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The Landscape of YA Lit: A State of the Union

With all the YA books hats I wear, from writer to reader to YA Highwayer, I think about the state and landscape of YA lit pretty much all the time. Even so, there are moments that make me take a step back and reflect even more deeply than usual.

This happened recently, as I closed the final page of the wonderful The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. I adore this book, but I was left questioning why it was marketed as YA. It’s an Allende-style epic magical realism, spanning several generations of women within one family, following their stories through love and heartbreak and life and aging. It’s not really until the last quarter or so of the book that we see a narrator in the late teens take over the story.

So…why YA? That's the section I found it in at my library, it's placed in the YA section at the bookstore, and Goodreads readers tagged the book as Young Adult more than another other category. Is this a good example of the crossover YA that I’ve been seeing so much interest in recently? Just One Year by Gayle Forman might fit in the crossover category, with protagonists out of high school, while Kimberly McCreight's 2013 novel, Reconstructing Amelia, told in alternating voices of a mother and her teenage daughter, is another book with noted "crossover" appeal. Is this the new direction of YA? How else is the landscape of YA evolving?

I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by brilliant minds with interests in YA lit as deep as mine. Whenever I’ve come into contact with them, whether over lunch or drinks or social media, I’ve asked their thoughts about YA—where it’s been, where it is now and where it’s headed. A few notable themes emerge. One is the state—or lack thereof—of trends.

Often enough, colleagues who are looking to represent or buy YA mention that there is no one “hot thing” they’re looking for. They want something different, something they’ve never seen before. And because they haven’t seen it, they don’t know quite what “it” is. But one thing is a constant: the bar for quality writing is very high in YA and new projects have to exceed that bar.

My own agent, Suzie Townsend, says, “We've run through a lot of the trends. Now, everyone I talk to is looking for projects that don't necessarily fit a certain type. They want something they haven't seen before--or at least something that feels unique and stand out. They're looking for projects with a great voice and great writing. Commercial concepts are still important, but they don't have to fit into a certain trend.”

Sarah Barley, now senior editor at Flatiron Books and formerly editor at HarperCollins Children’s/HarperTeen and Henry Holt, agrees:

“There is no next “big thing” (that I can predict) in the way that there was during the Twilight craze, so what editors want are authentic, indelible voices—and fresh stories. There are an incredible number of fabulous books of every ilk—there are no taboos in YA—coming out right now that set the bar very high. All kinds of readers are coming to YA now, so everyone’s paying a lot more attention! Above most everything else, I want to read and experience something new when I open up a new manuscript from an agent (or new novel in a bookstore). I try not to focus too terribly much on the trends, since trends can come and go quickly. We can spend a lot of time guessing what’ll take off next and make a big bet on it, but when all’s said and done, readers want books for voices that speak to them. “

Which brings me to the next theme that, maybe, shouldn't even be a theme, because it should have been there the whole time: diverse voices.

The We Need Diverse Books campaign is hitting its stride, just last week announcing an award named after the late Walter Dean Myers and a host of future funding opportunities for diverse authors. Readers have always wanted to see themselves reflected in the stories they read and voices that speak to them, but the pickings haven’t always been good. WNDB and the Children’s Book Council: Diversity work to promote and encourage diverse voices in YA lit. Publishing professionals are paying attention, and many agent and editor wishlists include a desire for diverse books, whether that diversity comes from race, class, sexuality, ethnicity and/or (dis)ability.

Mel Barnes, a bookseller for the indie bookstore, University Books, and co-mastermind behind the Novels, News and Notes blog, says:

“It feels as though we are currently in one of the best positions we can be in to reach a wide variety of readers, pre-teens, teens and adults with the books that are marketed in the YA category. It is nearly impossible not to find at least a handful of books for every reader. Not only are there amazing diverse books for all sorts of readers but we also have books written around a variety of topics. There is definitely something for everyone right now. I love that I can find mysteries, horror, historical, future, current time and yes even my favorite, books about bands! It feels as though we are headed in the direction of being FAR MORE open minded towards the differences between all of us and I'm excited to see more book covers with teens of all shapes, sizes and color. We seem to be shifting from the 'pretty white girl in a dress' on a cover to real teens that are easier to connect to for teens, and adults remembering their own teen years.”

And what about those crossover YAs like Ava Lavender? Is it a reflection of how many readers of YA are in their 20s and 30s (despite the regularity of fodder articles bemoaning the range of ages of YA readership)? Or is it simply a natural evolution as the talent pool of YA authors grows and is challenged to be better and more innovative? What about the younger end of YA? Are fun, escapist novels suffering under the current sophistication of YA lit?

“...There's really a hole in the market between sophisticated middle grade and older YA, so what are the kids to do? But, no one's buying it now. I would agree that right now that kind of book isn't easy, unless the writing is super-sparkling and unusual,” says Sarah Barley.

Stephanie Kuehnert is the author of Ballads of Suburbia, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and an upcoming memoir about her own teenage years. She also is a contributing writer for Rookie Magazine and teaches YA writing at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Her take on the YA landscape? No matter what, it has to be authentic and hard-hitting:

“I’d actually say that its core, YA is still the same. Readers are still reading and writers are still writing fearless, honest books that speak to all aspects of the teenage experience—that’s why YA is and will continue to be an important part of the literary landscape. The trendy genre does seem to change every couple of years—two years ago, dystopian was the bestseller, now it seems that contemporary is getting it’s time to shine. I can’t say what will be next, though I hope it’s YA memoir since that is what I’m writing… But seriously, the advice I give my students is to write honestly, fearlessly, and from the heart because that’s what readers will always want.”

Perhaps contemporary is getting its moment to shine, but the various YA bestseller lists and the deals currently being made and reported to outlets like Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace show that readers, agents and editors are picking up a wide variety of books. In just October, every kind of contemporary, from darker "issue" books to ones whose focus is decidedly more romantic--and everything in between--grace the Deals page of Publishers Marketplace. But they're not alone. Fantasy, mystery, scifi, adventure, thriller, horror, short story collections and historical have also been announced in numbers that challenge the contemporary projects. These are, really, the cornerstone genres of any age group.

So perhaps what we're seeing is proof of the idea that trends are mostly over. There will likely always be a sway in one direction or another, following pop culture trends, bestsellers in other reading age groups (see the mildly grown interest in YA thrillers after the success of Gillian Flynn, for example), or maybe in the wake of a particular, unexpected breakout hit in YA, itself. But overall, I think every genre and topic has its place in YA right now, as long as it's unique and exceptionally written. Yes, even those much-maligned paranormal stories.

Martha Brockenbrough, author of Devine Intervention and the upcoming The Game of Love and Death loves the current landscape of YA.

"The landscape of YA continues to dazzle me," Martha says. "When you think about the books that have had a huge effect on popular culture for almost twenty years now, it’s young adult (with a healthy dose of middle grade). And it’s been all sorts of books that have resonated with readers of all ages. The bottom line: People know what we’re doing. And they’re becoming sophisticated enough to want things that are distinct."

Writing what's distinct can be tough, but it's a sign of a healthy and innovative category of books.

"Part of the deluge of excellent books is because the category has been so successful," Martha continues. "The market is saturated, and agents and editors can afford to be choosy. And while this feels like a double-edged sword when you have a manuscript that maybe would have sold five years ago but won’t today, it’s ultimately a good thing for everyone. A book should be better than what’s currently on the shelves to sell. It should be better than something that sold five years ago. Otherwise, it’s just cannibalizing backlist, which doesn’t serve authors or publishers. Just as athletes have gotten faster and more skilled over the decades, writers can, too. We shouldn’t settle for anything less from ourselves, or anything less for our readers. So if you find yourself saying, “Oh, my book won’t sell because today’s market is all about contemporary realistic,” take a deep breath. If your book does what no other book has done, if it adds something new to the conversation, if it stands out in some way that excites readers, then it will find a home. It’s going to take a lot of work, sweat, and smarts for you to do it. But you can, and you will!"

Honest and fearless. Innovative and different. Crossing all genres, and crossing over into different age groups. YA is broad and fierce, diverse and full of quality, and in my opinion the landscape is only going to get more and more beautiful. As writers, it means we have to up our game. A lot. As readers, it means we have some real gems to read now, and to look forward to.

And that's a state of the YA-Union I like.

~Kristin H.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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4 comments:

  1. With all the faux-danger spinning dystopian teacup novels still floating around out there, how on God's Earth did M.T. Anderson manage to smuggle a YA book about the Siege of Leningrad past the customs officials? Nazis! Mass Slaughter! Cannibalism-real, not pretended! Oh, and in the middle of it all, an immortal classic symphony...Did somebody in Gatekeeper Central not get the memo????

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  2. So what we seem to actually have here is a lot of risk-averse YA field trip monitors who'll cheerfully ride the spinning dystopian teacups till the park closes. Of course, that scary new ride down by the popcorn stand looks interesting....You get on first; No, YOU get on first...

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  3. So we're at serious low tide here... It's not as bad as '94 and '95, when the Teen Horror market spontanously imploded and flatlined for the rest of the century, (mediocrity backlash, anyone?) but all we've got by way of hot news is a phoned-in Twilight retread by Stephanie Meyer and a Rainbow Rowell fan-fiction Harry Potter derivative. Not exactly Hendrix at Woodstock, is it?

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  4. I landed on YA Highway because about 1/4 of the fiction books I get for editing as a freelancer are YA, and with so many genres out there, that's saying something. All my clients do indeed have unique and diverse voices and a love of YA, so I have to make sure I stay abreast of changes and expectations in this competitive genre to help them succeed when querying or self-publishing.

    Thanks for the in-depth post!

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Item Reviewed: The Landscape of YA Lit: A State of the Union Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook