Update: I’ve noticed this post still gets views sometimes, so I thought I’d add this note up here. Since writing this, my opinions have changed a little. I’m leaving this post as-is, with a link to the more nuanced 2016 post.
I find a lot of writers new to YA are under the impression that a YA novel must have some kind of “message”, a lesson the young reader can take away from the book. Let me let you guys in on a little secret: teenagers hate being preached to. I repeat: teenagers hate being preached to. Repeat it to yourself until it sinks in, because knowing this will save you a world of grief. If you start writing a book purely to put a message across, it will be so obvious and so insulting that you’ll be lucky to have any readers at all. While it’s possible to find lessons in morality in popular stories like Harry Potter, you’ll find they grow organically out of the story and the story always comes first. The reader is not beat over the head with it.
This goes for any work of fiction. You can dress it up with fancy names (message, moral lesson, life lesson, whatever you want to call it), but flatulence by any other name still stinks. Fiction is not the place to preach. If you’ve spent even a minute with a teenager, you will realize they hate lectures, they hate being told what to do and they hate being patronised. I repeat again: teenagers hate being preached to.
This is what bothers me about adults critiquing YA novels by attacking their themes, saying such-and-such is teaching teenagers the wrong things about relationships or this-and-that tells teenagers it’s okay to hurt people. Teenagers are not stupid, especially teenagers who read. There’s a word for people who think doing something is okay because a work of fiction said so: psychotic.
So ditch the preaching. Let the story’s themes and message unfold organically from the narrative. As I often say, teenagers have finely tuned bullshit detectors. Give them the credit they deserve. If you want to write for them, you must understand and respect them. YA fiction is not the place to make a quick buck, nor is it a training ground on the way to writing “real” novels. If you believe that, then go off and write your “real” novels and leave the rest of us to enjoy what we do. Teens deserve the best writing we can give them, and a little trust that they know right from wrong without a thinly veiled morality lesson disguised as fiction.