We are running two free YA writing events in the Mslexia Salon this month. Laura will be running a YA novel pitching surgery on Monday 15 August, 2-4pm; and bestselling novelist Sara Barnard will be leading a workshop on teenage voice and dialogue on Tuesday 16 August, 12-2pm.


From the searing feminist statements made in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours and Asking for It, to the explorations of gender and identity in Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal, the contemporary YA landscape is populated with powerful emotive fiction exploring current issues with heart and nuance. Angela Thomas, whose debut novel The Hate U Give (inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement) sparked a fierce 13-publisher bidding war, says the genre ‘shows the heart, the flaws, the pain, the triumphs, and the realities of humanity. It just so happens to be done through the lens of a teenager.’

Because contemporary YA is set in the present day, it’s important that authors capture modern teen culture, which can be a challenge – especially given the ever-evolving intricacies of social media – but all of the contemporary YA authors I spoke to insist that this isn’t as intimidating as you might think.

Meg Rosoff, the multi-award-winning author of How I Live Now and a slew of other YA titles, explains, ‘People don’t change from decade to decade, though their concerns might vary somewhat. I’m more interested in what goes on in someone’s brain than the messages they send on Snapchat’. Juno Dawson, a YA author whose work addresses gender and mental health, agrees. ‘If anything, I avoid trends because they date so quickly.’ 

The best research into teens happens more organically, says Keris Stainton, prolific British author of contemporary teen comedy. ‘I don’t really actively “research”, apart from reading stuff online and earwigging on the bus or in McDonald’s. I don’t think teenagers have changed that much since I was one. Everything around them has changed, and obviously some of that needs to make it into the book (e.g., social media and mobile phones) but I don’t think the challenges they face – and often the way they deal with those challenges – has changed as much as people might think.’

Thomas agrees. ‘We must recognise, understand, and respect our differences but also find the similarities. Yes, social media is important to teens, but for a lot of them social media represents acceptance. Who can’t relate to that?’

Methods for fleshing out characters vary from author to author, with some preferring to remain firmly rooted in the real world. Thomas creates back story first – ‘Your past experiences affect your present decisions. I also consider race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality, etc., all of which help shape their views of the world’ – while Rosoff allows more creativity when she’s building her protagonists. ‘The main concern I have is that they feel real to me; that they’re in focus as people. That doesn’t necessarily mean accurate – fiction allows you to take huge liberties with reality.’

The toughest aspect of contemporary YA to nail down is theme, especially if you’re delving into sensitive issues. Thomas, whose debut tackles racism in the US head-on, says, ‘I prefer to focus on story. Even when issues are part of the story, I think about the characters themselves – if this person were real, would they feel like they were living their life just to address an issue? No. They would be living their life.’

Dawson agrees that facing issues shouldn’t be the sole facet of your protagonist’s character. ‘Unless your book is actively about hate crime, try to weave it in as one part of a character’s life. It doesn’t have to define them.’

So how should you approach such themes? Thomas is an advocate of thorough research – and a mindful attitude. ‘Reach out to people who actually live through those issues, especially if you aren’t experiencing them yourself. Listen to them. Learn from them.’ But most importantly, she says, ‘be willing to step back. Be mindful that some portrayals hurt more than they help.’ Rosoff similarly warns about tackling subjects outside your field of personal experience. ‘If the issue resonates with you in a deep way, then you will already have the information you need to write about it.’

Connecting meaningfully with others who have real experience dealing with the situations you’re writing about is crucial, both for authenticity and to remain respectful of the communities you’re trying to represent. Stainton also recommends finding ‘people who have experienced what you’re writing about to give your manuscript a sensitivity read’.

In a nutshell, contemporary YA is driven by personal challenges and emotional journeys – things we’ve all faced, whether as a teen or otherwise. As long as you’re thorough when researching social issues, and don’t allow your characters to become one-dimensional vehicles to explore those issues, you’ll be golden. And as Rosoff so eloquently puts it, ‘The quality of your unconscious is all important. Live richly, read as much as possible, love what you do, and don’t be in a rush.’ 



While reading other contemporary YA, keep an eye out for the peripheral characters who might also have a story to tell: the hapless best friend, the shy twin sister, the guy with the piercings who works in the record store. 

• Imagine what different perspective they could bring to the narrative, and write a chapter based around your ideas. 

• What challenges do they face? 

• What are their personal stakes? 

• Could this less obvious protagonist inspire a full novel?


LAURA STEVEN is an award-winning author from the northernmost town in England and a core member of the Mslexia team. She has published several books for children and young adults, most recently The Society for Soulless Girls – a feminist retelling of Jekyll & Hyde. Her debut novel The Exact Opposite of Okay won the inaugural Comedy Women In Print Prize in 2019; The Love Hypothesis was optioned for TV by an Emmy-winning team. 


This article appeared in Issue 71 of Mslexia, as part of Laura’s four-part series about YA fiction.

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