As most of you know, my love of YA is not limited to the page. I am a huge fan of teen-centric dramas and WB-esque shows as long as they are clever, honest, well-written, or just plain awesome (hello, Vampire Diaries!) However, there is a common thread in these series – even in the cases of my most beloved shows, which I’ll get to later – that I think needs addressing. The issue I’m referring to is “Graduation.” Or, more accurately, not showing what realistically happens to your main characters upon graduating from high school. Some grievances:

Let’s Get Married: Before I state my case, I would like to acknowledge all of the happily married high school sweethearts out there. I know you exist. My parents are perfect examples of this actually. Now, that said – please stop making your love interests get married! Sadly, the only literary reference to this unfortunate plotline that I can think of right now are Bella and Edward from Twilight. Their inevitable marriage is depressing for many reasons, but what I’m focusing on here is their age (well, her age in this case). Much like our reigning literary couple, Corey & Topanga (Boy Meets World), Zack & Kelly (SBTB), and Liz & Max (Roswell) are only a few examples of TV teens who decided that getting a marriage license before getting a college degree was the logical next step in their lives. This is so dangerous for teenagers. It’s saying “you will never meet anyone better and you will always have the same standards as you had in high school.” Or, it breeds the thinking that “there is nothing else after high school worth exploring on your own anyway, so why not just get married?” It’s incredibly sad that series like these – with seemingly driven, intelligent characters –  have perpetuated this ideology. I realize “marriage” doesn’t have to mean the ball-and-chain institution that its associated with, but marriage is not something that should be idealized as purely romantic either. No one is more impulsive than a teenager and no one falls in love more often than a teenager. These are not people who should have things like mortgages and babies and joint checking accounts.

Parents As Enablers: Contrary to what Will Smith told us, it seems that in teen dramas where the teenagers are acting completely irrationally, emotionally, and, well, like teenagers, the parents completely understand. They will say things like “I know it will be hard to be away from [boyfriend or girlfriend], but this is your decision.” In real life, college-bound teens do usually opt for college, but in teen dramas, they will always choose the love interest if given the option. Writers, assuming your YA parents are alive and well, let them be parents. They don’t always understand what the teen is going through because they’ve already grown out of such behavior. Want to get married at 18? Want to throw away your full ride to Oxford so you can go to the local community college with your best friend? Most parents, if they have their child’s best interest at heart, would not say “it’s your decision.” They would say “you get your ass on that plane.” Parents don’t have to be a villain, nor should they be portrayed that way, but they should be logical when the teen is not.

There’s No Place Like Home: Destined-for-greatness, Veronica Mars, and teenage genius, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, can go anywhere and do anything. Straight-A students with acceptance letters from the Ivy League to universities abroad to super amazing internships. With so many options, why not choose to stay in your hometown? Er… right? OK, so Willow preferred to battle evil on the Hellmouth, but I mean… there’s another one in Cleveland! Live outside your box for a while, Willow. The literary character I thought this might happen to was Hermione Granger. I didn’t want Ron holding her back, which I fear is what ultimately happened. Seriously, YA & teen drama writers, what is so bad about getting out of dodge, at least for college, if not forever? Again, with few exceptions, leaving your hometown is a necessary experience and teenagers, who no doubt get enough pressure from their parents to stay close to home, shouldn’t need to see their favorite teen characters make decisions that are usually not in their best interest.

Love Ya Like a Sis, Don’t Ever Change: This was written in my yearbook just like I’m sure it was written in yours (if you’re a girl who graduated in the late ’90s/early ’00s anyway). I’ll forgive the “LYLAS” part, but “don’t ever change?” Sorry, but I prefer to grow up and not continue to think and act the same way I did when I was a teenager. My beloved Buffy and Veronica fell victim to the trend of going to college in a group, which is how I know that no writer, no matter how good, is safe from doing this. Other teen shows have notoriously high-school heavy freshman years too (more recently done by Gossip Girl). I understand that building an audience for a TV show takes time and it’s very risky to throw away characters audiences have come to love when moving the main character to college. There’s a reason why 90210 and Saved By the Bell – much like the popular cliques their characters represented – peaked in high school. But when something is well-written, smart, and easily able to take the next step into “crossover” territory, I don’t see any reason why writers shouldn’t offer a realistic look at what happens to most people after high school – complete departure with occasional Facebook stalkage (or, in my case, AIM). I can count on one hand the number of friends from high school who I still consider actual friends, and my life is hardly lacking because of it. People grow and change, and more often than not, the people who were your entire world suddenly don’t fit into yours anymore. Portraying this as something negative rather than liberating not only holds teens back, but it stunts your characters’ growth as well.

Life only begins at 18, yet so many teen dramas keep their characters in the dark about adulthood. Graduation may be the end of life as they know it, but it’s not the end of their lives. As writers, you should write for your intended audience. Just remember not to create a Neverland for them. Chances are, they will break up with the person they are so in love with and the best friend who they can’t imagine living without will be just as fine without them as they are without him or her. These things are downers to a YA audience; I get that. But just like one’s initial fear of the unfamiliar, the anxiety and sadness passes and gives way to realizing how much is still ahead. Unless you are writing a tragedy, don’t let your characters peak in high school. Even if you don’t write them into adulthood, keep them open, ready, and excited for their next step.

(PS: The number of things Buffy did get right (in both the high school years and beyond) is enough for an entirely different blog post, which I may or may not write in the future.)

18 thoughts on “Graduation

  1. (mild Veronica Mars spoiler alert)

    If I recall correctly, Veronica Mars wanted to go to an Ivy League school, but she spent her college money to get her mother into rehab. So, it wasn't just a matter of wanting to stay with her friends. But the post in general is spot-on. 🙂


  2. @Kaleen – There's no simple answer and agents' blogs have covered this topic far more extensively than I, but my short answer is that it always depends on the situation and the writing. That said, any older than 18 is probably adult.


  3. This post brings up a question that I've had since I started writing: if the book surrounds main characters that are eighteen years of age and older, does the book still fall under the YA category? The answer I have gotten from editors and the like is- no. YA means that the characters are eighteen and under, with seventeen usually being the max age. I wrote an entire novel with my character being college age, stamped it as YA, sent it for an evaluation, and got the feedback that it was not YA because of the character's age. So, I took it out of that college aged grey area and made the characters in their early twenties ('cause I would like to see it published, and as a new author I didn't want to tread in grey areas). So my question for you, agent Sarah, is how do you categorize books with college-aged characters- adult or YA?


  4. I'm sure there were people in my high school who thought it was hell but I don't think it was the norm. I mean I know people who can't watch Mean Girls because it reminds them of high school. That's just seems so foreign to me. And a lot of people ended up marrying their high school sweethearts but most of them waited until after college, which makes a huge difference, I think.


  5. @Megan – Good point. I wouldn't call my HS experience “hell” either. I think there's definitely a place for a happy high school experience in YA while still recognizing that there's a life beyond it.


  6. Whenever people talk about high school and how they couldn't wait to leave/how it was he'll/how they never talk to their high school friends I'm reminded of how different my high school is. Most people stayed really close with their friends, even if they went totally separate ways for college. Granted it was a small Catholic school (graduating class of 82, what what) and a lot of us went to the same grade schools as well, but still.

    And Rory definitely changed in college, but not everyone would say it was for the better.


  7. All true points. I think this kind of story telling contributes to a view that once you're out of high school (or college) nothing happens. You've arrived. The reality is life keeps moving and is just as complicated and hard as before.

    I hope Ron didn't hold Hermione back. It's a little hard to say, since there doesn't appear to be wizard college. However she apparently works in the ministry to help house-elves, and then anti-muggle laws, basically becoming Ron and Harry's boss.

    Sarah: You're right about GG. Rory definitely changed from high school to college.


  8. I'm thinking of a few words to summarize this great post: be realistic and be authentic to your characters. And sometimes its not pretty.

    Which makes the read that much more compelling. And real. And authentic.


  9. This is a fantastic post. I've thought a lot about these different points and I wish they were addressed more often.

    I know that YA tends to be very high school-centric, but I would love to see more books focusing on college or college aged people.

    I think choosing to keep the focus on high school can really lead to the mentality that those are the “best years of one's life”. That simply isn't the case. I don't know about everyone else, but High School was 4 years of sheer hell. I was so happy to leave that I NEVER returned to pick up my high school diploma. Seriously. It's been almost 6 years and my mom keeps telling me that when I come home (because, you know, I moved OUT and to a different country) that I should pick it up, but since earning my college degree I just don't care enough to do so.

    But anyway, I do think these points are incredibly important. Teens should know that college isn't just another extension of high school and that it is totally OK to travel and learn how to adjust to different social situations. I wish YA encouraged this more.


  10. Sarah, this is a great post. I think that for a lot of teens, school is life, where their social network is, where most of their time get's spent. So when it comes to an end, many can't see beyond school. But for teenagers to get married, well, if it works out that's all well and good, but let's be honest, even the strongest marriages can be pretty hard work! I wouldn't think many teens are emotionally ready for marriage or children. I think stepping away from the comfort zone and showing that whilst the main characters are in love and want to spend forever together, they are young and still need to experience life, surely they can do some of that together without getting hitched and tied down? I love a happy ending, but I also like endings that you never saw coming too. Hence, great advice Sarah, I will not let my lead character peak in high school!


  11. I loved this post. When we're in High School, we think the world's axis runs right through us. It's not until we leave that we finally see how big the world is, how much we have to learn from it, and how hard we have to fight to find our place within it. Great lessons to be learned from your entry, and great insight as to what needs remembering with YA!


  12. Yes. I agree. I survived my teen years by telling myself life began after high school. I was right, mostly. (It actually started after college.) I think many young people feel the same way. I write for them. (I hope they buy books, or I'm in trouble.)


  13. You know, this is making me realize how many things Gilmore Girls did right. Allowing their character to grow up and leave the small town. Building a bunch of new characters to be college friends. Showing that romantic love is powerful and real, but that you don't always have to sacrifice everything in the service of it.

    Sure, there were a lot of annoyances along the way, but the creators allowed their characters to dream bigger than most.


  14. I would love a Buffy blog post.

    I know my teenage self would have been absolutely relieved to learn that marriage doesn't have to be the next stage after high school (and college). I suppose I knew that, but I still had no idea what it looked like, and so it was scary behaving otherwise. I think a lot of my friends made fear-based decisions they would not have made had the world been presented to them differently. I wasn't wiser than they or anything, just single and lucky.


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