a bit unrealistic that a few teens overthrow an entire all-powerful government? So what if it’s a bit unrealistic that a teen creates an entire wildly popular gaming world? It’s nice to have some hope in the books we read when our world is so bleak, and being a teenager is when we start to lose a lot of hope. YA is for everyone to read but first and foremost written for teens! Let us hope!! Please.

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Even though I think this is a bit more organized than my discussion posts usually are, I still feel like it’s a bit of a mess. But I just really want to question the way people talk about teens in YA fiction, and especially try to look at how that affects (and is affected by) attitudes towards teens in real life. I feel like so many readers look down upon teen characters for… being teens… in books that are written specifically for teens, and I just wanted to open up a bit of discussion about that!!

Thanks for reading and listening listening, you’re all the best and I hope you’re having a lovely day <33 It’s currently 11pm as I write this so yeah I’m tired and feeling sappy deal with it!!

* This is something I didn’t focus on in my post, but I also think looking at how what a “realistic teen” is differs in various genres (like contemporary vs. fantasy) is also interesting. (For example, all the books I featured in this post are contemporary. And were also sorted by color.) But I couldn’t think of anything coherent to say about it so that’s why I didn’t mention it until now!


shall we chat

I feel like this is one of my more critical discussions, so I’m a bit nervous to see how people will react to it, but oh well! what are your thoughts on this? are you a teen reader of YA like me? do you feel the same way? what books do you think portray teens really well?

 

p.s. thanks to this fool for proofreading this for me you’re the worst

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44 thoughts on “Your Hypocrisy About “Realistic” Teens in YA: Why Do You Hate Us For Being Too Much of a Teenager, but Also Too Much of an Adult?

  1. Honestly, the way people criticize teen characters is ridiculous. Like you said, teen characters are criticized for being too immature, but also too mature, which is ridiculous. I think there are enough real life examples – both well-known people, like activists, and I assume in people’s own life -to show that teens are not a monolith group. Also, in fantasy books and such it’s really hard to say which teens are “realistic” (whatever that means) when they are going through, well, magical and unrealistic things.

    The only times when I was like, okay, maybe THESE should have been adult characters was when I felt like (1) characters in a series I *love* felt like they all had a super-extensive backstory that would have been more fitting for adults time-wise, or when (2) in Poison Study, which was marketed as YA, the 19-year-old heroine got together with a hero in his 30s. I did enjoy the first book, but that age difference is not really for YA, I think. And in these cases it’s more because of the plot and context and circumstances I felt this way, rather than the characters’ personality, or maturity.

    This was an amazing discussion, May!! 😀

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  2. Wow yes this post!! YES!! I do not understand this connotation that teens act ‘unrealistically’ yet most teens are like overdramatic and what not. They’re supposed to sometimes make silly decisions. And also I totally get irked at adults saying they can’t connect to teen characters when of course that’ll happen because you’re not a teen ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ somebody please explain haha

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  3. This is such a great post, May! You raise so many good points. I think so many readers have felt the need to defend that they read YA despite being in their 30s, for example, that some of them have forgotten that teenagers are also still allowed to read and see themselves in YA and that they are the ultimate target audience. Saying someone isn’t a believable teenager is so subjective, too; no one has the same teenage experience and there will always be some teens who are immature and some who are older than their years, and they’re all valid.

    You’ve definitely given me a reminder that myself and other bloggers my age need when we read and review YA books. 🙂 I’ve also never understood the criticism of YA being unrealistic because of a character’s age. Like… if you don’t want to read unrealistic fiction, then you shouldn’t be reading anything but contemporary or literary fiction because pretty much every other type of genre fiction requires you to suspend your disbelief to enjoy it. The age of the main characters should be the least of your problems. Like you, I love reading hopeful books and I can’t see anything unrealistic about a 17 year old starting a rebellion – just look at what Greta Thunberg’s been doing!

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  4. This post is spot on. As an adult reader, I often find myself getting annoyed by decisions made by teens in YA books – especially contemporary YA books. It’s an ongoing thing where I have to stop myself from thinking that way and make the conscious realization that these are kids, and are meant to be portrayed as kids.

    Great post that spills delicious tea, as usual!

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  5. This definitely needed to be said. As an adult reader of YA, I do get very annoyed when teen characters are called out for being unrealistic or “whiny” because their lives have suddenly turned upside down and they’re not sure how to deal with it, particularly when they have absent parents/parent figures. Unless a reader has a similar experience, I don’t see how they can judge or comment. It’s an unfair criticism.

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  6. This kind of reminds me of all the people that argue that Dawn Summers is irritating because she acts like a teenager. Did they forget that she actually is a teenager and is allowed to act as such? Just because Buffy had to grow up early because she’s the slayer doesn’t mean that Dawn has to be at the same level! And honestly Dawn behaved just like an “average” teenager would behave, so I feel like that’s just people not liking teenage behaviors in general.

    I totally agree with you in all of this. I know there have been times where maybe I felt like the way that a character spoke or thought (like the narration is supposed to be the character’s thoughts) seemed a little unrealistic for the “average” teenager, but like you said, there is no ONE way for a teenager to behave, think, act, etc. So really, maybe that was just my personal opinion but it didn’t have me hate the character at all! And you’re so right, people to assume that teenagers aren’t mature enough to do certain things or intelligent enough to handle certain things in these novels is very demeaning and condescending. Teenagers are smart, and teenagers can understand a lot of things that are supposed to be “too mature” or whatever.

    I am so glad that you wrote this post, May especially because you can write it from a teenager’s perspective. Unfortunately I am too old to call myself a teenager now but I had your same thoughts as a teenager when it came to this hypocrisy, and I still do.

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  7. I agree 100000000000000000%.
    Also does it bother you when people say teens are too young to be good at anything?
    I’m considered well above average in acting, writing and filmmaking, slightly above average in sports and language learning, average in math, art and reading, and below average in science and history.
    Some of these are hobbies, not just school stuff but it annoys me that the main character is either perfect at everything or horrible at everything. A little balance, please?

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  8. This is such a great post. Sometimes I think adults forget what it was like as a teen. I know I was super mature for some things, but then not for other things. And my friends all varied. I’m 42, but I can still remember that time period well. I think most teens tend to be a mixture and it’s totally ok. I’ve seen teens in my life go through a variety of mature or illegal situations. I’ve also seen teens who were totally “clean”. I guess that’s the word to use. You have your class clowns and you have your most likely to succeed. Teens are all over the place. I call that normal. No way you can lump all teens into a box. Same with adults, too.

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  9. Oh man, I have SO MANY strong feelings about this exact subject, and you put them into words so perfectly. This is one of my main pet peeves when reading YA reviews by adult reviewers, as it feels like so many just don’t seem to understand the point?? It’s the same as when those reviewers say that kids books seem “too young”…like, they’re for kids??? And YA books might be read by a lot of adults but they’re written for teens! And teens aren’t ALWAYS mature or ALWAYS childish – they can be both at different times or even in the same moment. I remember being a teen *old man voice* and reading those types of books that showed both, and feeling so understood. And this point: “You say we are lucky that we are still young children who don’t have to face the horrors of adult life, but then you punish us for allowing ourselves to be immature and have fun for a few moments.” YES. So spot on. Fantastic post, May!!

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  10. Well May I am very happy that you tackled that discussion because sometimes, when I see a “bratty” teenager in a book I often say it’s not pleasant to read about it but that on the other hand the author did a great job portraying a “bratty” teen. And don’t misunderstand me! I don’t say that all teenagers behave like brats, not at all! I had two at home not to long ago one “bratty” and the other not LOL What I wanted to say it’s that we may not always love to read about teenagers behaing badly but that does not diminishes the author’s talent in portraying some teenage behaviors (and honestly adults can be brats too). same when you have a very mature teenager it happens in real life like you pointed out! It depends on the teenager’s life experience: did he or she had to compensate for an absent parent and care for younger sibblings or just go to school and do hobbies? Anyway, portraying teenagers is a difficult task I think because you have a wide variety of teenagers (same as adults) and as you said YA are originally meant for teenagers even if adults so love reading it! And of course you can have hope! I want you to have hope! That’s why I bought the ones that I loved most to my kids!

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  11. i think your discussion is really spot on because you mentioned well how the problem with some representation relies within the author/creator and not the character.
    there are some books/shows out there, where i don’t feel like the characters really feel like teenagers. (like i was watching riverdale s3 the other day and one of the 16 year old characters in the show literally owes and runs a bar/diner by herself, lol).
    i think another significant topic amongst this discussion is that, when we’re seeing characters who act older then they are, that’s probably because the authors don’t know where to fit stories like that.
    i think, in some cases, authors write books picturing their characters as 19~20 but then have to age them down, because that would make them fit into new adult and we all know that most people see new-adult as nothing but smutty romance. i know this is changing, though, which is good, but still.
    i feel like this is going to another discussion completely different than the one you brought, but these are some thoughts i have.
    i definitely agree with what you said on YA books being hopeful and teenagers being much more than we give them credit for. since i’m currently on college and studying a lot about education, it annoys me sometimes the way professors/adults talk about teenagers as people we need to “save” because they know so little about life, while also putting all this pressure on them. (i should probably say us instead of them, since i’m technically a teenager too, lol). and i think the same works when reviewing a book and something more adult readers need to learn.
    anyway! sorry for the longest comment ever, btw, just had a lot of thoughts to share.

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  12. Ugh yes I wholeheartedly agree! There are definitely some books where I think the characters act way too young to be teens, but that’s pretty rare, and I think in those cases the book just should have been classified as middle grade instead. As a teen, it’s kind of insulting to read a book that I felt was pretty representative of me and the teens I know, and then have people say the characters were acting too mature for their age… when they’re around same age as me.🙄 And yeah, the whole idea of YA is to put teens in fictional situations and make readers feel like they could do something like that too. I don’t really want to read a review about how unrealistic it is after I just came away from it really empowered.🤷‍♀️
    Great post!

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  13. You are absolutely right May, and you have some great points !
    It bothers me EVERY. TIMES. that I see it in a review that “ah, it threw me off that the character was so immature” dude, the character is 16! what in hell? Although i’m gonna be 25 now, so I did gain some more maturity *aherm*, most of the time I see how I was back then at that age. It’s absolutely normal, of course they have no way of knowing all that we do passed our twenties!

    It’s also true that teenagers can handle some heavy things and have more maturity than others! Age doesn’t define how mature you are, but what you go through. At 16/17 I had to take care of my own mother; cleaning and redo her bandages, help her do some things, etc. as she was on dialysis and I was the one to help (Dad didn’t … i’m not sure why, but anyway the responsability falled on me). That’s quite young! I was not out of high school yet that I needed to help my mother, and few years before that it was the stress of her kidneys failing.

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  14. this post deserves an incredibly thoughtful comment in response because i agree and think you pointed out some very important contributors to the stigma around YA and the teenage experience!! but i’m also falling asleep bc it’s 10:30 and im a grandma so this is my placeholder comment and i will return tomorrow with hopefully more words of critical value. but good post op!!!

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  15. This subject has been in my WordPress drafts folder for awhile, and I’ve never been quite sure how to express my view but you basically did it perfectly here! I’m in total agreement with you. Adults can just be pretty hypocritical in general, and I feel like adults that read YA are on the fairly light side of the spectrum? Not to say that this criticism of teen portrayal is justified at all. I think it can be a bit of an issue for adults to write teens that are representative of teens, but an easy way to fix this is for them to simply get teens to read their work.

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  16. Great post, May! I know I’m not the target audience for YA–despite that I identify with it because a lot of times YA is about self-discovery and I think that’s a path we’re often on throughout our lives. Anywho, I agree with what you said here. I don’t get either criticism of YA characters. It’s like people my age sometimes forget what it was like when we were teenagers! Not only that, but just look to teens in the news or in history and you can see the amazing examples of teens out there making a difference in the world in one way or another.

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  17. Oh I haven’t ever thought about this exactly but oh man oh man oh man I’ve definitely thought about this bit: “And the amount of times I’ve seen this said about marginalized characters who have been forced to mature and grow up more quickly because of their oppression…” People make these judgements ALL the TIME and it annoys me so much. The number of times I’ve seen people complain about that with The Hate U Give, or Anger is a Gift….Kids with trauma are going to appear to be more mature. Not everyone has the white, middle class, happy family childhood some readers seem to want to box all teenagers into.

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  18. (Funny how the adults, people who aren’t YA’s target audience, are the ones criticizing the teens that YA is supposed to be written for, but that’s a discussion for another day!)

    This is something that I have been thinking about a LOT for like a year and I feel a lot of personal anxiety about it because I know I am well outside of the intended demographic for YA. It’s the reason I am so careful with my reviews and stressing that it is a “me thing,” and I really do try not to get annoyed with characters acting their age.

    But I digress…

    It baffles me when people knock a book down for essentially nailing the teenage experience. There are a lot of nuanced reasons adults like me read YA, but at the end of the day we need to check ourselves and remember that the books aren’t for us. This is a fantastic post, thanks for writing it and when I finally get my post up I will be sure to link to your perspective because it means more coming from a teen, yanno?

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  19. Imagine being so full of yourself that you feel your the only person fit to talk on this subject… The audacity to have someone try and remove their post because it’s on the same topic? Isn’t that what blogs are for? discussions and different views? I guess you just get kicks from trying to crush smaller content creators.

    Then getting friends to post on their blog slandering them? I haven’t been asked to post here, but I am as my friend has come to me upset about all the drama your causing. Constantly pestering her to remove her post despite her adjusting it multiple times until it’s just an entirely different blog post. It’s an embarrassing, petty, school girl mentality.

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    1. I’m curious, did you actually read both posts? Did you actually see May’s complaints? Because I did, and trust me, this isn’t an issue of two people posting about the same thing. This is an issue of plagiarism. Your friend’s post copies parts of May’s post almost word for word.

      I also find it funny how you clearly state that your friend didn’t ask you to comment, that you’re doing this because you care about them, but you assume that May set her friends on your friend. Is it really so impossible that May… has loyal friends who saw her hurting and wanted to do something about it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.

      Also I notice you say “despite her adjusting it multiple times until it’s just an entirely different blog post”, which implies that it was, initially, the same post. Which sounds an awful lot like plagiarism to me. Just saying.

      Oh and also? May does a whole lot for this community. She pours so much effort into this blog and into supporting other bloggers. She is doing her absolute best. How dare you imply she enjoys crushing smaller content creators.

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      1. If you had any idea what’s actually happened here you’d understand why I’m frustrated. My friends post was posted 1 hour after Mays? How in any way is it even possible to copy her post in that time. On top of this if you’d read the other article you’d notice that May actually RE-WROTE half her ‘copied’ versions in order to make it look far worse than it really is. What’s actually happened here is they’ve both used the same sources, ie a large Tumblr feed regarding the topic and written about the article in question.

        On top of all of this, my friend was nothing but nice to May in all discussions and showed a clear attempt to resolve the situation, but May was rude, patronising, and quite frankly childish in response. Due to her size she felt she could just have my friend remove her post.

        It’s school ground bullying and I’m bored of watching people try and pressure people into things because theyre intimidated. My friends a great writer and is just starting up her own small blog, it gets little traction right now and all she wants to do is share her views. She’s not trying to take anything from anyone, just enjoys writing. But May clearly feels that she’s the only person who’s opinion matters on this topic. Instead of being rude and against my friend when discussing their articles, they could’ve taken the opportunity to look at each other’s views and even collaborate and build something even better. But no, she just has to get the spot light.

        ZzzzzZzzzz

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        1. Anyhow, I won’t be wasting my time reading your reply or this blog and putting myself into this playground, so take care, look after yourself and I hope you manage to broaden your mindset and learn that people can sometimes just have the same views on things, and in turn write about topics and agree on things.

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        2. I wasn’t going to engage with you again, until I saw “On top of this if you’d read the other article you’d notice that May actually RE-WROTE half her ‘copied’ versions in order to make it look far worse than it really is.”

          The fact that you would accuse May of outright LYING to get attention is, quite frankly, ridiculous. And that’s not what happened. I did read your friend’s post. I also read May’s comparison chart. I recognized each and every word of those quotes, because *gasp* they were the exact words I read on your friend’s post.

          Also? I’m pretty sure I could copy paste someone else’s post and make a few rough changes to a post and get it up within an hour easily. I wouldn’t, because I come up with my own content and don’t plagiarize people, but quite frankly it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would take very long. Just saying.

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  20. Yes! So much yes. I am an adult, and I often have to remind myself that 1.) I’m not the target audience and 2.) it’s been over a decade since I’ve been a teen, so what do I know about how teenagers act anymore. I also feel like I’m much more critical of the teenagers that seem more grownup than those that act like…well teenagers. Those characters, the ones that seem too grown up, always seem to be written with an adult audience in mind instead of a young adult audience. It doesn’t seem…authentic?

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  21. Such an interesting discussion and you make really great points! I hear you about it being a silly complaint that YA characters act like teens! Completely agree with you there! I do agree that there’s also a difference between being pretentious and being unrealistic. That said, I think it’s possible for YA characters to be pretentious and unrealistic as teens together (I can think of YA books where I’ve thought the characters were just pretentious, and others where I’ve thought they were both). The reason I’d say these can be linked is it could just be they’re talking like someone who’s got a post grad degree for instance- which is something I notice when I was a teen, but also now cos I work with a lot of teens. I do agree that it’s interesting that this is something a lot of adults tend to critique though- looking forward to when you talk about that on another day… 😀

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