The technology teenagers use to drive their parents up the wall may change, but the feelings associated with growing up don’t. The most successful and relatable YA authors grasp the essential emotions of being a teen. The writers tackle wildly varied subjects, from embracing asexuality to solving decades-old mysteries to navigating a post-climate-apocalypse world. But at the base of it all, feelings drive YA literature. Getting inside a teenager’s head.
“When I’m trying to tell a story, it helps me to think about my audience and what things, ideas, or issues are most relevant to them,” says Jay Coles, author of Tyler Johnson Was Here and the more recent Things We Couldn’t Say.
Of course, the latest generation of YA readers is coping with something no recent generation has experienced – a global pandemic that forced many of them out of school for months and shut down everyday activities teens took for granted, from playing sports to hanging with friends to getting their driver’s licenses. Perhaps now more than ever, these near-adults crave ways to feel seen after so much isolation. Literature has always played witness to teens’ pain, fears, and triumphs.
To take the pulse of the YA industry today and see what’s changed (and what hasn’t) almost two years into the pandemic, The Writer spoke with a dozen young adult writers, a few of whom requested anonymity to render honest opinions without worry of backlash in this small industry tidal pool. A portrait of an evolving, yet not entirely evolved, genre emerged, with short- and long-term impacts from the COVID-19 outbreak that could reshape things for the better. Every author expressed the high value of YA for teens, preteens, and also adults. It is, perhaps, the genre most open to experimentation and diversification, which explains its great appeal to writers.
Here are the 10 most interesting things we heard during our conversations.
1. Diversity has become less of a buzzword and more of an actuality.
Most YA novels of the 1990s and early aughts featured a sort of self-conscious diversity, often including a token non-white character but never giving them anything of substance to do (overwhelmingly, these characters were written by white people). This practice isn’t gone – too many books still have only one gay friend or one Hispanic friend, etc., etc. – but it is waning. These days, the characters in YA novels more closely resemble, you know, actual teenagers. Who are quite diverse: As of 2018, the most recent stats available from the U.S. Census Bureau, American children are only 50% white. Hispanic (25%) and Black (14%) kids make up more than a third of those under 18.
But greater diversity doesn’t just mean the welcome introduction of more Black/Asian-American/disabled/transgender/nonbinary/asexual characters. It also means broadening the focus of books to encompass more topics. YA novels will always deal with identity, but they can deal with other things at the same time, too.
Coles says that of late, he’s seen “more conversations about allowing stories about Black people and queer people of color that aren’t centered around their pain or oppression by the world. … Those books can be important books that we need (and I always want people to write, share, and publish their truth), but I love that we’re seeing more stories where Black people and queer people of color just get to be joyful and happy and celebrated, and most of all…alive.”
Credit, in part, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a grassroots organization advocating greater representation in children’s books, for raising awareness of the need for diversity in YA. “The amount of new content coming from marginalized creators is exciting to witness,” says Dhonielle Clayton, a YA author and chief operating officer of WNDB. “The rallying call for diverse books has been a collective effort of many different groups, and the WNDB organization stands on the shoulders of those giants. There’s a ways to go, but the problem has been diagnosed, and everyone has jumped in to make sure the mission succeeds.”
2. The door is widening for diverse reinterpretations of traditional stories.
Dark academia featuring Asian-American protagonists (How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao). A retelling of Pride and Prejudice set against a background of Brooklyn gentrification (Pride: A Pride & Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi). The gay Grease (Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales). The past few years delivered an imaginative array of YA novels by writers from all backgrounds reinterpreting stories that white authors told and retold for decades.
“You can see, with different kinds of authors behind them, what our own view is on these types of well-loved stories,” says Joan He, who penned last year’s sci-fi YA novel The Ones We’re Meant to Find. “We are seeing things get revived, like the recent resurgence of vampires and paranormal stories, more people writing dystopian fiction, and new people writing them.”
Retelling familiar stories can have a lasting impact on kids who suddenly see people like themselves in the narrative. Representation matters.
3. And yet…there’s such a long way to go.
At a time when the genre’s most successful author of all time continues to alienate readers by making transphobic statements, perhaps it’s little wonder that YA’s progress with diversity is more of a two-steps-forward, three-steps-back affair than a hopscotch. Authors from traditionally marginalized communities point out many lingering issues within the industry.
“I’ve noticed that YA books written by people of color usually are most successful when they center whiteness or cater to whiteness or white feelings, which is a huge issue that I could talk about for hours and hours,” Coles notes. “I really wish that would change, but it would require a revolution of YA publishing, and I don’t have time to lead that out right now. I got deadlines.”
“Publishing houses themselves – the Big Four in particular – need to make more of an effort to hire and promote folks from nontraditional backgrounds and from historically marginalized groups.”
The staggering slowness of change reflects in part the continued lack of diversity at publishing houses (the spectacular indictment of publishing’s whiteness depicted in Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel The Other Black Girl struck nerves last summer for good reason). “Publishing houses themselves – the Big Four in particular – need to make more of an effort to hire and promote folks from nontraditional backgrounds and from historically marginalized groups,” suggested one author who chose to comment anonymously.
Change at the speed of molasses also reflects the fact that publishing is corporate. Nothing corporate moves quickly.
“Conversations can happen immediately on Twitter. But actual change takes a couple of years,” notes an author of a bestselling gay teen romance who preferred anonymity.
“There’s been incremental progress in terms of diversity,” echoes L.C. Rosen, author of Camp, a delightful trope-inverting novel about love at a queer summer camp. “I want to be optimistic, and we do see people finally taking chances on more minority voices and putting the marketing in – but they are still few and far between.” He laments that recent consolidation among publishers (the Big Five are now the Big Four, and they continue to buy up the smaller players more willing to take chances on new voices and new ideas) remains concerning. “I think publishing still hasn’t quite learned how to modernize,” Rosen says.