What Makes YA Fiction so Hot? A Virtual Panel Discussion on Jonathan Maberry’s Big Scary Blog
Young adult (YA) literature is hot. Red hot. Smoking hot. It’s where the real publishing industry buzz lives. It’s a growing market despite a crumbling economy; and in a technological age it’s driven by actual word of mouth. Well, to be fair, it’s word of text, but it’s close.
I asked librarians from across the U.S. to talk about the genre and why YA is the place to be for readers and writers.
JONATHAN MABERRY: YA literature is getting more and more of the social media buzz. Why?
SHANNA SWIGERT SMITH: Two words, it is AWESOME and AMAZING! Plus, people are looking for something to entertain and provide enjoyment. Rarely, do I have to wade or push through reading a teen book. They immediately grab your attention and do not let go till the very end. The marketing of this through social media is a no brainer. Young adults are not going to the New York Times Book Reviews. Instead, they are going to Google it and look for an online presence. (Shanna Swigert Smith, Teen Librarian, Mesa County Libraries; Grand Junction, CO)
ROBIN BRENNER: YA literature is a booming market right now because it’s appealing to teenagers, of course, but it’s also appealing to a wide range of readers. In terms of social media: many of YA lit’s creators and readers are in that sweet spot of tech users (teens up through 40 year olds) who are more likely than anyone else to be out there tweeting, blogging, and tumblr-ing about their latest read. (Robin Brenner, Reference & Teen Librarian, Brookline Public Library; Brookline, MA)
RACHEL KITZMANN: Because it’s awesome, and that answer is only a little facetious. YA literature is attracting talent and bravado at incredible rates. The idea of teens as a force with disposable income came right on the heels of authors taking an actual stab at writing interesting, compelling books with teen protagonists. Instead of Issue Books or books that were written by committee, authors as a force started addressing multiple teen-age experiences. Doing this allowed teens to see their lives mirrored for the first time: the experiences they were reading about were the experiences they’d had, or their friends had had. As teens started reading more and more (despite the moaning and groaning of various news outlets about teens not reading) authors got bolder and bolder.
Teens like realistic fiction, but what if I add vampires? Zombies? Aliens? What if instead of setting it in the contemporary world, the book is set in WWI, and there are genetically engineered animals? What if the book is written in verse? What if the book has two, three a dozen points of view? YA authors took risks that adult authors were unwilling to take, because the market of teens respected and responded to that risk taking. Then the adults started respecting and responding to books that were aimed at people 5, 10 even 20 years younger, because the literature was good. It was interesting and it was different than anything else on the market. At the end of the day, that’s why YA literature gets a lot of buzz: Because it is as good (and in my opinion, better) than comparable books in the adult market, and a great story is a great story no matter the age of the protagonist. (Rachel Kitzmann, Young Adult Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library, CA)
LIZZ ZITRON: YA literature takes on challenging issues more than any other genre and yet it struggles to gain respect as an intelligent, thoughtful medium. I think of it as the soap opera of literature. Soaps have long tackled tough issues long before their television counterparts. Positive, homosexual characters in loving relationships come to mind. Soaps had them long before nighttime TV. I see far more positive portrayals of LGBT characters in YA lit then I do in adult novels. Authors like David Levithan, John Green, Alex Sanchez and Maureen Johnson are a few writers who come to mind who have created characters and situations that ring with authenticity. Johnson in particular has avoided what we call the Lesbian Trope in which lesbian characters go crazy, die or both.
Additionally, YA literature is increasingly better-written in my opinion. Somehow authors are able to perform feats of word artistry I don’t see in many adult novels. The Morris award nominees from 2011 come to mind as examples of vastly different genres and storylines that were all incredibly well-written. They tackled fairly specific universes, characters and situations yet each author managed to make his or her work accessible, real and engaging. These books continue to “stick with me” in ways adult books I’ve read this year have not. When you think about the audiences YA authors have to reach, they must write really well to reach them successfully. They are dealing with a population at wildly differing levels of intellectual, emotional and self-identity development. So they must be deceptively simple yet write deeply. (Lizz Zitron, Outreach Services Librarian, Carthage College- Hedberg Library; Kenosha, WI)
KIM CHRISTOFFERSON: There is so much good YA fiction being written. Forget the paranormal/vampire books. Try The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey or Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. These books will give you the willies. If you want romance, pick up a Sarah Dessen book or Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Dystopian stories like The Hunger Games trilogy or Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness are also good reads.
Hollywood picks up these stories and turns them into movies whether they be based on the book or a bit different but with the same story. I don’t think publishers really recognized the enormity of the teen audience until the end of the 1990′s when Harry Potter became a hit. Granted, the first couple of HP books are middle school books but so many kids in the 90′s were so excited to read it and wanted to read all of them. By the time HP finished his 7th year, the kids who started reading him were grown but still faithful fans! Then there are the Twilight series and The Hunger Games series. Just a few examples of great YA fiction. These books may not win a Printz award but they make the rounds at libraries across the world! (Kim Christofferson, Teen Librarian, Garden Grove Regional Library, CA)
JESSICA MILLER: I think this question has to be explained in several ways. First, YA lit itself is becoming much more popular. With adults realizing, yes they can read these books, the audience has grown. With many new YA books being made into movies, awareness of the books themselves has grown. With more and more people talking about the books, it has exploded onto the social media sites. Now that is a self feeding cycle. With buzz already building on the internet, more and more people are joining book related sites, creating book blogs, and in general adding to the buzz. As more and more people emerge online with these interests, the publishers are glomming onto this fact and are thus creating more buzz online and such the cycle goes. Basically the books are awesome, people realize they are awesome and talk about them, the publishers see people talking and show them more things to talk about online! (Jessica Miller, Young Adult Librarian, New Britain Public Library; New Britain, CT)
TONYA OSWALT: The intriguing stories and the high quality of the writing in young adult fiction appeal to people of all ages. It’s interesting to me that a lot of teenagers will skip over young adult fiction and go straight to adult fiction, while many adults will linger in the young adult section, devouring the books there for years. There has also been an increase in the number of movies being made based on young adult books, perhaps thanks to the popularity of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. Then there is the ongoing debate over the darkness of young adult fiction that has recently resurfaced in the media just a few months ago. Censorship has and always will be an issue in libraries and schools, regardless of the actual material that is being published, because it is impossible for everyone to be happy. (Tonya Oswalt, Young Adult Services Assistant, Bossier Parish Libraries, Bossier City, LA)
JONATHAN MABERRY: What are your favorite YA genres/subgenresâ€¦and why?
SHANNA SWIGERT SMITH: Currently, I am in love with teen lit that re-imagines history with fantasy and/or the science fiction element. I have always loved historical fiction, which, to be honest, is already an author’s own imagining of history. I like the authors who have taken it a step farther, intertwining magic, machines and time travel.
ROBIN BRENNER: As I said above, I love the books that veer into all sorts of genre groupings. I just want a good story and solid writing. If I had to define what I want in a YA book: witty banter, strong dialog, well-balanced world-building (whatever that world may be), and spot on pacing.
RACHEL KITZMANN: I started out as a fantasy/sci-fi reader and that’s still what I fall back to. If there are witches and fairies, chances are I’ve read the book, all the sequels, and have deep and thorough thoughts about the world and how it operates. The physics of space and time is something that most people have at least a basic understanding of: time moves forwards, gravity is what holds the earth together and that is how it’s supposed to be, then BAM- Magic! What are you going do when Newton’s laws of motion become mere suggestions? A good fantasy/sci-fi author takes the time to consider the impact of that on the world as a whole and on the protagonist in particular. It’s a fun way to really explore the human experience.
LIZZ ZITRON: I am new to the fantasy realm and I blame it all on Neil Gaiman and YA lit, but not necessarily in that order. High fantasy has always eluded me, perhaps because I’m a somewhat literal person and having to imagine new universes confuses me! But I was always fascinated by the whole culture which just looks like a whole heck of a lot of fun. I’m more of a geek groupie than actual geek. As fantasy has become more popular in YA lit and adapted to teen tastes and needs, it’s hooked a lot of adults in the process. And not just because of sexy vampires either. (I long for the day when we can talk about fantasy w/out mentioning vampires or zombies!)
I read Holly Black’s “Tithe” and was smitten. I love when authors play with established genre, subverting it to their will in order to add something fresh to the conversation. YA authors seems to be doing that well with fantasy. Cynthia Leitich Smith for example, is offering a funny, fresh look at vampires and werewolves with “Tantalize,” “Eternal” and “Blessed.” I’m reading “The Replacement” by Brenna Yovanoff right now and it’s a great example of twisting and turning fantasy elements to appeal to a wider audience while staying true to the genre.
What’s awesome is that YA fantasy lit has led me to comic books. I was a typical young girl who avoided comics and now wish someone had set me straight by putting one in my hands when I was a teen. I think I would be a much cooler person now if that had happened.
KIM CHRISTOFFERSON: I love dystopian books. I started reading the dystopian genre with “The Giver” by Lois Lowry and it had me hooked. There are lots of dystopian YA fiction and they circulate very well at our library. I think the reason they are popular is teens want to be seen as the hero. In most of these books, the teens are definitely the hero. And not a superhero but a normal kid who does extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. From Katniss in The Hunger Games series to Todd in Chaos Walking series to Sam in the Gone series. They keep the reader’s attention, they bring out a touch of survivalist in the teen, and they are oftentimes funny.
JESSICA MILLER: My favorite genres have always been fantasy and science fiction. I have not always been the bravest person in real life, but when you read fantasy or science fiction, you get to experience whole new worlds, travel to exotic places, and have outstanding and magical adventures without even leaving your reading chair! Now, there are many more recognized sub-genres within fantasy and science fiction. Some of my favorites are dystopia (I have a strange fascination with imagining how I would deal with a corrupt and dangerous world), zombie books (â€¦also fascinated with figuring out how to survive the zombie apocalypse), and steampunk ( I LOVE the combination of Victorian sensibilities and awesome gadgetry!).
TONYA OSWALT: I am most often drawn to fantasy and supernatural or paranormal fiction, and these are probably my favorites. I like both high fantasy and the sword and sorcery type. I also enjoy supernatural or paranormal books that include magic, vampires, werewolves, witches, etc., but I haven’t read every young adult vampire series there is. There are a lot of them out there, and after a while, they all started to seem the same to me. In general though, those are my favorite genres. I also really like the young adult dystopia and steampunk trends, and I enjoy horror and some historical fiction in YA fiction.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Recommend a few books that you feel are outstanding.
SHANNA SWIGERT SMITH: My recent favorites are Starcrossed by Elizabeth Bunce, Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, You Against Me by Jenny Downham, Blood Red Road by Moira Young, and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
ROBIN BRENNER: My absolutely favorite books of the past few years are Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men. I have rarely read a trilogy so carefully written and clearly planned that nonetheless leaves readers on tenterhooks throughout three books of rapidly unwinding plot. A lot of attention has gone toward The Hunger Games trilogy for tackling tough questions, but Ness addresses many of the same themes — war, loyalty, occupation, politics, terrorism vs. freedom fighting — and reveals it to be messy, life-altering, and so much more full of shades of grey than Collins’s series touched on.Â In my absolute favorite touch: most tales that include war end with a final wrenching confrontation. Monsters of Men, the third book, gets through that conflict in the first third of the book. The rest of the story? It’s all about the incredibly difficult and intense process that follows every war: reconstruction and reconciliation. So few trilogies really dig deep into the after effects of a conflict they’ve set in motion in any series, let alone a series of teen books.
RACHEL KITZMANN: The book I read in January and have spent the last few months throwing at people is Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. It starts as an almost silly premise (what happens when a plane full of beauty queens crash lands on a deserted island?) and spins it into this amazing manifesto on being female in the 21st Century. Just such a good, interesting, funny and heartbreaking book.
I’d also recommend The Education of Robert Nifkin by Daniel Pinkwater, one of my absolute favorite books, hands down. It centers on Robert Nifkin, and the absurdity that is his high school, his family and his life, but it’s funny and relatable, even if the situations are extreme. Admittedly, I lived in Chicago for about six years, and enjoy reading about streets that I know, or places I used to hang out, so that was a bonus for me as well. Hilariously, neither of these books are fantasy, which is the genre I read the most in.
LIZZ ZITRON: Again all of the Morris Award nominees. There’s something for everyone in this list: Hush by Eishes Chayil, published by Walker Publishing Company, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, published by Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride, published by Henry Holt Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber, published by Margaret McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston, published by Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group
KIM CHRISTOFFERSON: The whole Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, An Abundance of Katherine’s by John Green, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, The Wish List by Eoin Colfer, Tamar by Mal Peet, The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner
JESSICA MILLER: Three of the best books I have read recently are Divergent by Veronica Roth (girl defies expectations and exposes a coup d’état), Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt (boy overcomes abusive family situation to find the good in himself), and Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (beauty contestants on desert island figure out how to rescue themselves. HILARIOUS!).
TONYA OSWALT: I know there are still some people who haven’t read the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, so I have to start by recommending that. It’s definitely getting more attention now since the movie is coming out in March, but the books are well worth a read before the movies hit the theater. A fellow librarian recommended the series to me, and I have since continued to pass the recommendation along to all of my colleagues. In The Hunger Games, twenty-four teenagers are forced to fight for their lives in an arena each year while the rest of the country watches, as punishment for the last rebellion against the capital. As Katniss, the main character, fights for her survival, she becomes a symbol of hope for the rest of the country. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and If I Stay by Gayle Forman are two books that don’t fit my normal go-to genres that I have to recommend. These books are powerful and haunting in a way that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading them. In Wintergirls, Lia is fighting anorexia as she struggles to be thinner and thinner. In If I Stay, a car accident leaves Mia in a coma, her brother injured, and her parents dead. Mia is aware of this, despite the coma, and that she has a choice of whether to stay and live, or go and join her parents. Even at the risk of sounding like I’m catering to the host, I also have to recommend Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. I’m not usually one to go looking for zombie books, but I was told that this was an excellent book and that it wasn’t really about the zombies. I was pleased to find out that I agreed, and I usually recommend it to others as a book about relationships between family and friends that just happens to have zombies in it.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Discuss a favorite book that flew under the public radar.
SHANNA SWIGERT SMITH: I received an advanced copy of Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma earlier this year. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be reading a book that dealt with the taboo subject of incest, but I literally could not put it down. Honestly, if it does hit the radar it may be the next banned book, but I would definitely recommend it as an amazing read.
RACHEL KITZMANN: I actually have a series that was discontinued: The Alfred Kropp series by Rick Yancey. Alfred Kropp is the last descendent of the Knight Lancelot. He discovers this fact after his only living relative dies. After that, Alfred is thrust into a world of high tech gadgets, magic and secret organizations. It’s fast-paced, has tons of action and a really likable hero in Alfred. The series is only three books, and though the end of the third book can be read as the finale in the series, Yancey asked enough new questions that I was really excited to see where he was going to take it, and then BOOM! Cancelled.
KIM CHRISTOFFERSON: Tamar by Mal Peet was an excellent book that I think should have been on reading lists. It has romance, mystery, suspense, war, everything a reader may want, plus it is a book that I didn’t want to put down until I finished. Unfortunately, the only readers who knew about this incredible book were those in my book club and those who took the chance to pick it up from a display I created, and regardless of how much booktalking I did about it. The book is a dense one and teens are reluctant to pick up something they can’t get through in a short time.
JESSICA MILLER: I have two books that I read and really enjoyed that I think most people do not know about. The first, Dark Life by Kat Falls is a middle grade science fiction adventure. Set in the future, humans now life under the ocean and children are starting to display special skills developed from inhabiting their new environment. It’s like a western movie set under the ocean. The characters are strong and the novelty of an underwater setting makes for all different types of interesting dangers! Secondly, I would strongly recommend your own book, Rot and Ruin. What I really love about the crop of new zombie books is the focus not solely on survival from zombie hordes, but dealing with the day to day life and emotional fallout that occurs after the initial crisis. Rot and Ruin is a fantastic example of this type of book. The characters learn a lot about humanity from seeing how the people around them deal with both the zombies and the other survivors. I can’t wait to finally read the next book in the series, Dust and Decay.
TONYA OSWALT: The first book that comes to mind that I absolutely love and that apparently hasn’t gotten as big of a reception as the publishers would have liked is The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey. This book, the first in the Monstrumologist series, was one of the best horror books in young adult fiction in some time. The writing style is captivating, as are the characters, and I was hooked from the start! Another book that I love that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in my library is Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Leviathan is the first in a series that creates a steampunk version of World War I, where the Central Powers, or the Clankers, are known for their machines, and the Allies, called the Darwinists, use fabricated creatures such as whale airships and message lizards. The story alternates between Deryn, a girl pretending to be a boy so that she can serve as an airman for the Darwinists, and Alek, the son of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary. One last book that I want to mention is Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, a fantasy novel that I almost didn’t discover myself. Though the book starts slow, once it picks up, the characters captivate you and sweep you into the moving story of the people of Lumatere as they try to find their way back home and locate their kingdom’s missing heir.
JONATHAN MABERRY: What’s next for YA lit?
SHANNA SWIGERT SMITH: I definitely know that teen lit is not getting less intense or dark in the near future!
ROBIN BRENNER: I have no idea, and that’s a lovely thing!Â I would just say more of it…more of it all!
RACHEL KITZMANN: YA lit is going through some growing pains-it’s still somewhat looked down on as an audience even as every author in the history of ever is writing for it, trying to cash in. A glut is coming, a YA saturation point, which needs to happen before the market can level. The authors that care about YA, about the teens that they’re trying to reach with their stories will remain, and those looking turn a quick dollar will leave. I think the future of YA will be less about trends (Quick, we need unicorns! I SAID UNICORNS, NOT PEGASI!) and more about authors. The media is having a hard time acknowledging the vastness of YA literature. The focus tends to be on the hotness of vampires/zombies/fairies/mythology books. That, I think, will change. The focus will be on the book. And that day will be oh so welcome.
LIZZ ZITRON: Probably Cthulhu romance. I think the LGBT market will continue to explode, evolve and develop until we no longer notice it as a subgenre, but as an established element of YA literature. At least, that is my hope and I see that happening in the books coming out. The graphic novel will grow in popularity, but I think the format will change in that we won’t see shiny paperback books, but rather books that look like most novels in terms of the packaging. Look for the revolutions in the Middle East to start seeping into YA Literature. I’m so excited about “Zahra’s Paradise” from First Second books to come out September 13. It’s a book version of a popular, anonymous web comic about the 2009 elections in Iran and what happened to those who dared to protest them. It represents what I love about YA lit: it provides a space in which we can view other lives and come to find they are not so different from our own.
KIM CHRISTOFFERSON: I think YA lit is getting bolder in terms of discussing “adult” topics. Sex, obviously, is a topic in books teens will seek out. But authors of YA lit will be under the gun in terms of fighting to express in their writing sexual situations. Death, violence, terrorism, and love are hard to get through tastefully in books and I believe YA authors have done just that and are working more for that type of fiction.
Based on what I’ve heard more and more people asking for through social media and what books I’m seeing gain immense popularity, I think there are a couple of trends that might be coming up soon. 1. The reemergence of straight up science fiction “ though this genre has always been strong in adult literature, it is only now starting to really pick up in YA. Books like Beth Revis’ Across the Universe and Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan that are getting a strong media push will definitely help this trend gain momentum. 2. The development of a college aged subgenre in realistic fiction. Many, many YA readers bemoan the fact that YA lit seems to stop with characters graduating from high school. A few books here and there, sometimes shelved in YA, sometimes shelved in the adult area deal with college students. As we’ve already determined that children and teens read up age-wise, why are we not including books with college age characters geared towards our high school readers? 3. Contemporary (but not issue driven) fiction. Think authors like Jennifer Echols and Stephanie Perkins. With the overload of dystopian fiction in recent months, I think a lot of teen readers are pulling back and looking for a nice normal read. 4. Lastly, not really a new genre, but a new type of book Multimedia!
This trend really began in middle grade fiction with series like The 39 Clues. Now with the unveiling of Pottermore and The Capital PN (linked to The Hunger Games), I think more and more upcoming titles and series will be presented with print and online formats, as well as layers of usability.
TONYA OSWALT: The vampires have had their heyday, but they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Zombies have been on the rise for a while, as have angels. The new thing this year seems to be mermaids, but I’m not sure that mermaids are going to take hold quite the way some other character types have. The dystopian fiction continues to keep coming, and I’m sure that it’s going to stick around for a little while.Â I think in the future we may see more interactive YA fiction. There are already books like The Amanda Project series that let readers go online to create their own characters and add to the story. Now with e-readers, smart phones, and other devices used so frequently, and teens using media sites so heavily, I think that authors and publishers will find more ways to use these things to make books more interactive.