Pub Rants

YA Top 25

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STATUS: I just love when everything I submit sells. Makes me feel like I can do no wrong.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LOVE SONG by The Cure

Remember when I did the top 10 things I don’t want to see in the opening chapters of a fantasy novel? Haven’t done a blog like that in a while and now I don’t have to! Writer Joelle Anthony just sent me her list of the 25 things that repeatedly show up in young adult novels that she did for the SCBWI bulletin (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators).

It’s a hoot and totally spot on so I asked her if I could share. Here it is. We are dying to know if blog readers have any contributions to the list so feel free to add.

And because it’s only fair, here’s the link to Joelle’s site so you can see the article in its entirety.

A countdown of 25 things that show up repeatedly in young adult fiction:

#25 – Vegetarian teens with unsympathetic meat-eating parents

#24 – Shy or withdrawn characters that take refuge in the school’s art room/ compassionate art teachers

#23 – A token black friend among a group of white friends – usually it’s a girl, and she’s always gorgeous

#22 – A tiny scar through the eyebrow, sometimes accompanied by an embarrassing story

# 21 – Using the word ‘rents for parents, but not using any other slang

# 20 – A beautiful best friend who gets all the guys but doesn’t want them

#19 – The wicked stepmother who turns out to be simply misunderstood and it’s all cleared up in the climax

#18 – Authors showing their age by naming characters names they grew up with (i.e. Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.)

#17 – Parents who are professional writers or book illustrators

#16 – Using coffee, cappuccino, and café latte to describe black people’s skin

#15 – Main characters named Hannah and making a note of it being a palindrome

#14 – Younger siblings who are geniuses, adored by everyone, and usually run away during the book’s climax, causing dramatic tension

#13 – The mean-spirited cheerleader (and her gang) as the story’s antagonist

# 12 – A dead mother

# 11 – Heroines who can’t carry a tune, even if it were in a bucket

# 10 – Guys with extraordinarily long eyelashes

# 9 – The popular boy dating the dorky heroine to make his former girlfriend jealous, and then breaking the heroine’s heart

# 8 – The diary, either as the entire format, or the occasional entry

# 7 – Fingernail biting

# 6 – Characters who chew on their lip or tongue in times of stress – usually until they taste blood

# 5 – Raising one eyebrow

# 4 – Main characters who want to be writers

# 3 – Calling parents by their first names

# 2 – Best friends with red hair*

And the number one thing found in YA novels…
#1 – Lists

*While lists rule in teen fiction, red-haired best friends are amazingly predominant in both MG and YA, and certainly gave “lists” a run for its money. It might be an easy way to quickly identify a secondary character, but it’s a lot more common in books than red hair actually is!

© Joëlle Anthony, 2007
Originally published in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin, July/Aug. 2007

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53 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Could you post a link to the top 10 fantasy list you mentioned? I don’t think I’ve seen that!

  2. Anonymous said:

    Poor Meg Cabot. She hits at least 10 of those, maybe 15. But maybe she did it before it became cliche?

  3. Nadine said:

    Quite fascinating and so true!

    I don’t write YA, but if I ever start, I will look over this to make sure I don’t do any of them.

    Thanks Joelle and Kristin!

  4. pjd said:

    I am so glad my YA WIP suffers none of these (unless dead father is equivalent to dead mother). Does that mean it’s a sure best seller? When will I receive the check?

  5. Joelle said:

    Thanks for posting this, Kristin. I do want to say that there is an article that goes with the list (on my website, as Kristin noted) and just for the record, my intent with this list was to show what is done over and over again, in what I (stressing the word I) think a lot of writers believe are UNIQUE things. But they’re not necessarily BAD things. Also, it goes to show you what reading can do for your writing. I had a bunch of these things in my first attempt at a novel.

  6. Elrena said:

    Oh, I’m laughing so hard I’m posting, which I don’t know if I’ve ever done here before! #2 just killed me — and I think it also goes beyond MG and YA, doesn’t it?

    I have red hair, and both of my children have red hair, and there are still far more redheads on my bookshelves than there are in my neighborhood. I’m reading a book right now where, as the “bad girl” was being described, I’m thinking “please don’t have red hair — just please don’t have red hair.” The last book I read had a red-haired bad girl.

    Page turn. “She had long, red hair…”


  7. Anonymous said:

    God, can we get rid of mean-spirited cheerleaders as the villains in every form of entertainment? TV especially.


  8. Kelly Parra said:

    Yikes, I have two of these in the next one! The eyebrow thing, but it’s not an embarrassing story–still, I may have to change it!–and the diary blog. LOL! 🙂 🙂

  9. Krista said:

    About # 8 – The diary, either as the entire format, or the occasional entry

    That one also shows an author’s age. I haven’t heard of any teenager who is still using pen and paper instead of having an online blog such as a livejournal or myspace.

  10. JaxPop said:

    My completed YA doesn’t include any of these things! Frankly, none of ’em crossed my mind. I guess that means doom for my work. The square peg in the round hole – as usual.

  11. Alison said:

    Krista, speaking as a teenager, I can assure you that many teens still keep a pen-and-paper diary. 🙂

  12. Candy said:

    regarding # 16 –

    I think it’s because of the imagery that comes up. There are so many shades of color within the African American race that it’s natural to use terms like that. I see nothing wrong or offensive about it. To me, it helps me picture the character better.

    All you have to look at the make-up counter for the foundation colors for women of color and you’ll see some of those same names. I also think it stems from authors being told they have to vary their words.

    I also know several teens with, I guess it would be “older sounding”, less current names. Parents want their children to be able to get a job and hopefully not get teased about their names because they were named Marmalade or Can’Dace or something else outrageous. And I know a few teens who still use the old fashioned pen and paper diary.

    As for the chewing on the lip, fingernail biting and biting the tongue, that’s a natural reaction or tell for some people. And not uncommon. Also I think authors may do it to show instead of tell.

    So my question is, is this list in jest, a warning on what not to do, or meant for some other purpose.

  13. Joelle said:

    Hi. I think you might get more out of it if you read the whole article on my website. What I’m saying is these things are NOT uncommon, but if you’re using them, thinking that they add flavor to your writing, or are unique, or red hair is an easy identifier for a best friend, then you are doing what everyone else is doing and your writing won’t stand out. There’s nothing WRONG with any of them. But they are in so many novels that if you read as much as I do, you will say, “Oh, gosh…not another red headed best friend.” “Not another nail biter.” And have you ever bit your lip so hard you tasted blood? THAT’S HARD! Yeah, you do it on accident, but most people don’t do that out of simple nervousness. The only book I believe this in is SPEAK. Otherwise it’s just the same as “It was a dark and stormy night.” Does that help?

  14. Candy said:

    Yes thanks.

    And yeah the biting the lip thing til you taste blood is kinda gross.

    I have had those, “not another ethnic best friend” or “not another ethnic friend whose gorgeous, has a Beyonce booty and can dance”. Or rolling my eyes at the mention of “dork” or has a “boyish frame”.

    thanks for clearing it up.

  15. Dr K said:

    Wowsers, Kristin! One fine list.

    I avoided 24 of those 25 in my novel!

    With soul-searing remorse, I do confess to having a character “hike an eyebrow” from time to time. But no more. I SWEAR.
    — Gregory Kennedy, Edmonton

  16. Marysia Kay said:

    I had a wicked stepmother, but she didn’t turn out to be misunderstood, she’s still nuts.

    In my experience guys often have extraordinarily long eyelashes. They do it just to annoy us.

    Through a large bulk of my childhood I had a best friend with red hair, does this mean I am trapped in a YA book? How do I get out?

  17. Deb said:

    I’m with Marysia. Guys with long lashes are given to us by God to keep us humble. My brother used to bat his at me, just to torque me off. They’re still better than mine.

    As far as names for MG/YA, go to any U14 soccer club web site and see what the kids’ first names are. My daughter’s team: Sarah, Danielle, Ashley times 2, Emily, Jackie, Lareisha, Alyssa, Taylor, Courtney times 2. No Debbie, Kathy, Linda or Susan. Use those names for your characters and shout, “I was born in the 50s!”

  18. Jean said:

    The red-haired best friend. I wonder if it’s a legacy of Nancy Drew. Remember George?.

    And describing skin color as some combination of coffee and milk: how come white folks’ skin is never described? Because the assumption is that everyone’s white unless otherwise described. The “coffee-colored” skin cliche seems like a coy way to slip in a black person: “hey, this book has diversity” or as people used to say in the sixties: “some of my best friends are black!”

  19. BernardL said:

    I only broke one of the rules in mine. I have it entered in a contest, so I’ll see if my only breaking one rule does me any good. 🙂 Thanks for the list.

  20. Cory said:

    Whoops. I’m guilty of #10, #6 and #5, but since I write fantasy, not YA, I figured I’d track that list down too… and promptly hit #4 and #5.

    I might need to do some re-thinking of these things..

    Thanks for posting this, it was interesting to see – some of them were obviously overused, but others I’d never considered that way.

  21. Carleen Brice said:

    The coffee descriptions for black skin are overdone in adult fiction too, including fiction written by black authors. It’s not offensive, but it is cliche.

  22. Lauren said:

    Maggie – Yes! Those embarrassing cafeteria moments! I also see a lot of books that feature humiliating gym class moments.

    Also, can anyone recall some of those books about vegetarian teens that Joelle Anthony has noticed? I’m always looking for books that feature veggie characters, but the only ones I’ve read are Carolyn Mackler’s Vegan Virgin Valentine (wasn’t a big fan) and Spinelli’s Stargirl (who is supposedly a “strict vegetarian” but who orders anchovies on her pizza. Argh!).

  23. Ardyth said:

    Guess I better not write an autobiography for young adults… my best friend had red hair too. :S I’ve already been told the cultural diversity in my fiction, based on my own life story and where I went to school, is too cliche.

    Why didn’t anyone tell me I’m a living cliche?

  24. Joelle said:

    Lauren, I almost took the veggie teen thing off the list because it made it after I read a whole slew of them in a row…but I haven’t come across it much lately. I did move it all the way to 25 and as I keep reading and trends change, something will probably bump it off. I purposefully did not keep track of who had what in their books though because I didn’t want this to become a personal list. You know?

  25. Anonymous said:

    Okay, there might be more redheads in literature than there are in real life, but (and correct me if this is wrong), I’ve discovered that there are also more dragons, vampires, trolls, wizards, etc. (Maybe I’m just not getting out enough). Is fiction really supposed to reflect reality?
    I DO agree that the redheaded best friend thing seems overdone, but when I read literature in general, I don’t think, “Gee, these characters are more than 2% redheaded. These authors know nothing about reality!”

    By the way, since every writer alive reads this blog and will now edit out the redheads from their WIPs, if I leave mine in, will she be unique again? If that’s the case, you all go right ahead. 🙂

  26. brenda said:

    Wow #24 was 34 years of real teaching for me. Nobody ever said those kids and I fit into a book somewhere. *chuckles* *shakes head in bemusement*

  27. SFWriter said:

    I read the list to my YA reader and received a stream of “OMG” and “It’s like every book I’ve read” on most of them. But not all.

    And she likes the journal format for the entire book.

    She was laughing, too. Then I suggested the write a parody using every single cliche. She had the same idea. She’s smart that way.

    (I don’t think she’ll do it, because that would be work.)

  28. Lynn said:

    Sigh, I broke two, maybe three. 1- Hannah (which I love the name) 2- Dead Dad, 3-Misunderstood stepdad, but he’s really not seen as evil, she just doesn’t like him.

    Well, I guess I’ll have to relook or just finish this one and rename the character since I saw it as a series….

    There’s so much to learn.

  29. Joelle said:

    Anonymous wrote: I DO agree that the redheaded best friend thing seems overdone, but when I read literature in general, I don’t think, “Gee, these characters are more than 2% redheaded. These authors know nothing about reality!”

    The list is not about whether things are true or not, but about being lazy as a writer OR thinking you’re being unique when you’re doing what so many people before you have done. I think red hair is overused because using red hair for a best friend is a very quick way of “helping” the reader keep your characters straight.

    Like I said earlier, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with ANY of these things…but if you’re looking to stand out, to get noticed, to be different, to write the best book you can…well, maybe you want to rethink some of these choices if they’re in your book. It’s like fashion. Yeah, you want to look fabulous at the prom, but do you want to wear the same dress as six other girls? Be your own kind of fabulous.

  30. Getting There With A Passion said:

    #23, 16, and 11 for me, even though I don’t write YA.

    Well, I agree with Carleen Brice. I can’t stand cliche, mug shot descriptions (“He was a big guy, weighted 193, and smoked a stoogie.”)

    I’d much prefer: “The light played upon his russet hair as he brought the expensive cigar to his lips, intermittent shadows from the overhead palm trees dancing over his dark skin, the color of creamed coffee.”

    But you know, I found this extremely helpful, YA or not. Thanks Joelle and Kristen. Back to the ole’ editing board. . . Dun Dun DUN…

    -Rachel Glass

  31. beth said:

    I just finished reading two books, and between them saw maybe half of the cliches! Of course, as I was reading them, I wasn’t really thinking they were cliches, so either my cliche-o-meter is broken (likely) or these really aren’t that predominant (less likely). Does this sort of thing really crop up a lot? I guess I need to go read more!!

    PS–I’ve got an eyebrow raise or two in my WIP…maybe my cliche-o-meter really needs a tune up!

  32. Anonymous said:

    Thank you for this!


    Oh, the Lists, how I hate lists in YA fiction. It’s like, when someone can’t figure out a real hook for their story, they pull out “The List” and think it’s fresh. Or the diary/blog/journal. Can’t stand those either. Makes me cringe.

    Anytime I’m struggling to come up with a fresh angle for a YA and start thinking, maybe she’ll have… a list… I know that’s my red flag. I’ve got to stop. Wait. Let the story and characters ruminate a while longer. Until there is a real story there. A real story is not a list.

  33. Anonymous said:

    As it happens, I have a small scar through one eyebrow, but no embarrasing story to go with it. My sister pushed me out of bed when I was three or four years old, causing me to hit my head against the nightstand.

    To give you a hint of how long ago that was, a lot of the girls I grew up with were named Debbie. (The ones who weren’t were often named Cathy.)

  34. NL Gassert said:

    Red hair! I love red hair. And yes, the majority of my work has redheads in it, for no other reason than my love of red hair. I even married a redhead.

    I think I’m okay, though, since I don’t write YA. Still, lists like these are very useful even for non-YA writers.

  35. Anonymous said:

    Great list. But I have a point to argue when it comes to red hair. My best friend growing up was a natural red head (really it was more of an orange color, but close enough). I see plenty of redheads out there today, but very, very few of them are natural. Red head character – works for me as long as they admit to having a good colorist. For that matter, the majority of the teenagers over the age of thirteen (in my area which is admittedly urban) seem to at least be getting highlights done.


  36. Anonymous said:

    Joelle said:
    I think red hair is overused because using red hair for a best friend is a very quick way of “helping” the reader keep your characters straight.

    I’m the anonymous from above, and like I said before, I don’t disagree with the “best friend” part of this.
    But couldn’t you also say that brunette hair is overused for the main character? Or that blondes are often written as airheads and flirts? I think I cringed because you pointed out the redheads only. That’s probably because they’re a minority, and they stand out when you’re reading. But a list like this calls for a more objective view. Have you looked at how many times main characters are brunettes, for example? I’d love to know what shades of hair you’ve found most in other roles, from all the reading you’ve done.

    Your list made me think, though, so thank you. 🙂

  37. simmone said:

    like the song goes, it aint what you do it’s the way that you do it … re: lists and diary entries – I don’t think anyone would think of that as ‘fresh’ writing but both are established literary ‘forms’- listing harks back to preacherly enumeration – I think it’s fine – in fact BEGAN my book with a list. Re: eyebrow raising quirking hiking lifting- everyone does it. Re: dead mothers – well, it happens – but I think absent fathers should be on the list too! (And I am guilty of both) Also bring on the vegetarians – IT’S NOT WEIRD to not eat meat.(The person looking for veggo characters try Notes from the Teenage Underground (by me, simmone howell) where the mother and daughter eat a nut roast for christmas without hurling!

  38. Nora Coon said:

    Damn, I had #20 through my entire high school life. But in my novel, all I’ve got is fingernail biting…largely because it’s my eternal bad habit.

    This was hilarious, though. Why do boys always have gorgeous long eyelashes, anyway? It’s so unfair.

  39. Anonymous said:

    I want to have my DNA taken to the far ends of the Milkyway. Someone should order small plastic vials from the manufacturer using the green Thomas industrial catolog at the public library, look up vials /plastic. Next have someone make a kids rubber helium party baloon that is 1 inch bigger when its inflated so it goes higher in the sky. Have it made with glow in the dark stuff that shines at night. It will take two rubber baloons tied together to carry up the plastic vial taped to one of the baloons. Proceed to get poke-em lancets from the drug store to prick your finger. Now Space-Aliens flying in invisible craft in Earths skies could retrieve a drop of your blood when you release the baloons over the desert or nature park. Go ahead and dab a drop of blood onto the surface of the baloon instead if you want, then only one baloon is needed. Your baloon might be recognized by the Aliens up there. Or you might find the whole idea a bad thing. Should people who believe there is Aliens visiting our solor system send out a spacecraft way past Pluto that has a supply of fruit tree, vegetable and berry seeds so the Extra-terrestial star travellers can take it home?

  40. DJ said:

    This list also shows what kind of YA you read…

    Like, if you go to the “African American” or (insert other ethnicity) section, or even the European authored YA section, they don’t have those issues with token black friends, describing skin color, having a red-headed friend, etc. Describing skin color is mostly a White thing to do; everyone else seems to indirectly imply race using other qualities like hair texture (if they even talk about race at all).

    I’m white, but I read whatever looks good in the library. (shrug)

  41. attackfish said:

    “We’re living in a Young Adult novel.”

    “Huh? Have you been eating that bread with that mold that acts like LSD?”

    “No, no, I mean, I’m flat chested and named Hanna, and you have red hair, and the main character always has a red headed best friend.”

    “wait, who says you get to be the main character?”

    “The author?”

    “I dye my hair and Hanna’s your last name.”

    “But I want to live in a novel. They usually end so well.”

    “Well, you’re still flat chested.”