The Real World and the YA Novel

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.



  1. says

    Love your perspective. My hope is that somehow young people can be induced to read…anything. Well, anything that’s not coded in Tweetspeak or text messages, that is. But, I should relax. Curiosity will win out in the long run.

    In the interest of full disclosure: I’m 74 and did not read as a young person. I caught the bug of voracious reading in college and have had an inflamed surge of it when someone gave me a Kindle. I wish I had been bitten earlier.

  2. says

    This is so true! As a young person and avid reader myself, I can personally attest to the lack of real world books out there. I can’t really relate to your two examples (drinking and unwanted advances) because I guess I’ve lead a pretty sheltered life with pretty sheltered friends (who thankfully, have never lied to me). My teenage years have mostly been plagued by homework rather than other issues, but I know there are kids out there that will find your book refreshing and like you said, a mirror. I like that you showed several different sides of the drinking issue, because so many times people only want to see one part of an issue, when, as with most things in life, there is never only one (correct) perspective.

  3. says

    An excellent interview. I like how you explained the use of alcohol and lack of cigarettes in this closer to real life story.
    Who actually is “guest” who is the scribe of the interview? Thank you makes me want to buy the book for my teens.

  4. Cathy says

    What a great book trailer! I love that your main character is a real teenager. Most kids experience awkward and embarrassing moments at some point. Why pretend like that isn’t normal?

    I look forward to reading Freshman Year and perhaps passing it along to my 13-year-old son.

  5. says

    hi, writer unboxed readers!

    thanks for stopping by to read my post… i’m so glad you like it! people saying they think the book is funny has been absolutely amazing to hear, but the threads about the bigger “issues” get me super excited as well. it’s so interesting how different people respond to the way kelsey and her friends handle things, and how their experiences relate – or don’t! – to readers’ own lives. i hope if you guys read the book you’ll let me know what you think!

    xoxo, mz

  6. says

    After reading this, I definitely want to give this book a try. I was a little hesitant and didn’t think I would appreciate it. But after reading this, I think I definitely will.

  7. says

    Folks, I received FRESHMAN YEAR as an ARC and laughed my face off! The awesome trailer just gives a taste. It’s a funny, sweet, wry story and my 15 y.o. kid also loved it.

    I also agree with Meredith that right now there seems to be a dearth of YA novels that don’t feature a supernatural element. But I believe that telling a story that readers can relate too, plus giving them a character to root for, will always find an audience.

    Thanks for guesting with us, Meredith!

  8. says

    It’s so interesting to read this and think about the cycles in publishing. I was a bookworm child of the 80s and it seemed then that everyone was forcing real world books on us, while I preferred fantasy. Back then, there was little fantasy available to bridge readers too old for C.S. Lewis and too young to appreciate Tolkien.

    My friends were reading and loving Judy Blume etc… and I tried to like those books, too, but I had a genuinely frightening childhood and girls whose biggest problems were about parties and boys and periods just seemed like self-involved whiners who didn’t know how good they had it, to me. I much preferred reading about characters who were faced with evil and made the choice to be heroes.

    I think it’s important to have a balance available to kids – so that they can see themselves as ‘okay’ in contemporary settings but also so that they can read heroic stories, stories about good and evil, and make the choice in the safety of fiction – am I going to be a good guy, or a bad guy? Not that the supernatural books these days are necessarily clear on who is making the good choices!

    • says

      Very cute trailer!

      I’ve read pretty widely my whole life — contemporary, fantasy, scifi, romance, etc. (Okay, nonfic got my cold shoulder until college, I confess.) And like Danielle, I think a balance — or at least a wide variety — is what’s necessary. Each teen needs something different, and one may connect to the “awkward kids, funny kids, kids with embarrassing or screwed-up families” in paranormal romance while another needs the more realistic contemporary framework. It’s good that we as writers are trying to provide that. :)

      “Not that the supernatural books these days are necessarily clear on who is making the good choices!”

      Actually I don’t think that’s the worst thing. Life is rarely black or white, and I think “coming of age” is the process of learning to navigate the gray.

  9. says

    Thanks for this post. Regardless of genre, the best novels are grounded in reality and provide a journey leading to the discovery of largere truths. It is sad that some popular fiction has veered away from that ideal. Good luck with your book.

  10. says

    What a great post! Many things struck me (the awesomeness of your trailer, your wit and humor, your smart goals as a YA author), though I think your explanation of why you didn’t include details about physical appearance is especially interesting. Very cool.

    Three cheers for YA novels that are grounded in the reality of being a teenager–warts and acne and drinking and all!

  11. says

    Congrats on your novel! Looks fantastic. I would have been so into this as a tween.

    Don’t let the critics who whine about too much sex or too much drinking get to you. There’s a segment of the population who will never approve of sex and booze in any fiction, whether aimed at adults or teenagers. I was surprised when I saw a review of my novel that said “too much sex.” I wasn’t writing erotica. I found out later that “too much” is code for “any” for certain book reviewers.

    You can’t please everyone all the time.

  12. says

    Well said! When I was a kid, one of the things I liked about Judy Blume’s books was that the heroes were not the Elizabeth Wakefields.

    The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger was one of my favorites; someone else who hated gym! Who felt frumpy and out of place!

    I don’t read much YA these days but this post has piqued my interest; I’ll be sure to look for this one.

    Great post.

  13. says

    Absolutely love the book trailer! I think it’s wonderful that you deal with many issues in the book that real teens are facing and address all sides of the issue. So many books, movies, etc. present the morality tale and leave it at that. I’m looking forward to reading the book!