This article, by Max Leone, originally appeared on the Publisher’s Weekly site on 11/10/08.
A 13-year-old boy tells the industry what teens want.
I am of that population segment that is constantly derided as “not reading anymore,” and is therefore treated by publishing companies as a vast, mysterious demographic that’s seemingly impossible to please. Kind of like the way teenage boys think of girls.
The reason we read so little in our free time is partially because of the literary choices available to teenagers these days. The selection of teen literature is even more barren now that the two great dynasties, Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, have released their final installments. Those two massive successes blended great characters, humor and action in a way that few other books manage. When they went for laughs, they were genuinely funny, and their dramatic scenes were still heart-poundingly tense, even after I’d read them dozens of times.
And so, after weeks of brainstorming and careful consideration (three months of procrastinating and two hours of furious typing), I will now attempt to end this dark age of adolescent prose. I will start by stating the main problem with books aimed at teenage boys. Then I will give some examples of what teenage boys actually want to read.
The first problem with many books for teens is archaic language. Seriously. It is the kiss of death for teenage boy literature. Any book infested by it is destined to become an eternal object of derision around the cafeteria lunch table. It is a problem that applies not only to the “classics” (yes, I will use quotations whenever I use that word. Live with it.), but also modern teenage literature. “Methinks”? “Doth”? Really? So we are constantly ridiculed for “lol,” while these offenses go unnoticed? To all writers of books aimed at teenage boys, I beg you: please use only modern language, no matter what time period or universe your book takes place in.
Another giant, oily blemish on the face of teenage literature (that was entirely intentional) is whatever urge compels writers to clumsily smash morals about fairness or honor or other cornball crap onto otherwise fine stories. Do you not think we get enough of that in our parents’ and teachers’ constant attempts to shove the importance of justice and integrity down our throats? We get it. I assure you, it makes no difference in our behavior at all. And we will not become ax murderers because volume 120 of Otherworld: The Generica Chronicles didn’t smother us in morals that would make a Care Bear cringe.
And then there are the vampires and other supernatural creature that appear in many contemporary teen novels. Vampires, simply put, are awesome. However, today’s vampire stories are 100 pages of florid descriptions of romance and 100 pages of various people being emo. However much I mock the literature of yesteryear, it definitely had it right when it came to vampires. The vampire was always depicted as a menacing badass. That is the kind of book teenage boys want to read. Also good: books with videogame-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something.
Finally, here is what I consider the cardinal rule of writing for young adults: Do Not Underestimate Your Audience. They actually know a lot about what’s going on in politics. They will get most of the jokes you expect them not to. They have a much higher tolerance for horror and action than most adults. Most of the books I read actually don’t fall under the “young adult” category. I can understand the humor in Jon Stewart’s or Stephen Colbert’s books as well as any adult.
Publishers can stop panicking and worrying that the teenage boy market is impossible to crack, that teenagers hardly ever read anymore, and that they have only a few years before books become obsolete and are replaced by holograms or information beamed straight into people’s minds. Okay, they probably do have to worry about that last one. But if they follow the simple rules I outlined above, they’ll be able to cash in on the four or five minutes each day that teenagers aren’t already spending on school, homework, videogames, eating, band practice and sports.
P.S. I have very good lawyers, so don’t bother trying to sue me if none of these suggestions work and your company goes out of business.
Author Information: Max Leone attends eighth grade in New Jersey.