Guest Post: Lyn Fairchild Hawks Advocates for Thirteen-Year-Old YA Protagonists

By Lyn Fairchild Hawks

Thirteen and In Between

The year I was 13, I grew from five-foot-seven to five-ten and three quarters. One day, a seventh grader gazed up at me and snapped, “Move, you big palooka.” You could say that moment I felt pretty small.

That year I also ran our school carnival. I called vendors, got classmates to be clowns, and hyped up my fellow eighth graders to do ring toss, face painting, you name it. There’s a photo my mom took of me one night, surrounded by stacks of papers, the aggrieved look of an adult on my face. You could say that moment I felt pretty big.

Big and small, old and young: that’s 13 in a nutshell. Tons of transitions, lots of liminality. That year, my family also moved across the country. That year, I figured out I wasn’t cut out for basketball. I had a crush on a girl as well as a senior guy. Where did I belong? What was I good at? Who should I love? Three huge changes in my life left me anxious, adrift, and seasick.

In my second young adult novel, @nervesofsteel, Minerva Mae Christopoulos is a gifted 13 year-old on the adult-child seesaw. Here are some questions plaguing her:

  • Will the nickname I despise, “Minerda,” follow me to high school?
  • Will the Mean Girls who gave me that name still reign in high school?
  • Will the school let me on the paper, so I can save the world with words?
  • Am I in love with my best friend Diana?

It’s Minerva’s first semester of ninth grade and for the first time, she feels she can follow the lead of heroines like journalists Christiane Amanpour and Marie Colvin. Nerve (the nickname she prefers to Minerda–the subject of @nervesofsteel‘s prequel, a graphic novella illustrated by Robin Follet) might just be able to shake off the ignominies of middle school and change the world with words.

She also dreams of revenge on bullies who don’t suffer any consequences. What do you do when your best friend is assaulted, and no one will listen? When she faces this very adult moral dilemma, yet very present danger, she brings the best of her precocious intellect plus the worst of emotional immaturity to solving it.

When I was 13, my eighth grade class became a mob to slut shame one particular girl. It’s a moment that haunts me still. In 2013–the year @nervesofsteel is set–teen boys in Ohio were arrested for raping a teen girl, and then sharing the assault on social media. In the many debates we have about what’s too adult and what’s too young for our teens to read, the reality is, they live some of the worst things of adulthood already and must learn how to navigate them.

Where Are You, 13 – 14?

Is it because this age is so changeable and hard to categorize that the publishing industry struggles to blurb, label, and pitch it for sale? (Consider the fact that when I taught eighth grade and ninth grade, kids varied in size from four-eleven to six-foot; growth spurt and height is just one element of diversity in eighth and ninth grade hallways.) Yet an agent from a highly-selective agency at a pitchfest once told me, “You can’t have a 13-year-old protagonist in YA.” I’ve talked with some librarians about the fact the industry doesn’t seem to feature this age group. I’m hearing them also ask, Why not?

In her Publishers Weekly post, Where Have All the 13- to 15-Year-Old Protagonists Gone?, middle school librarian Rachel Grover wonders why there are so many 12 year-old characters in middle grade and so few 13-14 year-olds in middle grade and YA fiction. This comment of hers resonated with me as a former middle and high school teacher:

“By the end of eighth grade, no student wants to read about a 12-year-old, no matter how compelling the story is. If the ultimate goal is for children to develop a love of reading and eventually become adult readers, there needs to be a concerted effort by publishers to promote and release books that acknowledge, represent, and celebrate early teenagers, those who are 13–15 years old.”

Grower goes on to say: “And while I’m grateful for the books that are set at the beginning of middle school, there is a dire need for more books that take place during middle school and the beginning of high school. Just like elementary readers want to read about what it’s like to start middle school, my readers want books that take place at the start of high school. They need to see how characters encounter new, unfamiliar situations, and rehearse those moments with the main character, before they have to do it themselves in real life.”

VCFA alum, author, and Book Riot editor Tirzah Price brings up other excellent reasons in her post, “YA Books Featuring 14 Year-Old Protagonists”: “First of all, those years are important and just as story-worthy as senior year drama. Second, younger teens deserve to see their own experiences and challenges reflected in YA, especially if they’re different from what older teens might be facing.” Yes and yes!

What 13 Knows

Let’s celebrate the wisdom of 13 and 14 year-olds. Minerva happens to know some things as @nervesofsteel begins, and a whole lot more after just a few weeks in the new terrain of ninth grade.

  • Names are negotiable. Whether nicknames or first names, surnames or handles, one thing is true. We can always rename ourselves. As Minerva likes to say, “I defy labels.”
  • Friends are rocks and shifting sand. Every day. And social media is the rough, sharp shoreline on which we discover this truth and get pounded by the daily tides.
  • There are gods and Goddesses, demigoddesses, and Gods. And many amorphous spirits in between. What do you worship, today? Why? At thirteen, we often ask these sorts of questions.
  • Everything’s liminal. The past (middle school) can affect the present (high school) and the present moment slides back and forth between child and teen, teen and adult, and child and adult.
  • And when we’re in liminal spaces, we have low tolerance for the big lie: the one saying that life is full of boxes and we must be stuck inside them.
  • What’s breaking news isn’t always news, and hometown heroes ain’t always ones.
  • The real heroines, they sometimes have to be unearthed from history. So thank God for good journalism.
  • Impulse is your muse. Impulse is also your Beelzebub/Frenemy/Worst Temptation Ever.
  • And every day, there’s one more chance to fall in love.

Our teens are full of answers if we listen. They also need chances to live lives on pages and reflect what they might do in the shoes of the protagonist. Every age is worth a shelf of books, if not a library. Why not 13 and 14, too?

Cynsations Notes

Lyn Fairchild Hawks is a North Carolina YA author who writes about gifted, weird, and wise activist youth. Her novels include How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought and @nervesofsteel. She is also the author of Minerda, a middle grade graphic novella and collaboration with illustrator Robin Follet; and The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future, a short story collection for adults. Lyn is a recipient of the Norma Fox Mazer Award and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant and an MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Art’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. See her other guest post for Cynsations, “How YA Is Literary: The Search for an Abundant Canon.”

A former high school and middle school teacher, Lyn runs Success Story Essay Consulting, helping students applying to college and writing novels express their authentic voices. She is the author of Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach and Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach (NCTE, 2022, 2010). She is the co-author of The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons that Nurture Wisdom and Empathy (Chicago Review Press, 2004) and Teaching Romeo and Juliet: A Differentiated Approach (NCTE, 2007).