I would like to propose a moratorium on the following topics and methods being used or included in books for children and young adults. Indefinitely.
Capers, as opposed to true mysteries that follow the conventions. The caper might seem clever to adults but I have never felt that a caper read like anything but an adult’s idea of what they imagine a kid would write.
True mysteries that are solved by kids without adult assistance. Mind you, not an adult to the rescue, but also not a kid possessing the ability to solve a crime that adults could not. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out the mystery, and seeing the main character in peril, but you lose them the minute the become unbelievable supersleuths.
And speaking of super, no more superheroes. Not until there are more stories of real, grounded heroes. If the idea of stories about true heroes sounds like repulsive morality plays, then superhero stories should viewed as super morality plays. And doubly repulsive.
Opposite-gender sidekick. It’s both an insult to the main character and the reader. The fact that the sidekick either is there to round out the dynamic, help solve the problem the main character cannot, or more shamelessly appeal to a wider audience suggests that the writer does not trust their story to retain readers without this narrative “crutch.”
Defining new vocabulary words within the text, especially with the explanation about how the word was learned in a class, from an eccentric relative, or obscure book. Kids love words, and are intoxicated by slang and the sounds of new words, but there’s a line – often crossed – where the intrusion feels like a teacher butting into the narrative. Either let the context clue a reader in or let the reader learn how to use a dictionary or ditch the word altogether.
Boys who get the girl – or any girl – in the end, and vice versa. I realize there are no new stories in the world, but this convention is so old and creaky that readers who want this sort of story have an entirely separate genre at their disposal: it’s called romance.
Adult buffoons. In broad comedies, sure, you can sometimes use an adult buffoon to heighten the humor, but to a young reader the adult world is a mystery, and everything adults do makes no sense to them. Real adults making real decisions and saying real things can be played to all kids for effect. If books show nothing but a world full of adult clowns then why are we surprised they don’t take adults seriously?
Star football players, or any star athlete, either pro- or antagonist. Tired, overplayed.
Cheerleaders, good, bad or otherwise.
Nerds, geeks, stereotypical drama cliques and their ilk, empowered or otherwise.
Underwear for humorous purposes, believing its inclusion automatically makes a story funny and gives it boy appeal. For Captain Underpants, yes; everyone else, no, you missed the boat.
“White” as the default. If you have multiple races, identify them all. If you don’t have multiple races, you’ve got a problem. Kids might be colorblind when it comes to making friends but that doesn’t make them see the world as all one fleshy hue. Let’s show them books that accurately represent the diverse world they live in and recognize.
The color pink on the cover. I don’t care if it is a book intended for girls, why do we need to keep reinforcing the stereotype of color? There’s an entire spectrum of colors out there that aren’t pink; you want me to believe girls will only respond to one color? Sheer design laziness.
Dogs, dead or otherwise. Find another animal. If it doesn’t work with another animal, do we really need another dog book? Seriously?
The phrase ‘graphic novel’ to describe books that aren’t graphic novels. Word balloons don’t make it a graphic novel. Illustrations in sequential panels don’t make it a graphic novel. Information in a cartoon format doesn’t make it a graphic novel. With books intended for children, the same rigorous standards for any novel should apply: character, conflict, rising action, complex narratives. If the story alone without pictures would be considered a short story, biographical outline, or historical reinactment, then call it something else; call it what it is: a short story with illustrations, a biography, an illustrated history, etc.
Reluctant readers. The term, the marketing, and the type of books that are specifically written and occasionally referred to as “hi-lo” for their high interest and low reading level. To a lot of kids, these books are just another way of stigmatizing reading as an activity that marks them as somehow lesser – both as readers and as books – from more “standard” or “regular.” This is a can of worms, I realize, but I think the term is used too casually these days (not unlike the way people are quick to label and treat students as ADHD without actually testing them) and fails to address real issues regarding reading and the way books are used. Especially true with “graphic novels.”
Testimonials. Those little quotes from other authors telling you how great the book is? Yeah, kids don’t care. They’ve either never heard of the authors quoted, don’t like those author’s books (and thus negatively taint the touted book in question AND books by the testifying author), or are skeptical that no one thinks the book is any good without someone else saying so. Kids turn to the back of the book to find out something about the book they didn’t learn from the cover. Testimonials read like low budget ads on TV with actors pretending to be users of the product. If you really want testimonials that work (and I’m exactly not advocating for this) you might have a better chance getting famous non-authors (movie stars, comedians, pop stars, star athletes) touting a book… rather than writing them.
Am I missing anything? Suggestions and digressions?