I often get asked what genre my books are, usually after an avid reader makes it through one or two of them. Are they young adult? Are they hard sci-fi? Why would I include so much scientific information in a book that’s aimed at young people? As though you’re simply not allowed to delve that deeply into these things when your target audience is under the age of 21.
There seems to be a belief among many writers that in order to appeal to young readers, you need to cut certain details of your book while keeping the language as simple as possible. Now, granted, I believe that’s true to some extent, but when it comes to science fiction, what exactly are we trying to do here? Are teens too dumb to understand genetics, wormholes, and mandatory breeding programs? I don’t think so. In fact, I think they’re the perfect audience for that.
The entire point of science fiction, as far as I’m concerned, is to explore new concepts and provide avenues of thought that we simply can’t experience in our everyday lives. Sure, the book needs to be entertaining and appeal to someone that age, but shouldn’t it have some depth to it, too? I think you can have a story full of lizard people and intergalactic travel while also discussing the complexity of race relations and what it means to be human. The story can be as outrageous as you want while still discussing various themes and scientific principles.
And why not? Kids are smart. Let’s give them a little credit.
Many of us recall being 15 and reading books like Ender’s Game, Dune, The Forever War, Starship Troopers, and Stranger in a Strange Land, among so many others. We hadn’t even made it through our first semester of chemistry yet, but there we were, reading about complex societies, religions, ship design, physics, quantum mechanics, and philosophy. We came for the Klingons, but we stayed for the Vulcans.
And we were learning through it all. Each of these books explored interesting themes and ideas that we simply weren’t experiencing in school or in our ordinary lives. We were shaped by these stories, and they made us better.
I disguise my hard sci-fi books as young adult, not because I’m mischievous (although, a case could be made for that), but because I believe in respecting one’s audience. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to receive some positive comments from young teens about these stories, and I hope the trend continues with the rest of the series. Sometimes they ask about the characters, but other times they ask me how something works. These aren’t 17 year olds, mind you. They’re often about 13 years old.
There’s this myth that modern young adult novels shouldn’t be written with complex themes. You can’t talk about that, because your reader isn’t old enough. Avoid saying that, because they’re not smart enough. Don’t bother taking the time to explain the science; just show what happens next. These authors treat scifi like it’s just another form of fantasy, where the technology doesn’t need to be explained, so it might as well be magic. People seem to think children and teens are incapable of following these stories, despite the fact that they were more than able to do this a few short years ago.
Origins of YA
Literature targeted at teens arose over fifty years ago, right after WW2 with the publication of “Seventeenth Summer,” which is largely considered the first book ever written to be specifically targeted at teens. The new trend continued until the 70s, when the term “Young Adult” was actually coined. During this time, we saw a massive swell of teen fiction, much of which targeted young people, but focused on serious themes. The Outsiders is a great example of this, and remains a YA classic to this day.
Unfortunately, as the decades rolled on, YA fiction became far less popular. It was mostly ignored until the early 2000s, when a new wave of young people (mostly born between 1989 and 1992) grew into their formidable years. Finally, another golden age of YA hit the streets, and suddenly you could find the on any shelf in any bookstore throughout the modern world. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight became international best-sellers, proving there was a thirst among teens for relatable fiction. The genre exploded, and before long it became one of the most profitable in the industry.
Before the 2000s, if you were a fan of science fiction, your choices were a fair bit different from what we have today. Books like Divergent and The Maze Runner have taken hold of modern audiences, but have largely chosen to breeze over the more complex elements of their science and philosophy. Gone are the page-long explanations for how a wormhole works.
But are kids really that simple? Are we as adults really so arrogant to think kids can’t handle the same literature we had growing up?
After putting out my first book, I received an email from a guy who told me he was surprised at how scientific my book was. He said he and his two sons were reading it, and he was surprised at how much they enjoyed the more complex themes and science in the story. For some reason, he had doubts they’d be able to enjoy it, simply because they were 12 and 14 years old. Much to his surprise, they loved it, and were able to have an informed discussion with their father about the details of the book.
We don’t give kids nearly enough credit anymore. Not like we used to.
Why Detail Matters
Many of us have forgotten how curious kids actually are. I’m often reminded of Ender’s Game when I think about this. The dedication of that book reads, “For Geoffrey, who makes me remember how young and how old children can be,” which sums it up pretty nicely. Kids are both naïve and aware, all at the same time. They’re constantly observing, taking in the world around them, listening to everything. Maybe they aren’t as informed as you are, and maybe their vocabulary isn’t quite as robust (though, when you consider the average adult’s reading level these days, maybe they’re about on par), but a child is nonetheless built to learn.
Every detail you include in a book, whether it involves a description of a woman walking into a 1950’s swing club or an explanation for how a futuristic atom smasher works, can make waves in a child’s mind and help them grow, however gradually, into another person. In a way, the writer is like a second parent. You have the responsibility of educating that child with whatever you put in your stories. If you take the time to properly explain (in an easy to understand way) how a genetic disease works, how a body decomposes, how a hadron collider works, you might just teach them something valuable.
This doesn’t mean you have to sit there and churn out Wikipedia entries, but taking a few paragraphs to explain a concept to them won’t hurt you or your sales. Ender’s Game is still widely read in schools across the world, despite delving into relativity, string theory, and gravity. One of the driving concepts in the book is how one’s perception of direction changes in a zero gravity environment. Did any of that deter a young reader from falling in love with this story, I wonder?
My guess is that it didn’t. In fact, I’d wager just the opposite.
J. N. Chaney has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and is the author of the Variant Saga, The Other Side of Nowhere and other sci-fi books soon to be released. You can get J.N. Chaney’s very first dystopian science fiction novel, The Amber Project, absolutely free by going to the following link: http://jnchaney.com/stay-up-to-date/