Today’s guest is YA author Meredith Zeitlin, whose debut novel, Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters, was just released on March 1st. What’s the book about? Meredith’s book trailer is too good not to share, and does a better job answering that question than we could, so please give it a look:

FRESHMAN YEAR AND OTHER UNNATURAL DISASTERS by Meredith Zeitlin from Anne Walls on Vimeo.

We’re so glad Meredith’s with us today to talk about weaving a message into your YA novel while still being true to the real world. Enjoy!

The Real World and the YA Novel

When I set out to write Freshman Year…, part of the reason I wanted to do it was my intense disappointment that YA had changed so much since I was a tween. I was a babysitter at the time for an awesome 12-year-old girl who loved to read, but didn’t seem to have a single book that reflected her actual life.

Don’t get me wrong – I like reading about fantasy worlds as much as the next gal, but I think it’s important to remind readers that that’s what books like Twilight and Gossip Girl actually ARE – fantasy. Based on the massive amount of copycat material that began popping up, it seemed to me like kids had started to think that the way the teenagers lived in those worlds was the way THEY should be living, and since most of them don’t have the resources – or the supernatural pals – to do so, it was really demoralizing.

Why should a 14-year-old feel bad about herself because she doesn’t have six pairs of Manolos? Why should anyone think his or her life is less-than because s/he never met a vampire in the woods during a brisk evening stroll?

The books I loved growing up were about regular kids – awkward kids, funny kids, kids with embarrassing or screwed-up families – who I could relate to and, more importantly, see myself in. When I read about Anastasia or Margaret, I could ruminate on my own life and not feel like my parents were the most horrible in the world, or like I was the only one who ever had a friend lie to her or humiliated herself in front of her entire school. Or whatever. The point is: kids – everyone, really – need literature that’s a mirror. A true mirror.

Writers have this amazing opportunity to provide that for readers, and YA readers, mainly because of their age range, are both super impressionable and incredibly self-involved. They LOVE to read about themselves. (Oh, let’s face it – who doesn’t? Maybe age is irrelevant. I take it back!) So many tweens and teens feel shut out – or off – by everything around them and seek out books to connect. As writers, we have a chance to choose things for them to connect to. To tell them that it’s okay to be themselves, that feeling depressed is part of life, that it’s also okay to NOT be depressed and to actually like high school – a million things.

I had a number of things – besides just writing about a “normal” world – that I wanted to fit into my book. A few examples:

PhotobucketA number of people have commented on the amount of drinking in the story. Well, it’s true – there is a lot. That’s because… teens drink a lot. I know when I was growing up, the main focus of a get-together – small or big – was whether we’d be able to get our hands on alcohol. I wanted to show a number of perspectives on that, and I think I did: from JoJo, whose parents don’t care at all, to Em, who has never had a drink and whose friends respect and defend her choice, to Kelsey, who is a bit overwhelmed that this is a THING now and is still trying to figure out how to maneuver. Sometimes things end poorly for her when alcohol is involved. But that’s all part of figuring it out. Just because it’s illegal, or “bad,” doesn’t mean teenage drinking is going to go away. I think it’s better to have the subject out in the open than to simply slap a “drinking = devastating car accident” label on the topic and not show all the sides of the issue.

I wanted to bring up unwanted sexual advances – a major problem for women (and men) of all ages. Kelsey’s feelings of guilt, regret and stupidity after Sam pressures her and she turns him down are pretty typical, and so important to discuss. If even one teenage girl who had a similar experience reads the book and thinks: “I’m not the only one who felt like a loser after that happened… and now I realize I shouldn’t have,” then I will be thrilled.

You’ll notice that NO ONE smokes cigarettes in the book. That was a choice, too – and, I hope, a suggestion. I also decided to never really describe anyone physically (except for Lexi’s blonde hair). I wanted readers to be able to picture the characters as any race, any size… it’s up to them.

Ultimately, YA can shape our lives as writers by giving us a direction… and in turn, we can help shape the lives of young readers. Even if it’s in a tiny way, with one small voice, we get to choose what to share with them, and what mirror to hold up for them to look into. Talk about power!

Thanks so much, Meredith! Readers, you can learn more about Meredith and FRESHMAN YEAR AND OTHER UNNATURAL DISASTERS on her website, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook.