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I have writtenmany times over the years about people criticising our work being an inevitable part of being a writer. I also think it’s essential. We need criticism.1
Lately I’m seeing people arguing that there’s too much criticism of Young Adult literature and it’s now stopping people from writing because they’re too scared their work will be shredded. I’m bummed people feel that way because I wish there were more criticism.
While we have a broader and better conversation about intersectional representation then we’ve ever had it’s still not enough. Far too many popular books get a pass for pretty appalling representations. And far too many people who speak up to criticise those books and writers get yelled at for not being nice.2
We need more books about POC written by POC. Those books must outnumber the books by whites about POC. It matters that there’s space for everyone to tell their own story.
Until we reach that glorious future it’s essential books about other ethnicities and races written by whites are criticised by the members of those communities. Stereotypical and harmful books need to be pointed out.
Will every POC agree that a book is problematic? Of course not. None of these communities are monolithic.3Liar has been criticised for being racist by African-American readers. It’s also been defended against those charges by African-American readers.
It is also not saying that those books that are criticised for stereotypical portrayals of POC should be burnt. No one’s calling for book burning or banning. That seems to get lost in these debates.
The problem is not criticism. The problem is there are too many books about white people and there are too many books about POC written by white people. The problem is our book culture keeps reinforcing the message that white people are more important.
If you are being stopped from writing a book about people of a different race or ethnicity by the fear of being criticised maybe you shouldn’t write that book? Write a book about white people. You will then be criticised for writing yet another book about whites. Which do you think is the bigger problem? There is no option you get to pick where you don’t get criticised.
I’ve heard many POC critics point out that most white writers only feel they can write about race from the point of view of POC. This feeds into the idea that “race” is not something that white people have. We are neutral. We are somehow outside race. Newsflash: no one is outside race.
That criticism really made me think. What is whiteness? What does it mean? How is it constituted? Why is it so harmful? Out of that I wrote Razorhurst and now My Sister Rosa. Two books with white main characters that are about race.4
I now agree that me writing from the point of view of POC characters is part of the problem. I won’t stop doing it—I have a large multi-viewpoint book I’ve been working on for many year that has many POC povs—but right now I want to keep writing about race from white points of view.
Writing for many of us is an act of courage. It was years before I showed my work to anyone. I couldn’t risk myself by letting anyone see what mattered most to me: my writing. I survived.
Having my work described as racist hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to the harm experienced by the readers who found my work racist.
Everyone who writes, no matter what their skin colour, gets criticised. We white writers need to remember that POC writers tend to get more criticism for writing about their own people than we do.
What we should do in response to criticism is not demand that the criticism go away. We should listen. We should learn. We should keep on writing.
We should keep demanding that there be more books about POC by POC. A great way to do that is to buy the ones that are already out there.
As an Australian I find Priscilla Queen of the Desert deeply racist and sexist. It does not represent me. I hate that people think it represents Australia. Or to be more accurate I hate that it does represent some of Australia’s sexism and racism and how okay many Australians are with it.
Razorhurst has two main characters. One of whom is not necessarily white but thinks she is.
The publishing category of YA (Young Adult) started as a category about and for teens. But it has always been controlled by adults.
Right now YA is one of the most profitable publishing categories in the USA. That’s largely because of the huge growth of the adult readership. Put it this way: the Hunger Games has sold more copies than there are teens in the USA. Adults reading YA has transformed it from a sleepy back water to a mainstay of publishing, film and TV.
But make no mistake, the initial readers of The Hunger Games who clamoured for it loud and long were teenagers, who bugged their friends and their siblings and their parents to read it. Teens are almost always the first adopters.
Before Harry Potter the big market for YA books was schools and public libraries. The trade market (bookstores) was relatively small. That meant that for a YA book to do well it had to sell to adult gatekeepers. Which mostly meant YA couldn’t have sex or too much swearing or be too weird. It also meant most YA taught a clear cut lesson. Rereading YA from the 1970s and 1980s I was struck by how moralistic and earnest a lot of it was. Reread The Chocolate War some time. PREACHY! No wonder the Sweet Valley High books were such a hit. Those books ignored what adults wanted teens to read and gave teens what they wanted to read.
The schools and library gatekeepers were, and still are, under a lot of pressure to keep their book collections “clean”. You only have to look at the American Library Association’s annual list of challenged books to get an inkling of the kinds of pressures many school librarians are under. I salute each and every one of them. They bring those challenged books into their schools because the teens want to read them.
Like it or not, the influx of adult readership has expanded the range of YA books that can be published. It is now possible for a YA book with content that would keep it out of many school libraries to make money. Lots of money. This is a huge development and has led to the existence of books like The Hunger Games, Octavian Nothing, The Legend series and We Were Liars. In other words all the books we now think of as YA.
Teens have more say about YA books now than they did when The Chocolate War came out.1 Publishers are listening to teens more because social media has given teens a bigger voice.
But, yes, publishers will always listen hardest to money.
I write books that many adults say are more adult that YA. Yet I know I have teen readers who love my books. I tender as proof the fact that Razorhurst is currently on the shortlist for the Inkys, an award entirely chosen by teens. They choose the longlist, the shortlist and the winner.
It’s unlikely Razorhurst would have been published as YA in the olden days. I’ve already been told by librarians in conservative parts of the US that they can’t keep it in their library much as they want to. So I am personally very grateful for the ways in which YA has changed. Without it I would not be able to write YA.
It’s never been teens demanding YA be “clean”. That demand mostly comes from concerned parents.
This is the case with all the books that are popular right now with teenagers. YA as it is now exists because publishers stopped listening to adults about what teens wanted—moral lessons! upstanding characters!—and started publishing books teens wanted—plot driven! exciting! romantic! complex!—which had the ironic result of more adults wanting to read YA.
Adults still control YA and always will but there never was a teen YA utopia where the books were chosen by teens. There are reasons me and many of my peers refused to read YA back in the 80s when we were teens. Those books were mostly unbelievably boring. We read Flowers in the Attic instead, which, I’m pretty convinced would be published as YA now.
I know many of you love The Chocolate War. Imagine how amazing it would be if it was published now and didn’t have to be so preachy?
We recently had the opportunity to talk with author Kwame Alexander about how poetry can draw a reluctant reader into a lifelong love of books and the creative process behind his book, “The Crossover,” awarded the 2015 Newbery Medal for Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children.
Author Kwame Alexander Photo Credit: Pilar Vergara
The first thing we noticed about The Crossover: its rhythm. Why did you choose to have Josh’s voice rhythmic in that way?
When I decided the book was going to have a frame of basketball, I knew that I wanted the language to mirror the sport’s high energy and rhythm,
I thought that basketball was poetry in motion – so I created a story on the page that reflected the action on the court. I’ve been a poet most of my life, so it seemed like a good marriage.
How would you describe kids’ reaction to the book?
You want to impact young people. That’s the goal. That’s the only goal. You want to get them reading. The response initially came from librarians and teachers – they were loving it.
I thought, “Wow, how cool is that?”?
Then teachers started getting it to their students. My, my, my – the reaction from the students blew me away. There were quite a few boys who had never showed much interest in reading before. Their teachers and librarians contacted me and said, “They couldn’t put your book down.”
That’s pretty remarkable right there. That’s why I’m doing this.
Have you ever seen anyone perform a page from the book?
Yes! There was a school in Illinois – Granger Middle School – and the entire school read the book. They brought me in for the day to see some presentations, and the kids all memorized the poems. It was so awesome. Each kid – girl, boy, black, white – they all felt like they were the characters.
That’s all you really hope for from a book – that it’s going to resonate with young people and empower them in some way. I believe poetry can get kids reading.
Why is it so important to get kids reading?
Inside of a book, between the lines, is a world of possibility. The book opens it up.
Why is it important for kids to open books? Because they can see themselves and they can see what they can become… Open a book and find your possible.
Here’s where I’m going by my own experience, i.e., yes, it’s anecdotal evidence. I believe the majority of authors published by mainstream YA publishers are women. Despite some—admittedly slapdash googling—What? I’m on a deadline—I don’t have the numbers to back that up. If you do have them please let me know and I’ll amend this paragraph. But I am pretty confident in asserting that YA is one of the most women-dominated genres there is.2
Here’s why: I’ve been told by many organisers of YA conferences and conventions that they struggle to get enough male authors to take part. Every time I’m at one of those conferences there are way more women than men. When I look through catalogues and lists of forthcoming titles from publishers they seem to run around 75% female authors. Yes, that’s a guestimate.
So let’s say that more than 70% of YA is written by women that means men are way overrepresented when it comes to award time winning 42% of the time rather than the 30% which would line up with their actual representation.3
We women writers of YA talk about this. We speculate about why it keeps happening. One of the reasons I’ve heard is that the givers of these awards are largely heterosexual women and they have crushes on the male authors and thus are more inclined to reward them. I think that’s total bullshit. Worse, it’s sexist bullshit.
Here’s what I think is going on. You’ll have to bear with me because it’s complicated.
First of all, we live in a sexist, misogynist world. Alas, awards are not given in a special sexism-free bubble. We have been taught from an early age that men are more important than women. There have been a tonne of studies—and if I wasn’t on a deadline and aware that I shouldn’t be writing this right now I’d link to some of them—that show that both men and women listen to men more than to women, that we value men more. That’s the culture we live in.
This permeates how we learn to read. Think back to picture books and those early primers. Now they’ve gotten a better over the years. But I have a two-year-old niece and, frankly, I’m shocked at how sexist many of these books are. Women are still predominately shown as parents and housewives and nurses and teachers and, well, you get the picture.4 I have to hunt to find books with girls and women shown as active and powerful as boys and men. Those books are out there, but wow are they lost in a sea of boys are everything. It correlates closely to what Geena Davis’s institute has found about movies and TVs. The majority of talking animals are still male.5
From an early age we’re learning boys are more important and boys have adventures. Then when we start reading proper novels we learn over and over, up through high school and then into college/university, that books by men are considered to be better than books by women. Look at the reading lists for most high schools and universities. Pretty much anywhere in the English-speaking world.6 Boy book after boy book after boy book. Plus some Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.
We’ve been taught that good books, on the whole, are written by men and that good books, on the whole, are about men. Is it any wonder that we carry those unconscious views with us into our reading lives? Into our award-giving lives?
I’ve been on juried awards and I know many people who’ve been on juried awards. I guarantee you we are not going onto them deciding to give awards to men, deciding that women don’t deserve awards. Everyone on a jury wants to give the award to the best book. But unconsciously we’re valuing stories about boys, stories by men, more than those about girls or women. Even when we’re damned sure we’re not doing that. Yes, I have done this. Yes, it’s insidious.
But that is not the whole story.
There’s more to what stories are valued than who the protag is. Most romances are told from the point of a woman, but also of a man. That’s right in the majority of mainstream romances the man is telling fifty per cent of the story. Yet romance is rarely valued. Both fantasy and science fiction frequently have male protags. But they’re not valued highly either. That’s born out in these awards. Look through the winners of any YA award—other than the ones specifically for fantasy/science fiction/romance—the majority are realist. The majority of the nominees are too. In my cursory glance through I couldn’t find a single winner that could even at a stretch be called a romance and only a handful that fit the bill of being a crime novel.7
The only literary genre we are consistently taught to value during our formal education is realism i.e. Literature, which historically is a recent genre. Fantasy has been with us since we started telling stories. It’s by far the oldest kind of story we tell. But two centuries of realism dominating has left us consistently undervaluing fantasy and not considering it to be Literature.8
Learning to read is hard. I’m watching my niece take her first steps in letter recognition. She’s able to recognise her written name about half the time. It’s tough. But that’s just the beginning. We’re also taught how to read stories and novels. As I’ve noted, what we’re overwhelmingly taught to read, once we leave children’s books behind, is realism. So that’s what most of us are best at reading.
I’ve heard reports from frustrated genre loving friends on juried awards where the other jurors literally did not know how to read the fantasy, science fiction, romances etc. The non-genre reader jurors saw a book with a dragon in it and instantly decided it was derivative rubbish. Read a book where someone’s learning magic and said “Well, isn’t that just Harry Potter all over again?” They wondered why books were marred by “inserting” vampires/ghosts/werewolves/etc into the story.
They did not have the reading skills to recognise the ways in which this particular dragon book, and this particular learning magic book, this particular vampire/ghost/werewolf book was doing something that had never been done in that genre before because they’d never read that genre before. They had no idea. All these book read the same to them. Ditto with romance. They could not see how that particular romance was basically reinventing the genre because they’d never read a romance before.
Pity the poor genre-literate juror. They do not struggle to grapple with realism. They know how to read it. Everyone knows how to read it. But they have to sit and watch every single genre book be discounted simply because the other jurors don’t have the skills to read them. It’s mightily frustrating.
Romance, of course, cops it worst of all. Love stories are silly girls’ business. YA romances by women do not make it on to award shortlists. I suspect the publishers don’t even bother submitting them for awards. What’s the point? They’re discounted before they’re even read.9
There are other factors to do with reputation and who is perceived to write the same kinds of books over and over again and who isn’t. Not to mention how a woman writing a traumatic story from a girl’s point of view is perceived to not be stretching themselves as much as a man doing ditto.10 How funny books are not valued as much as serious books. Domestic stories are less important than stories about war and so on and so forth. How certain writing styles are closer to the styles of writing we were taught in university/college were good writing: no adverbs! “said” as the verb of utterance! Blah blah blah! Basically a funny, romantic, fantasy book by a woman has close to zero chance of winning an award.
There are, of course, many other things going on—I did say it was complicated, didn’t I?—but that’s all I’ve got time for now.
Disclaimer: I want to point out that I felt free to write this post as a women who writes YA precisely because my books have not been overlooked. They’ve been shortlisted for and won awards. I have no sour grapes. I’ve been very lucky. If I didn’t feel that way I would not have written this.
I don’t believe anyone’s story is more important than anyone else’s. I don’t believe any genre is more valuable than any other genre.
I am so grateful to Lady Business for doing the heavy lifting and writing that smart, detailed report. You saved me from having no data to point to at all. Bless you!
Romance, obviously, being at the head of that list.
Though, you know what, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are even fewer YA novels written by male authors than that. I think I’m guessing high.
To be clear those are all hard jobs that should be paid and respected far more than they are. But they are stereotypically female jobs.
Total mystery as to how talking animals manage to reproduce.
I like to think that it’s better in non-English speaking countries. Don’t disabuse me of that notion.
Though I would argue overall that crime is probably the most valued of the so-called “genre” genres. I believe capital L Literature is also a genre.
For instance, retold fairy tales aren’t even eligible for the National Book Award in the USA. To which I say, WHAT NOW? But that would be a huge digression and this is already too long. I got a book to write.
Well, unless they’re written by men and are not described as romances or even as love stories. And, well, there are quite a few examples in YA, aren’t they? I’m not going to name them.
Same with a white writer writing a black protag as opposed to a black author writing a black protag. There are many other ways in which reader expectations mess with how they read books along the axes of race, class, sexuality etc.
Recently I was talking to a younger colleague, a recent PhD, about what we and our peers read for pleasure. He noted that the only fiction that most of his friends read is young adult fiction: The Hunger Games, Twilight, that kind of thing. Although the subject matter of these series is often dark, the appeal, hypothesized my colleague, lies elsewhere: in the reassuringly formulaic and predictable narrative arc of the plots. If his friends have a taste for something genuinely edgy, he went on, then they’ll read non-fiction instead.
When did we develop this idea that fiction, to be enjoyable, must be comforting nursery food? I’d argue that it’s not only in our recreational reading but also, increasingly, in the classroom, that we shun what seems too chewy or bitter, or, rather; we tolerate bitterness only if it comes in a familiar form, like an over-cooked Brussels sprout. And yet, in protecting ourselves from anticipated frictions and discomforts, we also deprive ourselves of one of fiction’s richest rewards.
One of the ideas my research explores is the belief, in the eighteenth-century, that fiction commands attention by soliciting wonder. Wonder might sound like a nice, calm, placid emotion, but that was not how eighteenth-century century thinkers conceived it. In an essay published in 1795 but probably written in the 1750s, Adam Smith describes wonder as a sentiment induced by a novel object, a sentiment that may be recognized by the wonderstruck subject’s “staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’). And that was just the beginning. As Smith describes:
“when the object is unexpected; the passion is then poured in all at once upon the heart which is thrown, if it is a strong passion, into the most violent and convulsive emotions, such as sometimes cause immediate death; sometimes, by the suddenness of the extacy, so entirely disjoint the whole frame of the imagination, that it never after returns to its former tone and composure, but falls either into a frenzy or habitual lunacy.” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’)
It doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it? Eighteenth-century novels risked provoking such extreme reactions in their tales of people in extremis; cast out; marooned; kidnapped. Such tales were not gory, necessarily, in the manner of The Hunger Games, and the response they invited was not necessarily horror or terror. More radically, in shape and form as well as content, eighteenth-century writers related stories that were strange, unpredictable, unsettling, and, as such, productive of wonder. Why risk discomforting your reader so profoundly? Because, Henry Home, Lord Kames argued in his Elements of Criticism (1762), wonder also fixes the attention: in convulsing the reader, you also impress a representation deeply upon her mind.
One of the works I find particularly interesting to think about in relation to this idea of wonder is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a deeply pleasurable book to read, but I wouldn’t describe it as comfortable. Perhaps I felt this more acutely than some when I first read it, as a first year undergraduate. The year before I had witnessed my father experience a fatal heart attack. Ever since then, any description or representation that evoked the body’s motion in defibrillation would viscerally call up the memory of that night. One description that falls under that heading is the climactic moment in Shelley’s novel in which Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” If the unexpected, in Smith’s account, triggers convulsive motions, then it seems fitting that a newly created being’s experience of its own first breath would indeed be felt as a moment of wonder.
When I was a nineteen year-old reading Frankenstein, there was no discussion about the desirability of providing “trigger warnings” when teaching particular texts; and even if there had been, it seems unlikely that this particular text would have been flagged as potentially traumatic (a fact that speaks to the inherent difficulty of labeling certain texts as more likely to serve as triggers than others, given the variety of people’s experience). I found reading Shelley’s novel to be a deeply, uncomfortably, wonder-provoking experience, in Smith’s terms, but it did not, clearly, result in my “immediate death.” What it did produce, rather, was a deep and lasting impression. Indeed, perhaps that is why, more than twenty years later, I felt compelled to revisit this novel in my research, and why I found myself taking seriously Percy Shelley’s characterization of the experience of reading Frankenstein as one in which we feel our “heart suspend its pulsations with wonder” at its content, even as we “debate with ourselves in wonder,” as to how the work was produced. High affect can be all consuming, but we may also revisit and observe, in more serene moments, the workings of the mechanisms which wring such high affect from us.
In Minneapolis for a conference a few weeks ago, I mentioned to my panel’s chair that I had run around Lake Calhoun. He asked if I had stopped at the Bakken Museum (I had not), which is on the lake’s west shore. He proceeded to explain that it was a museum about Earl Bakken, developer of the pacemaker, whose invention was supposedly inspired by seeing the Boris Karloff 1931 film of Frankenstein, and in particular the scene in which the creature is brought to life with the convulsive electric charge.
As Bakken’s experience suggests, the images that disturb us can also inspire us. Mary Shelley affirms as much in her Introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel, which suggests that the novel had its source in a nightmarish reverie. Shelley assumes that Frankenstein’s power depends upon the reproducible nature of her affect: “What terrified me will terrify others,” she predicts. Haunting images, whether conjured by fantasies, novels, or films, can be generative, although certainly not always in such direct and instrumental ways. Most of us won’t develop a life-saving piece of technology, like Earl Bakken (my father, in fact, had a pacemaker, and, although it didn’t save his life, it did prolong it) or write an iconic novel, like Mary Shelley. But that is not to say that the impressions that fiction can etch into our minds are not generative. If comfort has its place and its pleasures, so too does discomfort: experiencing “bad feelings” enables us to notice, in our re-tracings of them, the unexpected connections that emerge between profoundly different experiences—death; life; reading—all of them heart-stopping in their own ways.
If you loved SCARS, I think you’ll enjoy STAINED–and you may want to get it while it’s deeply discounted. Right now STAINED is on sale for both Kindle and Nook for $1.99–until Oct 31st. I hope you grab yourself a copy.
In STAINED, Sarah think she knows what fear is–until she’s abducted. Then she must find a way to save herself.
Like I did with SCARS, I drew on my own trauma and healing experience to write STAINED.
I hope you enjoy it! And if you enjoy it, or like this deal, I hope you’ll let others know about it, too.
Writing Great Books for Young Adults Released – October 7, 2014 By Regina L. Brooks ISBN: 9781402293528 Trade Paperback/$14.99 Praise for Writing Great Books for Young Adults “Written from the perspective of an industry insider, the … Continue reading →
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism is never whom I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference.
Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist.
First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003.
Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published.
A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.
All the words below are hers:
My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.
Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).
The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.
In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.
I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.
I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1
Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).
In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.
There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.
Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
Nothing too complex.
Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?
Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
Young adults are unintelligent.
Young adults have no adults in their lives.
Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.
Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.
When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”
Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.
I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.
You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.
I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.
How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.
Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?
Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.
Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.
More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.
Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.
Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.
We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.
We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.
I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.
Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.
Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.
But I don’t want to quit.
The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.
YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.
If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.
We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.
See also: #weneeddiversebooks
Heavy emphasis on the word mainstream. There are definitely books out there that do a good job of things like this. But why are they so hard to find?
In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”
The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.
I call bullshit on several different fronts:
Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.
They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.
The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feels so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.
Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?
I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.
Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?
I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2
Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.
Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?
Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.
In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4
Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.
I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.
Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.
Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.
TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.
And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy.
We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable.
Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is.
Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing!
I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird.
Sa tournament ng TALA Online sa bayan ng Balanga, namatay ang lahat ng manlalaro maliban kay Janus. Sunod-sunod pa ang naging kaso ng pagkamatay ng mga kabataan sa computer shops sai ba’t ibang panig ng bansa. Kinontak si Janus ng nagpakilalang Joey, isa rin umano sa mga nakaligtas sa paglalaro ng TALA na gaya niya. Hindi inasahan ni Janus ang mga matutuklasan niya mula rito na mag-uugnay sa kanya sa misteryo ng kinahuhumalingan niyang RPG—at sa alamat ng Tiyanak mula sa Tábon!
And ohohoho you can read the first chapter here or below!
Edgar Calabia Samar will be at National Book Store SM North on May 10 at 3 p.m. Please join us for the book signing and book discussion!
The Philippine Boardon Books for Young People (PBBY) formally launches the KABANATA Young Adult Writer’s Workshop with a call for fellowship applications. Slated to begin in October 2014 in Quezon City, KABANATA aims to provide a venue and support system to writers who share in PBBY’s commitment to the promotion of a culture of reading among Filipino youth by providing this growing population with books that recognize their culture, aspirations, and sense of maturity.
For a period of at least six months, fellows accepted to KABANATA will meet monthly for learning sessions with industry experts, and progress discussions with their co-fellows. Upon novel completion, PBBY will help fellows with publication by inviting publishers to bid on the finished works. With this, KABANATA hopes to produce chapter books and young adult novels that will set the bar for similar endeavors to aspire to, and be the growth spurt of what will hopefully become a thriving, diverse, and quality Filipino literature inventory for kids and teens.
Applicants are asked to submit, among other requirements, a novel-in-progress represented by three chapters and a chapter outline. Novels-in-progress should be aimed towards children within the age of 9 to 16. Those interested may visit pbby.org.ph or bit.ly/kabanata to see the application guidelines, fellowship requirements, and complete workshop details. For further inquiries, contact KABANATA via email@example.com or (02) 352-6765 local 119.
The Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY) is a private, non-stock, non-profit organization committed to the development and promotion of children’s literature in the Philippines and is the lead agency in the annual celebration of National Children’s Book Day (NCBD), which falls on the third Tuesday of July.
Here are highlights from the links that I shared on Twitter this week @JensBookPage. As we near the end of the year, there are lots and lots of lists! Also several posts with book and literacy-themed gift ideas. Of course any of the book lists could be a fertile source for gift ideas, too. (And don't miss MotherReader's 150 Ways to Give a Book, updated for 2013.)
Nominations for the 2013 Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards (the Cybils), open tomorrow, October 1st, and run through October 15th. Now is your chance to show a bit of love for the children's and YA books that you've loved over the past year. The link to the nomination form will be live at Cybils.com at 12:00 a.m. PST on October 1 (late tonight, for any West Coast night owls).
Anyone may nominate one book per genre during the public nomination period. We ask authors, publishers and publicists to wait until after the public nomination period ends to submit their own books. [Authors and publishers may use the public form to nominate books other than their own during the regular nomination period.]
For 2013, only books released between Oct. 16, 2012 and Oct. 15, 2013 are eligible. Books that were eligible or nominated in previous years are not eligible for nomination this year unless significantly revised (at least 20% of the book is changed.) The Cybils only accepts titles published specifically for the youth market.
Multiple nominations of the same book do not help that book's chances. In fact, the nomination form is designed to only accept the first nomination of a book.
The nominated titles will be displayed as quickly as possible on the Cybils blog, in the following categories:
It's Cybils season, folks. Spend some time tonight thinking about your favorite recent, well-written, kid-friendly titles in the above categories. Then come back tomorrow and start nominating! This is your chance to show your appreciation to the authors and publishers who create wonderful books, and to help kids all over the English-speaking world find great titles.
* promote the creation of Malaysian stories for children and teenagers,
* reward excellence of Malaysian content in fiction for children and teenagers,
* and support Malaysians writing for children and teenagers.
The Calistro Prize 2013 is now open for entries! To be eligible for the prize, stories should be original and unpublished works of at least 6,000 words, written in English, set in Malaysia, and Malaysian in content. Translations of original unpublished works are also welcome.
Only one entry per writer is allowed and the closing date for entries is September 30, 2013. The results will be announced on December 31, 2013.
The winning story will receive RM8,000 in cash, a medal, and a certificate. Two stories may win merit awards, each with a cash prize of RM1,000, a medal, and a certificate.
As the debate about what it means to be a feminist is ongoing, this session brings together three writers, all of whom identify as feminists. Justine Larbalestier is a YA and fantasy writer, playwright Bryony Lavery is the author of iconic works including Thursday, and Chika Unigwe is the author of the novel On Black Sister’s Street, about a group of African women in the sex trade.
This panel marks the first time I’ve ever been on a panel with writers for grown ups (i.e. whose audience is presumed to be primarily adults, as opposed to mine which is presumed to be mostly teens) at a literary festival. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a festival in the world that is actively breaking down boundaries between genres and writers and readers. Honestly, I was so surprised when I saw this I thought they’d made a mistake. Then I looked at the whole programme. And, lo, it’s full of such inter-genre cross over panels. Way to go, AWF, way to go!
The readership for YA fiction continues to grow and grow. Yet for young women today questions of identity, sexuality and friendship remain as problematic as ever. This session asks – how do women write for girls? Join Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Justine Larbalestier, author of Liar, and Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown for a spirited conversation about women and words.
Isobelle is one of Australia’s most popular YA fantasy writers. Her fans span generations and all clutch her books to their chests like they are precious babies. She’s wonderful and funny and genuinely does not think like anyone else I have ever met. I did a panel with her at last year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival and it truly was awesome. Mostly because of Isobelle. So if you’re in Adelaide you want to see this.
I’m looking forward to meeting Vikki Wakefield. I’ve heard good things about her debut novel All I Ever Wanted. Yes, it’s true, not all Australian YA authors know each other. But we’ll fix that after a few more festival appearances.
I like that they list all the panellists’ nationalities. I was excited when I saw there was a USian on both my panels. But a little bewildered when I looked the other panellists up and discovered none of them were from the USA. I’d been looking forward to asking where they were from, and if they knew NYC or any of the other cities I know, we could compare notes. Which is when I realised that I am the USian on those panels.
In my defense I’ve only been a US citizen for a year. It’s easy to forget.
TL;DR:3 I will be in Adelaide in early March. Come to my panels!
Yes, that’s a real word. Shut up!
Which, no, I don’t. It was a lot of fun, but. I love weddings! So much love! So many wonderful speeches about love! So many opportunities for it to all go horribly wrong! Especially at doomed weddings between those Who Should Not Marry. Someday I’m going to write a Doomed Wedding book. Though to be clear: the Adelaide wedding was not doomed. Um, I think I’m digressing.
For the old people that stands for: Too long, Didn’t Read. You’re welcome.
When I tell people outside of the publishing world that I write middle grade fiction I usually get a blank stare. When I say I write children's books, even children's novels, people's minds go straight to picture books.
* This is my second guest blog post for PaperTigers. Please read it to find out about some new Philippine young adult literature. =D
* Click here to read about a possible international book bloggers meetup. If it happens, I'll definitely be there!
* Fantastic news! Tu Books has announced the first annual New Visions Award. The New Visions Award will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and a standard publication contract with Tu Books. An honor winner will receive a cash grant of $500. Click here for more details. I look forward to reading the winning novels!
I’m not going to link to where I saw this particular bizarre notion. Mostly because it’s not something that’s found in one place. I’ve come across the same sentiment in various locations offline and on- over the last ten or so years. So it’s kind of irrelevant who said it most recently.
But here’s gist of the argument:
YA writers only do it for the money. They don’t care about the effect their [insert negative adjective] work has on children only about making money.
I’m fascinated that this argument gets made at all ever. I don’t know a single writer who became a writer to make money. Everyone I know is a writer because they can’t not be a writer. It’s a compulsion. A vocation. Something they do whether they’re paid for it or not. This is true across genres.
The idea of becoming a YA writer to make bank? Crazy.
Most of the YA writers I know don’t make enough money from writing books to do it full-time. They have other jobs. Those writers I do know who earn enough to write full-time, like myself, are not exactly rolling in the big bucks. Gina Rinehart would not bend over to pick up what I make in a year. And, frankly, most of us full-time YA writers can’t believe our good fortune. We know way too many brilliant writers who aren’t making enough to do it full-time. We are very aware of how lucky we are.
I know only a handful of writers who are earning what I consider to be big money from writing YA novels. They are the tiny minority. And the odds of them continuing to make that kind of money in a decade’s or twenty year’s time is pretty low. Look at the bestselling books of 10, 15, 20 years ago. Very few of those books are still selling now. Making good money from writing books and continuing to do so for a lifetime? Very rare.
If someone really decided to become a YA novelist solely to make big money then they’re an idiot with incredibly poor research skills. Choosing to write novels—in any genre—as a path to riches is about as smart as buying lottery tickets to achieve the same.
But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that YA writers are all making vast bucketloads of cash.1 How does making lots of money for writing books automatically mean you will do it contemptously of your audience? Where does that idea come from?
I’m particularly bewildered because the vast majority of people who make this argument are from the USA. Isn’t making loads of money supposed to be a good thing in the USA? Something you should be proud of? Something that qualifies you to run for president?
It swiftly becomes apparent that it’s artists, not just writers, but any kind of artist, who shouldn’t earn money from their work. Apparently money taints art or something. I’ve never quite understood the logic of this argument. Personally, I’ve always thought that starvation puts the biggest crimp on creating art. You know, on account of how it leads to death. It is incredibly hard to create art while dead or while living in poverty. Art’s something that’s much easier to do when survival is not the biggest issue facing you every day.
The fact that there are people out there living in poverty who still manage to create art fills me with awe. People are amazing. But that does not make poverty a necessary condition
More than any other writers1 we YA writers get grief over our subject matter. We are frequently told that we should not be writing about subjects such as sex, drugs, cutting, suicide, anorexia nervosa, etc. because our audience is vulnerable and easily swayed and it is our duty of care not to lead them down such scary paths.
Now, there are a tonne of smart, cogent ripostes to this argument. But I just want to say that we YA authors do not have a duty of care. It is not the job of YA writers to teach or guide teenagers. That is their parents’ and guardians’ job. Their teachers’ and coaches’ job.
Our only duty is to write the best and most truthful stories we can.
Which is, frankly, hard enough without taking on responsibility for the world’s teenagers. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I salute all you parents! It’s way harder than writing YA books. So imagine how hard it would be if we YA writers really were responsible for all the teenagers who read our books? We would all die.
Too often those adults with the duty of care look to us to not write things they consider inappropriate for the teenagers they are looking out for. How on Earth can we YA writers be the judge of that? I don’t know your teenager. I don’t know what will freak them out. Frankly, the teenagers I do know are not freaked out by what I write. I’m freaked out by more stuff than they are.
Sometimes I don’t think parents know what will freak out their teenagers either. And I say this because parents I know have told me they have no idea what goes on in their teenagers’ minds. Somehow they think that because I write for teenagers I might have some helpful hints for gauging the mysteries of the teenage mind.
Sorry. Teenagers are as varied as adults. Half the time I barely know what’s in my mind, let alone anyone else’s.
To be totally honest I mostly write for the teenager I was and the adult I am. I write stories that interest and engage me. That those stories fall into the publishing niche that is YA is a happy accident. And that some teenagers find them entertaining/useful/inspiring/whatever is an even happier accident.
I am sorry that we YA writers are not portraying the kind of world you think is suitable for your teenagers. But I have a solution. Why not write your own books?
Why not write the world the way you want it without all the bits you find objectionable, without any scary conflict, or teenagers doing things you wish they wouldn’t? And then every time the teenagers in your life pick up what you consider to be the wrong kind of book you can give them yours instead. Who knows? Maybe it will be a bestseller and start a whole new genre.
Except for those who write for children, obviously.
More than 75,000 votes were cast to cull the list of 235 finalists to the top 100. Also notable: Of those 235 titles, 147 (or 63 percent) were written by women—a parity that would seem like a minor miracle in some other genres. Female authors took the top three slots, and an approximately equal share of the top 100. As a comparison, you'd have to scroll all the way to number 20 on last summer's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy list to find a woman's name (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley).
First off, I don't want anyone to read concern into this post. I don't think this is a problem. It's justinteresting. It's also not a rout -- in the top 100 it's still 50/50, though when you remove classics the trend is more stark.
I can think of any number of reasons why women might dominate young adult fiction, everything from institutional explanations (children's publishers are overwhelmingly staffed by women) to genre (teen romance) to psychology (more on that in a minute), but I'm not sure any of them feel like a totally satisfactory explanation.
I think it's equally curious when you consider that middle grade (for 8-12 year olds) is a place where male writers still have some of the most popular series: Wimpy Kid, Series of Unfortunate Events, Rangers Apprentice, Fablehaven.
The only explanation I can come up for that, back to the psychology, is that middle grade is a time when men have their formative taste-creation time (take it from me: what guys like at age 12 is pretty much what they like at age 32), whereas for women maybe high school is more formative? So maybe men are more likely to gravitate to middle grade?
What do you think? Why are there so many more female YA writers?
Art: Lady writing a letter with her maid - Johannes Vermeer
Within every story there are stories, and this morning I am deeply blessed by the chance, in Shelf Awareness, to remember my grandmother and to reflect on the passion I have for creating young adult stories in which time works differently. Jennifer Brown, the children's book review editor for Shelf Awareness, opened this door to me. Her kindness toward me and Small Damages has been remarkable.
Pictured above is my beautiful grandmother, whom I lost on Mischief Night when I was nine. She sits beside my grandfather, who holds my brother on his lap. I am sitting with my beloved Uncle Danny. My mother's family. Sweet memories.
Thank you, Jenny Brown and Shelf Awareness. These are the opening words of my Inklings essay. The rest can be found here:
My books for young adults are frequently shaped by relationships between those who have so much wanting yet ahead and those looking back, with pain and wonder. Time works differently in books like these, and so does memory.