Why I’m not wild about many current YA historicals

Warning: Potentially unpopular opinions to follow.

As I’ve discussed in a number of previous posts, it was a long, slow, challenging process to realize I write adult fiction that just happens to focus on young characters. The perception of the young adult category has changed so much from the time I was a young adult.

With some notable exceptions, I haven’t liked a lot of the YA historicals published in the U.S. within the last 10 years or so, since the YA explosion. The best recent YA historicals I’ve found tend to be published outside of the U.S., like Mal Peet’s Tamar, Paul Dowswell’s The Ausländer, and Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War.

So many times one of my blogging buddies, or the reading public at large, raves about a certain YA historical, and I have the exact opposite reaction when I check it out. I often wonder if we read the same book! Probably a big reason I prefer YA historicals published outside of the U.S. is because those books focus more on the history instead of the teen experience. They also have a voice and style that speaks to people of all ages, instead of feeling intended only for teens.

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While I love MG historicals, and a select few YA historicals published in the U.S., I just feel like the current YA style doesn’t fit very well with traditional historical storytelling. I want to read about young people living through history, not young people who just happen to live in the past.

The extreme oversaturation of first-person in YA is also a roadblock for me. First-person absolutely can be done phenomenally well, but historical is a genre which traditionally works best with third-person omniscient for a reason. With so many YAs being first-person these days, the narrators start to run together after awhile. First-person voice also seems rather modern and too personal for historical.

As I’ve mentioned many times, there was no concept of adolescence until really the 20th century. There were children, and there were adults. Some adults were younger and less experienced, but they were still considered adults in the eyes of society. For example, many of the young wives in The Decameron are all of 13 or 14. It’s kind of hard to forcibly bend the story of a teenager 100+ years ago to have the same voice, experiences, and sensibilities as a teen of the modern era!

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Choosing a famous young adult as the protagonist also fails for me. Someone like Joan of Arc or Catherine Howard (one of Henry VIII’s wives) would’ve been seen as an adult by her society and era. (Side note: The cover of Katherine Longshore’s Gilt, the first in a series about the Tudor Court, uncannily resembles the cover of Madonna’s Erotica.)

Many historical writers do give characters somewhat more modern views and behavior than most people of that era had, to try to make them more relevant and relatable to modern audiences. However, I’ve seen a lot of recent YA historicals making characters way too modern (e.g., anachronistic slang, high-society débutantes having premarital sex with the stable boy, lecturing people about smoking, shacking up with a boyfriend of another race).

This leads to the Gossip Girl in period clothes style, like Jillian Larkin’s Flappers series and Anna Godbersen’s Luxe and Bright Young Things series. Any actual history is shallow window-dressing for stories that essentially read like contemporaries. These books also fail because they’re trying to play it both ways. Either you’re writing about teenagers having authentic teenage experiences, or you’re writing about younger adults having pretty normal experiences for their era.

Then we have laughably unrealistic nonsense like Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied, where 15-year-old Evie sees nothing of risking her reputation by heavily making out with two legal adult men. She’s not scared of getting caught or things going too far and getting sent off to a Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers!

Bottom line: I’m sick and tired of historicals featuring typical YA contemporary characters who just happen to be plunked into the past. I’m also tired of books with very adult situations being passed off as YA just because the characters are teenagers.

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2 thoughts on “Why I’m not wild about many current YA historicals

  1. Rant done. While we have some differing opinions about historicals, I back you on several points. Admittedly, I don’t read enough of the genre (because I’m torn between so many others,) but my big issue is when a character set in a time period has the mentality of a 20th century individual. History is hard.

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  2. I can see why you think this way. I must admit I haven’t read many (I can’t even think of one at the moment) YA historicals. Teenage people in non-recent times were not considered children and were often quite adult–married with kids. So they would be more adult reads. Just because the main protagonist is young doesn’t mean the story is YA too. But I can also see why some YA historical fiction is more modernized too. It’s likely meant to be a fun read and might get people to think more of what happened in the past and to research for themselves what it was like. People reading is always a good thing. 🙂

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