No matter what my analysis said, I still enjoyed Truly Devious. It has a lot to say without actually saying it about the nature of genre fitting into the young adult space. What’s interesting is that I think YA is more genre fluid than its adult counterparts. That might be due to the relative newness of the YA sphere. It might be because bookstores only separate YA by Contemporary, Action/Adventure, and Romance. Or, it might be that the intended audience is able to look outside the lines of genre into the heart of a story without expectations.
Either way, it remains to be seen whether Truly Devious will last longer than the next passing fad. If it holds its place on the shelves and finds its way into the hearts of teens and adults alike. Personally, I think it could. I like Johnson’s style. That she basically wrote her version of a love letter to crime novels. And that she’ll hopefully solve the crime in a way I don’t see coming. In a way that is both surprising and inevitable, but also gives me the pieces I want along the way.
YA and genre and character
Yes, more adults are reading YA than ever before. That doesn’t mean that YA books are made for them as an audience, however. And, given the nature of YA publishing (that it’s constantly pumping out more novels as quickly as possible before the audiences get too old to finish the series), it makes sense that genre isn’t as rigid within this category.
Instead, readers come to YA, not because they need to see the hero at the mercy of the villain scene or to solution of a crime in the conclusion of one book, but because their stories set up bigger promises of adventure for the characters they love and relate to. I’d rather see the solution of one book set up the premise for another in a series, but that’s just me as a reader.
What we can learn from Truly Devious and others like it are the key moments to build characters we trust. Make them suffer. Be true to the suffering. Give them a voice. Let them go through an experience like anxiety, but don’t magically fix it because that’s not real. Have them question who they are and whether or not their relationships are working. Basically, give the reader a reason to empathize with them through their experiences.
I’d caution you to give your characters more irreversible decisions. To ramp up the tension and conflict. And to make the stakes seem insurmountable. That’s something I think this book could have benefitted from.
A realistic world
Another thing I think Truly Devious does very well is to set up with world as it is. Johnson mentions a hijab, a wheelchair, pronouns, LGBTQ teens, POC and that’s just all I can come up with from memory. She does this seamlessly and without appropriating stories that aren’t her’s to tell. Which is something truly important in YA today.
What a lot of people don’t realize when they argue that books need to “check boxes” and be diverse, is that representation matters. Especially to teens looking to find themselves in the stories they read. POC are inundated with white culture all day every day. To acknowledge that they exist in a book tells them, “hey, you matter.”
I used to think I wanted to be a doctor because I saw myself in Elliot Reed from Scrubs. Not that I ended up one, but getting to see a white woman navigating the halls of a traditionally male-dominated field kicking ass and taking names was empowering. I can’t imagine what it might be like for the people who never get to see themselves as the president, a scientist, a journalist, or any other career out their people of color (and anyone else) aspire to be.
That’s why I think it’s insanely important, not only to make books representative of our world (all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, etc.), but also to give those underrepresented voices a chance to speak (without taking their voice from them). The more that works that feature those characters sell, the more room there will be for the actual voices to be welcomed and championed in an industry that has long failed them. I think it’s WAY past time for that.
Take this to the page
To write something that works in the genre and category you want, my first and best advice to to read the books that will be on the shelf next to yours. Find out what makes them work. Apply those principles to your own novel before you even start writing.
Secondly, figure out what’s most important to your story. Do you need all the conventions and obligatory scenes or are you setting something up for a longer game? Will you alienate your readers by doing this or will they still want to read your story? Why? If you can answer that with more than just “well, my mom liked it” then you should be ok. Just keep plugging away. Write.