I recently read a Goodreads review of Jillian Larkin’s Diva that I think nailed the problems I see with a lot of current historical YA. These characters are in their late teens in the 1920s, and their behavior is supposed to be so shocking for teens, like going to speakeasies and premarital cohabiting. But that was kind of normal adult behavior for that set in that era (not to mention premarital cohabiting was a scandal for anyone, outside of a very few Bohemian places like Greenwich Village). In your late teens, you were an adult in the 1920s. It’s like the writer couldn’t make up her mind as to whether to write a teen or adult story, and so tries to play both sides.
For much of the 20th century, and for all human history before that, young people assumed mature, adult roles and responsibilities early on. People didn’t assume one came from a broken home if someone married at 16 or 17 in, say, 1880 or 1910. A lot of couples getting engaged and married in the post-WWII era were in their late teens and very early twenties, and they began having children very quickly. That was considered normal, since they were considered adults.
A lot of the American-published historical YA I’ve found from recent years seems to want it both ways. You can’t portray a teen of the 1940s, 1920s, or 1930s like a teen of today. They would be more like a miniature adult, albeit with somewhat of a youthful outlook. It’s just laughable to read, say, anti-smoking sentiments in YA historical. If anything, the average teen of the past would’ve smoked, or been excited for the day when s/he were old enough to smoke. I do have some teen characters who don’t smoke, but that’s based on finding it a lowbrow habit, immoral, not common in their native culture, etc. Those views wouldn’t have been widespread, and they certainly wouldn’t have gone around lecturing other teens on not smoking.
Additionally, much of the YA historical I’ve run across recently has seemed to be YA (i.e., teen-centered) first and historical second. I was so excited to read two of the books for my final project in my YA Lit class, Paul Dowswell’s The Ausländer and Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War. They were originally published in England and Germany, respectively. They have so many wonderful historical details, and take time to build characters and settings. They’re not just period pieces with teen characters.
The latter ages the character from 10 to 17, with a short Epilogue in her early twenties. That’s almost unheard of in YA these days, a real Bildungsroman like Anne of Green Gables or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, where it’s more about the journey from child to young adult, not plot-centric. I never had any problem with characters aging dramatically. If a book is set during a long-running historical event like WWII, the Civil War, or the 1960s, I kind of expect to follow the character through all of it, not just the first year or the last six months.
I’m not trying to stereotype or generalize, but I feel that since the YA explosion 5-10 years ago, YA has come to mean something a lot different than what it was in my generation, before it had that designation. But you can’t really have a teen with a self-centric, young voice if s/he lives 50+ years ago. Just think of how Scarlett and Melly are 16 at the start of GWTW, but they’re never portrayed as anything but adult women, with adult speech, motivations, and actions. Sure they might not be on the same level as they are at the end of the book, but they’re still considered adults in their era and society.
I consider myself a writer first, a historical writer second, and a teen or children’s writer third. Like it or not, I really don’t think my Shoah books would be considered YA in today’s U.S. market. The themes, language, situations, and roles are just too un-teen-like by contemporary measurements, not to mention the length. I’m used to historicals being long, so I don’t see an issue with a historical about a teen, set over a number of years, being 120,000 words. If you think that’s too long, you don’t know that that’s a drop in the bucket next to some of my other books!