Building Relationships in YA and MG
Today I’d like to write about building relationships in YA and middle-grade novels. Creating relationships is critically important in your writing and are the building blocks of the books you write.
I spent the first three years of my career working at Aladdin at Simon & Schuster where I became very familiar with middle-grade novels and that’s the age group I am going to start with. The most important kind of relationships you would see in a middle-grade novel are:
- Between a child and their parents or guardians.
- Between friends.
Some of you may ask about romantic relationships in middle-grade. Well, in middle-grade novels romantic relationships should be very tame. No making out if you are writing a middle-grade novel! Those are my words of wisdom to you.
I first want to discuss the relationship between a child and their parents in middle-grade. Now this is definitely the less “cool” one of the two, but it is so important. The biggest relationship that a kid has is with the adult figure in their life. The most important thing to keep in mind is that these relationships do need to mirror real life, and therefore, are often far from perfect.
One of the tests I have when reviewing a middle-grade novel is where the parents or guardians factor in. If they are total non-entities, this doesn’t read well to me. But let me backtrack a bit here. This is mostly the case in realistic novels. In fantasy or sci-fi novels we have a lot more leeway with this. And this is because we are not looking into a slice of real life. In these fantastical novels parents are often not even secondary characters. But in a realistic middle-grade novel, I need to see quite a bit of them.
Of course I want to say that there are novels where the protagonist doesn’t have a traditional family structure, but nonetheless, there are figures of authorities.
While a lot of adult/child relationships in some of the acclaimed novels we see today are tough ones, not all believable relationships are like this. But, even if the relationship is a good one, it needs to feel organic and real. I love to see scenes between parents and kids where they are doing totally mundane things: a dinner scene, a homework scene, a carpool scene, anything that feels ordinary. Kids have a remarkable bullshit detector and if they can’t recognize their relationship dynamic in a book, it will take them out of them moment.
The other relationship that I want to talk about in middle-grade is the relationship between friends. Friendship is SO important in middle-grade novels. And we really need to feel the friendship. This is something I’ve touched on when critiquing new writers and that I believe is crucial. In all novels, one must show not tell. This is a fairly basic concept in theory, but in practice it’s so much harder.
Here’s a sentence I don’t want you to ever use on it’s own: “They were best friends.” Show us how they are best friends!
Instead say something like: “Hailey came over every Friday and stayed the whole weekends. They watched movie marathons and made ice cream sundaes with the weirdest flavor combinations they could think of, and even once tried to super glue themselves together so that Hailey wouldn’t have to leave Sunday night.” Does that sentence get across the feeling that they were best friends? Absolutely. And honestly, it says so much more.
Kids have so many emotions at this age. If you don’t include some tumultuous times between friends that just isn’t realistic. There are so many feelings right at the surface. Kids are so easily embarrassed, but at the same time they are desperate to be cool and fit in. Those two emotions are really at odds and something that plays at beautifully in middle-grade novels.
Of course, these are just the two biggest kinds of relationships in middle-grade. There are many more, but if you get these two right, you’ll be in great shape to get your novel published.
Now let’s move on to young adult fiction. Here we will be talking about romantic relationships. I will tell you right now, it is extremely hard to sell a teen novel that doesn’t have an element of romance in it. This isn’t to say at all that one has to write purely a romance novel to be successful, but teens are interested in a love story, and if your story doesn’t have one, one that is fairly meaningful, it will be a tough sell.
In fact, teens are looking for romance everywhere! I love the concept of “shipping.” I define it as “A term used to describe fan fictions that take previously created characters and put them as a pair.” If you write a book and fans decide to “ship” characters, that means you’ve succeeded. You have created such great characters, with such interesting back story and personality traits, that fans see them as real people who could be in a relationship.
So that’s the goal, everyone! And, it just goes to show you, that teens will be looking to find romantic clues in relationships you may deem totally platonic.
To go back to my favorite saying, “show, don’t tell” definitely applies here too. In this case, please don’t only use the sentence “she loved him.” Show us! Say something instead like “he always knew when she was in a ‘mood’ and left funny messages on her locker to make her smile, he loved to trace the constellation of freckles on her arm and kiss the one on the inside of her palm, and when they hugged she knew exactly where her face fit, because they just seemed to fit.”
I tell you all this, to emphasis how important building a meaningful romantic relationship in your young adult novel is.
I think we all know that teens are a very tough audience. One of my authors while writing her YA debut was terrified of the YA community and how harsh they can be if something isn’t done right. I think we have all seen how much backlash there has been regarding the phenomenon of “insta-love.” Teens seem to hate the idea of love at first sight. The days of ROMEO AND JULIET are over folks — they want relationships built on dialogue and shared experiences.
Where does this come from? Well, how do most people fall in love? Instantly? No, I don’t think so. In fact, I think most teens now a days fall in love after being friends first. That’s the tough thing though, teens want realistic, but they want more of a fairytale than their real life — it’s a definite balance. They want sparkling dialogue between people who are more eloquent than they are and they want obstacles to keep lovers apart, but not crazy ones.
Next I want to talk about friendships in YA literature. I find these relationships to be less straightforward than in middle-grade novels. Most YA literature focuses on a female protagonist, and teen girls have some of the most complicated friendships out there.
For a long time I was seeing main characters that were sort of in the middle popularity-wise. They were the girls who weren’t “losers” but also weren’t the “queen bees.” There has definitely been an upswing in portraying the popular girl. I tend to notice that the more popular the protagonist is, the more complicated their relationships with their female friends is. MEAN GIRLS is a hysterical movie, but it doesn’t accurately represent “popular” girls’ friendships.
Friendships in YA aren’t all mean girls, they often also focus on more relatable girls. But, no matter what, these friendships are complicated and often include a lot of love mixed in with a lot of snark, misunderstanding, jealousy and everything else that comes along with being a teenager.
YA and MG: Siblings
The last relationship I want to talk before wrapping this up, is the relationship between siblings. While this isn’t as important in most novels as the other relationships, I mentioned, in particular novels, can be absolutely essential.
My former colleague Alexandra Cooper published a book called Forget-Me-Not Summer by Leila Howard. I absolutely loved this story of three sisters during one unforgettable summer. I enjoyed this book because it really shows how siblings can be at each other’s throats one minute, and each others best friends the next. I might even say be very careful if you don’t have a sibling and you’re writing about that kind of relationship. They can be so nuanced that it’s hard to recreate.
Of course there’s much more that goes into creating believable relationships, but I wanted to write about the basic foundations and I hope I’ve achieved that here today. The most helpful advice I can give you is to observe and read. And, of course, keep on writing!