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Smells Like Sandalwood: YA Tropes and How to Treat Them

We here at idobi Radio and Geek Girl Riot are big fans of Young Adult novels (YA) but even we gotta admit: We don’t know why certain wacky tropes pop up over and over again. Here are a few we’ve noticed—and what we wish authors would do instead.


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a hot dude in a YA novel is going to smell like sandalwood. Do you know what sandalwood smells like? Neither do I. But you can bet that YA heroines do. 

To be fair, the majority of boys I knew in high school smelled like sweat or way too much AXE spray. Neither of which is as romantic as “sandalwood”, so I can understand why authors prefer to think of boys as smelling, well, nicer. But sandalwood is such a specific scent, one that I have trouble bringing to mind. Can authors really expect us to believe that everyone else in the world can identify it in seconds? Why can’t these cute boys smell like something more easily recognizable like hot chocolate? Or take it to the extreme and tell me they smell like breaking the rules? Or, at least, something that works for their personality?

A Suggestion: In Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle, Gansey is constantly chewing on mint leaves. So it makes sense when other characters catch a whiff of mint when they are around him. It’s a nice relatable smell and even if it seems a little odd that a teen boy has such an obsession with a plant (Gansey is a bit of an old soul), at least there’s a reasonable explanation for why he smells a certain way.


Back in 1997 a little book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in the UK. It was published in the US as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a year later. Since then, Harry Potter has been used as a comparison for literally every other YA (or middle grade) title in the world, and references to the Wizarding World have started to seep into every other manuscript. Muggles, Dementors, Quidditch, you name it, I’ve probably seen it referenced in another novel.

The first time you read characters comparing Hogwarts houses, it’s a thrill. (Hey, I’m a Ravenclaw too!!) The second time it’s still charming. On the third it feels a little tired. By the twentieth time you can’t help but wonder if the readers these books are aimed at—you know, literal teens/Gen Zers—are even into Harry Potter or if it’s just a reflection of the millennial author’s personal preferences. I’m not saying Gen Z is immune to Harry Potter’s magic (though now that JKR has officially outed herself as transphobic, that might change) but I’m not convinced it’s as big a cultural touchstone for people born after 2007 as it is for us mythical 90s kids. Unless, of course, your parents were some of the OG fans.

A Suggestion: I don’t know who needs to hear this but: Your Hogwarts house is not a substitute for an actual personality. Don’t tell me that your character is a Hufflepuff and expect me to understand exactly what that means. Are they a Cedric Diggory-esque ‘Puff or more of Newt Scamander? There’s a difference! Give me a sense of who they really are using non-pop-culture-references.


Okay, this is almost 100% my own personal pet peeve but I’m getting tired of seeing pop culture references—particularly when it comes to music—in current YA that better reflect the author’s age and not the readers’ ages. For example: Any time a character’s favorite band is Prince or The Beatles or The Who or any of the “classic” bands. 

I get it, there are kids and teens who genuinely love the older stuff. My ten year old niece frequently laments not being alive at the same time as Freddie Mercury. But, for me, high school was a lot about trying new music until I found my community. I remember going through an 80s pop phase (I don’t know why either); within a year, though, I stumbled upon pop punk and the emo trinity and now my tastes run far and wide because of the stuff I discovered as a teen. So tell me why none of these authors can put an ounce of research into newer/current bands and drop those names into their manuscript instead of falling back on the classics that they grew up with? Sometimes it’s even just a case of a quick switcheroo. Instead of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, what if your teen character loves Brendon Urie and Matty Healy?

///DISCLAIMER: before y’all yell at me, I’m not saying Brendon and Matty are on the same legendary level as David and Freddie but they all have the same flamboyant flair, y’know?///

I guess the fear is that using a current reference will make your book feel dated in a few years but at least it feels more legit if they accurately reflect whatever year your book is taking place in.

A Suggestion: In Karen M. McManus’ One of Us is Lying, Addy gets into a car and remarks on how the radio is playing a Fall Out Boy song. You may argue that FOB isn’t as relevant now as they were a few years ago but they’re A. a recognizable band and B. actually played on some stations so it’s not too far-fetched to believe that these teens are familiar with them (plus the characters are the right age to have heard “Immortals” when Big Hero 6 first came out!).


The phrase “let out a breath s/he didn’t know s/he was holding” has appeared in YA novels for well over a decade. At first, it seemed like it would pop up once in a while AND THEN it showed up more and more, until it was basically inescapable. It’s probably one of the most recognizable and cliched sentences in all of YA and there’s been like seven different blog posts ranting about it since at least 2013.

For the record, I totally get that unconsciously holding a breath is a very real thing and it’s particularly bad for people with anxiety. Heck, I do it too sometimes. It’s not the act I have a problem with so much as the wording: “let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding”. Every time it crops up, I’m momentarily pulled out of the story and have a hard time getting back into it. In an age where YA novels openly talk about mental health, including anxiety, it shouldn’t be hard to avoid using that sentence. After all, since authors work with words you’d think they’d be able to come up with a different way to show what their characters are feeling. Maybe even just getting them to take a deep breath in?

A Suggestion: Literally anything else. Let’s leave that particular phrase in the last decade.

Are there any other YA tropes you love to hate? Let us know on Twitter!

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