My 2011 YA Wishlist

The hallway

The Booklist hallway. Where are we?  Off writing our 2011 manifestos.

It is entirely possible that we in the Booklist youth brigade read more YA books than anyone else in the freakin’ world. You can’t do this and not start to feel a pang of despair when you’ve seen the same plot device, character quirk, or theme for the tenth time in a single month. So here are seven things I’d like to see change or just plain go away in YA fiction in the coming year. Angry-letter writers, start cracking those knuckles.

1. Teen-i-verses.

I just coined this term — nifty, huh? What I mean are books that seem to exist in some alternate universe where all humans above the age of 17 have been shot into the depths of space, or stand like cut-outs with descriptors like “Tough English Teacher” or “My Quirky Grandma” taped to their cardboard chests. Yeah, I know teens see themselves as the center of the world.  And yeah, I know they like to read about kids their own age. But those are some seriously weak excuses. Adults exist! They really do! So start giving a fig about them. The advertising world has already decided that nobody older than 29 exists in America–do YA books have to be just as shortsighted?

2. First-person, present tense.

“I pull back the cover and feel a dark black darkness crushing my soul: it is yet another book written in first-person, present tense. But I read on because, wow, look — the protagonist and I are the same person, and what is happening is happening right now.

The obvious disclaimer here is that this is a totally legitimate way to write a book, and it can be done really, really, really well. But in most hands, it’s a gimmick. Quite simply, this is not the POV most books cry out for. And yet it has become the default position for YA authors who, I am afraid, fear fiction’s standard bearer: third-person, past tense. True, this cobwebby old soldier requires a bit more discipline than the plug-and-play thrills of first-person-present, but I’d love to see more authors up for the heavy lifting.

3. Prose poetry.

If there is no reason

to write your novel like a poem,

then why

would you do it?

Other than the obvious —

taking up page space

beautiful, beautiful page space

and looking oh so serious —

but that can’t be it.

Can it?

I really "get" Carter.
I really “get” Carter.

4. Male romantic leads.

I understand the satisfaction that comes from romance novels. I enjoy them. But we’re entering a weird phase here where two out of three YA novels — whether realistic, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, western, or disease-of-the-week — is really a costume dress (Victorian or flapper or ragged dystopian style, your choice) draped over a by-the-numbers romance. I’m willing to deal with this. But does every single male romantic lead have to be the same?

You know this guy. He’s rugged, well muscled, kind of tall, has green (or gray) eyes “like the sea,” is courageous, and tends to be prone to moody silences. But don’t worry, these moody silences are related to some self-sacrifice he is making on behalf of the girl’s safety, which basically means his only fault is that he loves too much. You read that right: He loves too much. Good lord. Please, somebody write me a few dozen books where the male lead is a loud, sex-crazed, motormouthed optimist. Such characters do exist (my current favorite is Carter from Brent Crawford’s Carter Finally Gets It and sequels), but they tend to show up only in comedies. Don’t they deserve love, too?

[Female flip-side: My favorite female character of the year was Very from Rachel Cohn’s Very LeFreak, an unapologetically fun-loving sexpot. Notice how these traits are usually relegated to the wacky friend?]

Aldous, aka “Mr. Popular.”

5. Brave New Worlds

It’s obvious why YA authors latch on to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His themes of identity and homogenization are perfect for kids coming out of the grinder of elementary, middle, and high school. No doubt teens like to imagine “Wouldn’t it be weird if we were all grouped by ____” or “What if, in the future, all the ____ people were put here and all the ____ people were put there?” and so on. And these books were fun to read, for a while. Honest they were.

But I believe it is time to move on. There are other authors besides Huxley who can provide the inspiration for your dystopian fantasy. Try Heinlein. Try Bradbury. It might not end up dystopian, or even fantasy, but, hey, that’s even better news, right?  (Just whatever you do, don’t fall back on poor old Jane Austen.)

6. Vampires, Half-Vampires, Werewolves, Were-Anythings, Fallen Angels, Dark Angels, Fairies, Faeries, Faeiraes, and Fyeiryes.

I tried to avoid this one but couldn’t. If I see another black/red/white cover, or an emotional single-word title like Anguish, I’m gonna cry.

Nice haircut, kid.

7. The Bowker’s Newsletter guy

Could Bowker’s Books in Print please get rid of this front-page ad? I’m on the verge on tracking down this model and strangling him and that’s not cool because he’s probably a very nice guy. Okay, this has nothing to do with YA books, but, look, I really feel strongly about this issue.

P.S. I plan to love a bunch of novels in 2011 that fly right in the face of all that I’ve written here. Therein lies the power of a good writer.


Bonus feature:

Things I’m Not Sick of . . . Yet

1. Zombies. You’re pushing it, zombie authors, but since zombies tend to be more of an abstract threat that acts as catalyst to plot, I’m going to give you a pass this year. Enjoy it.

2. Historical Cameos. When did this become such a thing? I can’t count on one hand the number of recent historical fiction novels that featured a surprise walk-on from Nikola Tesla. For the most part, I’m still amused by these, but easy does it now.

3. Long books. I know there has been a fair amount of complaining about the swelling page counts of YA fiction, but I’m a sucker for an epic — provided that those extra few hundred pages aren’t spent describing which powers of one teen block out the powers of another teen unless a third teen’s powers are . . . sorry, I just fell asleep in my drool.



About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

28 Comments on "My 2011 YA Wishlist"

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  1.' Marcus says:

    I love it when adults and YA gatekeepers complain about girl faces on covers and single word titles and urban fantasy and anything else that’s really big in YA lit. But, ya know, I’m guessing these things are prevalent because they sell. Apparently, the teens aren’t sick of the girl faces and single word titles and urban fantasy and everything else adults bellyache about. Now, if you want to go about explaining to teens that they’re WRONG to like these things, be my guest. But what good does it do to complain about the motifs you’re sick of and don’t want to see any more of when you are not the target audience? And when it’s obvious the target audience DOES NOT share that opinion. Trust me, when the teens get sick of it, they’ll let the publishers know because they’ll stop buying the books. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. Complaining only wastes time and most often comes off as “Look at how much YA I read; I can easily identify all the latest trends.” Yeesh.

  2.' Callista says:

    I totally agree with number 6!!

  3.' Alyce says:

    I loved this post! Fortunately I don’t agree with number 5 (because there are so many dystopian books being churned out right now and I can’t get enough of them). I was glad to see your postscript though. 🙂

  4. Daniel Kraus says:

    It’s chicken-or-egg, Marcus. Kids also consume what they are sold, while those with different appetites get marginalized. Seems like we need more minority voices, not fewer. It is also true that this is not a post about how publishers can maximize profits.

  5.' Stephanie McDonnell says:

    This was so encouraging for me to read this morning. My current manuscript doesn’t fall into any of this stuff. Score! Nic is definitely foul-mouthed, goes into detail about his sex life, and is a total arrogant, egotistical optimist!

  6.' Katie says:

    I am so with you on #1. A lot of the YA books I really love tend to be the ones with well-realized adult characters. When you’re a teenager, adults are still a big part of your world, and I always feel weird when they’re missing from fiction.

    And I’m not sick of long books either. As long as they’re not about sparkly vampires, I’m happy to read hundreds of pages.

    This was a great post, I hope at least some of your wishes come true!

  7.' LibraryLady says:

    I agree with most of your peeves! I feel guilty putting a YA book back on the shelf solely because when I open it, I find that it is written in verse, but I just can’t stand reading those. And first person, present tense–all of the “how to write” guides say very clearly that this is generally NOT the best choice. The cardboard cut out adults and male romantic leads do also get a bit old. I confess, I do still love urban fantasy stuff though! I can’t get enough of it in YA or adult books, although I agree with Katie, it helps if they aren’t about sparkly vampires.

  8.' sue corbett says:

    amen, brother. where is the “like” button so I can post this on facebook? and let me add one more: not every book needs to be a trilogy. A satisfying story told in one volume has become my very favorite kind.

  9.' Terri Kirk says:

    #1 is why I love Deb Caletti books. The adults in her books are never perfect but the mom characters love their kids like “real” moms do. As a high school librarian I find non-readers like #3 and it sometimes convinces them to try to read other books. Everything has a place, I suppose. Thanks for a wonderful post!

  10.' Superlibrarian 53 says:

    Oh yes. I am so sick of reading the same thing over and over. So few of the books are going to last and you really have to dig to find those that the kids will read…Vampires, pah! I am so thankful for the community of librarians that share the good books out there! And, how can kids afford all these books? Gracious…we can’t with a budget!

  11.' Meghan says:

    Regarding #4, Male Romantic Leads–like the example you give of the female roles in these, the loud mouthed guy is usually the sidekick. It’s very popular in manga and Asian television to give the loudmouth sidekick the unrequited love. He’s loud and obnoxious but also very sincere, and the audience roots for him, only to see him lose. While it would be interesting and new to see him win for once, I almost enjoy the tragedy too much to let it go. ^_^

  12.' Cordelia Lynn says:

    I enjoyed this post immensely. I’m a huge fan of the Twilight series and Maggie Stiefvater’s books Shiver and Linger, but I’m getting tired of the vamps and wolves. It’s just getting old.

  13. Regarding Number 3: I know some people aren’t fans of verse novels. But as an author of books in this format, I do choose to write in that format for a reason. For me, it’s about creating an atmosphere for the story that I can’t create with regular prose, as well as getting at the emotional core of a story.

    And I think it’s important to note that many teens, who usually hate to read, love verse novels. I get at least three e-mails a week from teens who say something like the following one, always telling me how they usually hate to read. I received this note just today:

    “I am fifteen years old and I have read two of your books I Heart You, You Haunt Me and Chasing Brooklyn. To be honest I hate reading, but I love these two books! I read I Heart You, You Haunt Me five times. I wish there was more books like these two! Are you planing on writting anymore books like these two?”

    Reluctant readers need to have books on the shelves that they like too!!

  14. davidlubar@gmail.cim' David Lubar says:

    Nice list. I especially applaud #2. (I would love to tell you how much I agree with #3, but I I can’t risk annoying all my poet friends, so I’m hiding my glee in parentheses, which they’ll skim right past in search of the next line break.) Thanks for going easy on the zombies.

  15. Daniel Kraus says:

    Mr. Lubar, sir, that is funny.

  16. YES! Thank you for getting to the real issue–The Bowker Newsletter dude’s HAIR. What I wouldn’t give for a nice buzz cut, or even a tasteful fohawk.
    Now #2 and #3? Nope. Still want more.

  17.' Susan says:

    Hilarious! And I have to agree with the commenter who said that not everything needs to be a trilogy. There are hardly any stand-alone novels anymore!

  18. As a verse novelist, I find certain stories can’t be told any other way. I used to teach my students poetry should be seen and heard –there’s a visual component to verse novels that is part of the storyline. Rhythm, structure, and imagery uniquely build the story in a way prose can’t.

    Imagine OUT OF THE DUST written as prose. The story would lose its terse, bleak feel so important to the story.

  19.' Heather says:

    Maybe the problem with verse novels is that they’re labeled novels? I know that I have such a strong inherent expectation for novels to be in prose that I’m immediately turned off by the tag “verse novel” no matter how good a particular book might be (I ended up loving OUT OF THE DUST when I read it in high school, but it was only my respect for the Newbery medal that made me pick it up). If I want to read verse, I look in the poetry section. Verse novels might arouse less instinctive animosity if they were given their own section, like manga.

  20. Daniel Kraus says:

    The jokesters at Booklist get the last laugh. Found this taped to my door this morning:

  21.' irisibis says:

    verse novels are not poetry but spring from the novelistic tradition thus don’t need to adhere to poetic conventions, nor are they only appreciated by ‘reluctant’ readers but have a truth to their own nature and reason for existing in their own write (what they need is what all good fiction requires – believable characters and a plot that will pull you through…)

  22.' Lois says:

    I’m going to have to check out Carter Finally Gets It. That sounds interesting. I’m tired of the same old same old too.

  23.' R.J. London says:

    If you would like to read a book about the youth and their technology changing the real world try The Consortium (Kindle and Nook). It doesn’t incorporate one thing from your list and there is not anything even close to a vampire in it. But it is very now and very near future.

    Will be in print in a few weeks:)

  24.' Erin Forson says:

    I must admit that while personally I agree with nearly every point (although I adore first- person, present-tense novels), and especially applaud your criticism of the Bowker Boy’s Fashion Felony, I have to be thankful for the “gateway” books that are getting kids reading. Perhaps they will never move on to the proverbial “better” classics, but are they literate? Are they enthusiastic and curious about words? Also, I would like to thank the authors who took time to share their voices here…write on!

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