It seems like an act of the cosmos, then, that I would run across this blog entry today: Is my novel too weird? at Revising Leah. This blogger, who appears to be at work on (or has just finished) a novel he believes is probably YA, says (with many parts snipped out because I know y'all can follow links):
But the other day, when it occurred to me that my novel might be a little too weird, I wasn’t thinking about one specific element of the story that I could correct; rather, I was thinking about the story as a whole. What I thought was weird about my story isn’t that it is odd or idiosyncratic in places (the best works of literature are often those that are a little strange);instead, it’s the fact that the story really isn’t weird at all which makes it too weird...
...the “second act” of my novel revolves around a history report on the ancient Egyptians. Of course, that report is a plot device... Leah goes to the library, she takes notes, she writes her essay, she’s nervous about reading it in front of her class. These are some of the most mundane events imaginable, and what worries me is that the story itself is too focused on these mundane events.
But what I like about the mundane is that it is real. Sadly, it’s true that a lot of the horrible things that happen to main characters in other young adult novels do happen to some real teenagers in real life, but most teenagers live relatively mundane lives... If I write a story about these things, then I may be writing a “real” story, but the price I have to pay for that realism is, I guess, a weird and boring novel.
That's not how it works.
Revising Leah believes, or at least I glean this from reading his entries, that in order to appeal to a wide YA audience you need to have some kind of Big Traumatic Event. He doesn't want to write the BTEs because that's not what interested him as a teen and he's not into "melodrama." And you know? That's perfectly fine. What's not fine is believing that these books represent all contemporary YA and all YA sales, or that a writer has to write BTEs and melodrama in order to sell books. Plenty of books sell that contain none of these things. Plenty of books sell that aren't science fiction or fantasy. YA is a cool genre because anything can happen, including realism that appears to be boring on the surface but is saved by great writing (see the list at the end of this entry). It's also not fine to believe that popular books are bad and less popular, more literary books are good. Gossip Girl is not inherently worse than Looking for Alaska. There's room in YA for everything. YA is a place where The Clique can happen as easily as Madapple and everything Ellen Hopkins ever wrote.
I don't think there's a "price to pay for realism" at all. The only price around is the one the reader pays when the writer doesn't see that YA can be literary, that it can have many layers, and that a story about everyday life doesn't have to be, well, everyday. As Stephen King said in On Writing, our lives have no plots, so a plot where some kind of big trauma happens is not necessarily the key to a successful YA novel. "Relatable" characters are not necessarily ordinary. We all related to Harry Potter not because he was magical, but because he got into fights with his friends and completely screwed things up with Cho Chang and always strived to do the right thing. Harry Potter is as ordinary as you and I, and that heart, that brand of realism, is what makes for a successful YA novel.
I've added some of my favorite YA about ordinary teens here:
Dramarama: Broadway shows bring their own drama.
An Abundance of Katherines: Boy goes on a road trip at the end of his senior year and falls in love.
Crooked: A normal boy and girl form an unlikely friendship and try to navigate bullies and parental troubles.
Prom: Her boyfriend is kind of an ass but she still wants to go to prom.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist: Two souls meet and bond over exes and music.
Criss Cross: She wished something would happen.
A Little Friendly Advice: Dad wants to make reparations. Also, there's a camera.
Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie: Freshman year is an extreme sport.
(and feel free to add your own favorite great "nothing happens here" titles!)
Yes, I know these are all realistic fiction, because strange and brilliant things happening to teens is sort of the point of YA science fiction and fantasy.