I Want to Scream: The Most Important Phrase in YA Lit

scream 12I started noticing it around 2008. While reading and reviewing YA novels, the same phrase kept popping up:

“I want to scream.”

Any simple four-word sentence has a decent chance of being repeated. No big deal, then. But time went by and I kept finding it—not every day, but every couple months or so. Was I the only one noticing this?

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Finally, driven to action by the n-teenth appearance, I began taking photographs. Once they were in my phone’s picture folder, I only became more curious, swiping through them every time I added another. Was “I want to scream” a phrase being taught in writing classes or offered up by books like this?

scream 4Or was it just the opposite: a coded message between authors who’d achieved publishing success by swearing allegiance to some bizarre screaming cult? Crap—was this the work of the Illuminati?! Did I need to start studying the dollar bill with a magnifying glass to find the phrase worked into the shadows of George Washington’s neck?

scream 3It would be glorious if one of these theories were true. But I favor another. “I want to scream” is simply the most perfect young-adult phrase ever devised. If there is one hallmark of YA lit, it might be the heightened (and true-to-life) emotions of its protagonists.

scream 1Now couple that with the constraints put upon teenagers. They can’t let out their raging emotions. They’re in class and there are detentions to consider. Or they’re at the dance and they’d become social pariahs. Or their parents would freak, think they were on drugs, and ground them right then and there.

scream 6Or maybe this is a fantasy novel: they can’t hope to ascend up the Order of the Dragon if the Dragon Master to whom they’re apprenticed thinks they can’t control their feelings.

scream 7Young adulthood is that tension. You want to scream all the time—the adult world you’re entering is fuller with screamable offenses than you’d ever imagined—but paradoxically being adult means giving up the “childish” prerogative to wail when you want to wail, laugh when you want to laugh, and scream when you want to scream.

scream 11To the authors: think about this next time you look at your screen and realize your fingers have just typed out “I want to scream.” There might be a more specific, less-used phrase to consider.

scream 2Then again, there might not be: sometimes the bluntest statement is the best and, indeed, gains power through repetition. Just like the book’s protagonist, the teens reading your words likely can’t scream while they’re reading. They might be counting on you to do it for them. That might be, in fact, the entire point of YA literature.

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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