YA Books Boring, Uncomplicated, Preachy? The New Yorker Thinks So!

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]What’s up with all the YA haters lately?

First it was Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 review of Jenny Downham’s BEFORE I DIE, spoiling a starred review with, “…unfortunately, Downham’s publisher has handicapped BEFORE I DIE by labeling it a young-adult novel, thus ghettoizing this gem to the back of most bookstores…” Entertainment Weekly swooped in for another poke at YA with Stephen King’s review of Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES, wrapping up with, “…although ‘young adult novel’ is a dumbbell term I put right up there with ‘jumbo shrimp’ and ‘airline food’ in the oxymoron sweepstakes…” Then Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic in What Girls Want, letting us all know “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me…” before going on to praise Stephenie Meyer’s Y.A. vampire series, TWILIGHT, for “illuminat[ing] the complexities of female adolescent desire.”

Now The New Yorker steps up to the YA-bashing plate in Book Bench Reads: “Headlong,” Part I, twisting a relatively positive review of HEADLONG by Kathe Koja into another jab at the misunderstood genre of young adult literature.

A few choice quotes from the article:

“I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facileā€”a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals…”

If you’re a young girl and your best friend — also a girl your age — is sexually molesting you and mentally tormenting you for years before her not-so-accidental death, is that straightforward and uncomplicated? Jo Knowles’ LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL doesn’t make it look that way. What about setting a young neighbor kid on fire and watching him burn alive? Any uncomplicated morals there? Not in Gail Giles’ RIGHT BEHIND YOU. Both of these books are on the YA shelves today.

“When I was a teen-ager, I assumed that the label was synonymous with preachy and boring, a companion to sex-ed classes.”

If you haven’t read a young adult novel since you were a teen, perhaps a walk through the YA section at your local book store or library would do you some good — especially if you’re working on an article about current teen reads. YA books today are anything but boring. THE HUNGER GAMES practically gave me nightmares with it’s not-so-hard-to-believe plot about a dystopian future where kids are forced to compete annually in a fight to the death on live television. Speaking of nightmares and dystopian futures, if you’re looking to get your zombie apocalypse on, check out Carrie Ryan’s upcoming THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. A snoozer? I think not.

“All the boys in my life read as teens, which begs the question: why do I surround myself with such wimps?”

Really? Boys who read are wimps? I guess that makes John Green a wimp. And Jay Asher, Kaleb Nation, Cory Doctorow, to name a few. They’re in good company with fellow 2009 and 2010 debut authors Kurtis Scaletta, Chris Rylander, Jon Skovron, and Josh Berk. And my little brother — the one who loves YA books? And my husband, who devoured everything by R.A. Salvatore as a kid and still does? Wimp? Right. Frankly, New Yorker, I think we all need to surround ourselves with more of these so-called wimps. I want wimps on every corner, in ever school and library and corporate office and television station. I want to be immersed in a feast of wimps. Thankfully we just put one in the White House — a big ol’ presidential wimp who loves to read and wants his kids (and all of our kids) to share the same passion for words.

“Surely we demand of ‘adult’ writers (or perhaps what I really mean is ‘great’ writers) higher moral and philosophical stakes?”

Are you saying that only adult writers are great writers? I think that’s what you’re saying, and I don’t like that one bit. I think you’re also saying that we should have different expectations for adult literature than we do for young adult works in terms of complexity and depth of issues, and frankly, that’s a cop-out. Yes, there are crappy, shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical YA books just as there are crappy, shallow, one-dimensional, stereotypical adult books. A genre label is not a judgment on quality or authenticity. It’s just a way to shelve a book in the store or library so that readers can more easily find the books we like.

“I think the Y.A. genre is typically defined by very straightforward moral messages, ones that are deemed ‘suitable’ for children, even if the subject matter deals with more grown-up topics (like sex or drinking).”

I’d venture to say that mortgages and prostates are grown-up topics. But sex and drinking? Teens and even younger kids are faced with these topics — including other tough issues like suicide, rape, self-mutilation, runaways, drugs, bullying, poverty, depression — every day. Calling any of these “grown-up” topics is the same head-in-the-sand mentality that prevents some parents from ever truly knowing or understanding their kids and the issues they and their closest friends are confronting every time they walk out the front door. YA literature tackles tough topics, often with ambiguous or open-ended messages that reflect the gray shades of reality rather than conforming to any “straightforward, suitable” morality.

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler”]Readers, what do you think about young adult literature today? Do you find it preachy, boring, uncomplicated or un-challenging? If not, what are some of your favorite teen reads from today or yesterday? Comment here and head on over to the New Yorker to tell them what you think!

Teen Book Sales Booming, Part 2

Writing Truths in YA: How Much is Too Much?

For the recent boom in YA book sales, Newsweek’s Generation R credits teens’ increasing sophistication, their emotional maturity, and the accompanying new freedom for YA writers to explore almost any subject.

For authors, what does all this reader sophistication and new freedom mean?

Over in debut2009, we’ve discussed it in several forms—detailed vs. implied sex scenes, when does violence become gratuitous, do the bad guys always get punished, what is author responsibility, and more. I don’t think we’ve come up with an official group answer (perhaps in time for debut2029!), but here’s how I summed up my thoughts in the forum:

As authors, should we be responsible? Absolutely. And the best way to be responsible is to be honest and truthful in our writing. That means not censoring ourselves by shying away from controversial topics if the story calls for them. And it also means not adding in a bunch of over-the-top “controversy” for shock value or sales. Just tell the truth.

My primary goal as a writer is to…

*drumroll*

…tell a story.

An honest one, with characters and situations to which readers can relate. I’m not writing to teach a lesson or signal a warning beacon—I am absolutely not the poster child for good choices! And you know what? There aren’t always consequences in life. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant. Not everyone who drinks and drives causes a wreck. Does that mean that if I include these elements in my books without their associated and predictable consequences that I’m condoning certain behaviors? Nope. It just means that I’m telling a story. Here’s what happened. You, young reader, decide how you feel about it.

Emotional maturity is born of exposure to and experience with new and sometimes controversial situations. I see more controversy on the six o’clock news than I do in the teen section at Barnes & Noble, so I write with this in mind: Teen readers do have the maturity and the sophistication to evaluate situations for themselves—whether in their own lives, on television, or in books—and make their own choices. This isn’t to say that books don’t have any influence on teens (just ask this guy!). But at that age, they already have a foundation for decision-making that a novel won’t crumble. If someone decides to have premarital sex or smoke a cigarette, it’s probably not because of something she read in my book. I have to trust that.

So when Jack Martin, assistant coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library, tells Newsweek this about old school YA books vs. the current lot…

“Too many books for teens just stated obvious messages, like ‘doing drugs is bad.’ But now the messages are imbedded into the story. This new crop of writers would rather present drugs as a miserable existence and show what it’s like to live through this experience than to preach.”

…and a father of a teen reader says this about books that cross into controversial issues like drugs and alcohol or sex:

These are profound issues that I’ve seen handled tastefully. They’re issues that some might think are too big for a teen. But teens, like adults, live in the real world. And I get the sense that they appreciate fiction that’s honest and might give them a glimpse of what awaits them as adults.”

…I respectfully disagree.

Martin’s making a broad generalization here, implying that today’s writers are simply finding subtler ways to send the same heavy-handed messages.

And Dad? YA lit isn’t trying to give teens a peek at what the future holds. It’s probably just giving you a glimpse at what your teen is already dealing with.

Like the article says, teens enjoy books as an escape from reality, a break from the pressures of their lives, and even as a kind of therapy to bridge the lack of communication and support they might face at home. That said, the most successful YA writers are not those who can find a more creative way to sneak in the lesson. The most successful writers are those who tell an honest story and trust (and encourage) their readers to determine not what the story means, but what it means to them.

For me, the most meaningful thing a reader can say is not “this book is mad cool” or “I was all LOL,” but “wow, that’s totally me,” and “hmm, I never thought of it that way before.” Hearing those words means I’ve connected with someone or helped her see something in a new way, whether it’s a hopeful story or something full of pain and heartache, with or without consequences.

That connection is all I can ask for, and that connection—if I earn it—is how I will know my books have succeeded.

Your turn. What do you as teens, parents, teachers, authors, and readers think? How much is too much? And what defines a successful book?

Teen Book Sales Booming, Part 1

It’s hard to write a book. It’s even harder to get a book deal. And getting that book off the shelves and into teen readers’ hands? Basically impossible, right?

Far from it, according to Jamie Reno. His Newsweek article, Generation R, puts a new spin on an old topic: teens and reading. Apparently, they like it. Enough that the YA side of an otherwise lagging book industry is, as Reno says, booming.

Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction… is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.

I can absolutely attest to the infusion of talented new authors. In addition to the books already on the shelves in the teen section of your favorite book store, the 2009 lineup is, as Randy would say, “in the zone! The bomb! The hot one to beat tonight, baby!” and right around the corner. The rightfully-tagged “feast of awesome” hanging out in debut2009 has me counting down the days until next year.

I’m thrilled to be part of a group like debut2009 during this YA renaissance. Like Ally Carter said, our greatest competition as writers is not other writers. It’s bad books. Well-written books that engage and excite readers will get them reading more—more books, more genres, and more authors. I love meeting new writers who are passionate about getting books into teens’ hands. And now is a great time to be involved.

Why is YA so Popular?

The article cites several reasons for the current boom, including:

  1. increasing sophistication and emotional maturity of teenagers
  2. new freedom for writers in the genre to explore virtually any subject
  3. bookstores and libraries finally recognizing this niche and separating teen books from children’s books
  4. MySpace, Facebook, blogs, and authors’ and publishers’ Web sites allowing young readers to communicate with each other and with authors
  5. teen books becoming an integral part of today’s pop-culture entertainment menu, tying in to TV, movies, video games, and the Internet

What about adults? I think that’s another factor. With the sophistication of some of today’s teen reads, lots of people outside the intended audience are diving in. Parents and teachers are reading and discussing books with their children or class. Authors are checking out their peers. And adult readers often browse the YA section for something different (guilty!)—a vampire trilogy, a magical world, or an intense YA romance that doesn’t suffer from the over-writing that plagues so many adult books.

Newsweek gives a shout out to my favorite YA author, Sarah Dessen. I discovered Dessen in 2003 after taking a few YA novel writing classes through Lighthouse Writers Workshop and paying more attention to the genre (read: spending a lot of time and money in the teen section at Tattered Cover under the guise of “research”).

Dessen is a great example of how and why teen lit has become so esteemed (even outside of fantasy blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Twilight series’). She’s published 8 books featuring tough issues like abusive relationships, death, divorce, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, body image, and rape. Her books and characters are realistic—no over-dramatizing or talking down about the hard stuff. She tells it like it is and readers relate—and respond—to it. She also has a huge blog following via her LiveJournal site, where she talks about everything from the weather to her dogs to her monthly Tivo lineup.

What do you think? Are you a closet YA reader as an adult? Are you an author in this exciting genre? Do you agree that we’re in the “second golden age for young adult books?”

If you’re interested in YA literature and writing, check out the Newsweek article. It’s long, but worth the read. Over the next few days, I’ll be discussing some of the reasons cited for the boom (while working on revisions for my second book, which I’m even more excited about now!).

On deck tomorrow: Part 2: Writing truths in YA. How Much is Too Much?