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The State of the YA Novel: 2017

 

This article, the last in our series celebrating #50YearsofYA, originally appeared in the December 1 issue of Booklist.

 

 

 

After countless interviews, features, guest essays, live events, and more, Booklist’s yearlong 50 Years of YA celebration is drawing to an end. But before we hand out diplomas, let’s convene a roundtable on what’s happening right now in YA—and what might happen in the future. In attendance are Leigh Bardugo (The Language of Thorns, 2017); Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion, 2017); and Shaun David Hutchinson (The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, 2018).

From left to right: Leigh Bardugo, Brandy Colbert, Sean David Hutchinson

 

DANIEL KRAUS: Tell me about a recent read that surprised you.

SHAUN DAVID HUTCHINSON: Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species (2016) surprised me in the best possible way. The protagonist, Alex, is essentially an unapologetic serial killer who kills men who hurt women. I know there’s a long way to go, but it feels like a step toward allowing female characters the same kinds of flaws male characters in YA have been allowed to have, and I’m totally here for it.

LEIGH BARDUGO: I’ve talked a lot about Shadowhouse Fall (2017), Daniel José Older’s sequel to Shadowshaper (2015), but I’m going to keep talking about it because this book uses fantasy and magic to bust open everything from police shootings to gentrification. It isn’t just an issue book or just an adventure, and I was surprised at the way it tore down the whole idea of fantasy as metaphor and made the connections to our world explicit.

BRANDY COLBERT: “Unlikable” female characters are at the top of my list when choosing books, and two of my recent favorites are Nina, from Elana K. Arnold’s What Girls Are Made Of (2017), and Julia, from Erika L. Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017). But the most surprising book I read this year was Allegedly (2017), by Tiffany D. Jackson. I think black authors often feel the need to portray their main characters in a positive light, despite their circumstances. This is not that book. It’s the type of novel that made me say “oh my god” out loud, and that’s my favorite kind of story.

 

This is particularly refreshing to see in YA, where being “good at heart” seems so often prized. Not by teens, mind you, but by adults helping decide what teens should read.

BARDUGO: Critics often wonder why so many adults have turned to YA, and they usually come up with some inane, infantilizing argument about prolonged adolescence and the death of culture. But the simple answer is that readers want stories in which they get to fall in love, go on adventures, make bad choices, and even endure terrible trials, but that don’t leave them feeling crapped on by the narrative.

HUTCHINSON: I generally avoid any adult literary fiction that features gay characters because I know they’re either going to wind up the victim of a hate crime or with HIV or miserable and alone; they become the object lesson of the story or the death that motivates the protagonist to action. YA offers so much more, and I appreciate it immensely.

COLBERT: My biggest issue with this concern over what teens are reading is that these adult gatekeepers are essentially ignoring that actual adolescents are dealing with these issues, and saying their stories are inappropriate is a slap in the face to the very teens whose voices we’re trying to amplify.

 

What did you see this year that might point to future directions in YA?

HUTCHINSON: I’ve actually been really surprised that there hasn’t been any single trend that’s dominated the shelves. One thing I noticed very recently while reading Libba Bray’s Before the Devil Breaks You (2017) is that it felt like the first time I could see the influence of the 2016 election in a book. The anger and the pushback were incredibly palpable, and I expect we’ll probably see a lot more of that in the near future.

COLBERT: I haven’t read Before the Devil Breaks You, but I have noticed more authors—mostly white authors—talking about being influenced by the election and making their work more political going forward. I wonder if it’s a trend that will continue down the road. I think there’s a sense among authors of color writing books about teens of color that our work has always been inherently political, and so I’m not sure if I can see any direct effects of the election in that realm.

 

I just read an article that interviewed 12 agents and editors who basically agree that there’s no discernible YA trend right now. Some cop to knowing that, 10 years ago, they could publish nearly anything as “paranormal” and it would sell—and because of that sure thing, they could take on riskier projects.

HUTCHINSON: And that’s what I like. I just finished E. K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing (2017), which I loved, but I kept wondering how in the world Emily convinced her editor to publish it. It’s such a wonderfully weird premise that I can imagine the sales and marketing team just having no idea what to do with it. But those are the kinds of books I want to see more of. Does every book need to be a blockbuster in order to be successful?

BARDUGO: I like the idea of publishing having tent-pole books the way that Hollywood has tent-pole movies. But acquiring a “risky” book is not the same as actually backing it and helping it find an audience. And if those books didn’t break out, did they serve to build a platform for the author’s next book and the book after that? I think that also speaks to the issue of what constitutes success. Sometimes it’s not as simple as a book earning out or hitting the list.

 

I know someone who is one of the most praised, award-winning YA authors out there, and she struggles to put food on the table while cranking out a book a year. If I could urge publishers to do one thing, it would be to support those who do consistent, strong work.

COLBERT: That’s been one of the biggest disappointments for me to see in publishing—solid, strong work that’s being ignored in favor of flashy, high-figure deals and novels that are likely ghostwritten.

HUTCHINSON: Why are publishers paying six figures for debuts? I’ve spent the last eight years constantly redefining what success means to me. I’ve talked sales numbers with authors whose sales numbers disappointed their publishers but that I would have been ecstatic to have. I hate talking to authors whose books are ignored by their publishers. There’s such a feeling of hopelessness there, and it makes me wonder why publishers acquire books like that at all.

 

What would you like the state of YA to be in 2018—or, less optimistically, in 2028?

Nicola Yoon

COLBERT: What I’d like to see is real inclusion in contemporary realistic novels. I was hoping Nicola Yoon’s well-earned success would spur the support of more romance-driven novels by and about black characters, and yet I’m having trouble thinking of some that have been pushed in the last couple of years. I wonder if we aren’t seeing more of those stories because publishers don’t know what to do with them.

HUTCHINSON: I’d love to start seeing real inclusivity within diverse groups. I’m thrilled with the books featuring gay characters out there, but I want to see someone other than gay white boys in books. I want to see a gay teen struggling with a religion other than Christianity. I want to see queer teens from loads of different backgrounds. I guess I’m selfish that way because I want it all.

BARDUGO: It’s completely out of our hands, but I’d also like to see a change in the way that people outside of YA talk about YA. At some point, I hope we won’t have to keep seeing the same snide hot takes used to undermine YA readers and authors. YA keeps changing—it keeps challenging itself, expanding, demanding more of its stories. And yet, the narrative surrounding the work never seems to catch up.

 

Can each of you talk specifically about a genre and how it might grow within YA?

HUTCHINSON: To me, sci-fi as a genre has limitless storytelling potential and also serves as a fantastic way to explore topical issues in interesting ways. I think, of course, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff had a wonderfully unique idea with the Illuminae Files series. I also loved Marie Lu’s newest, Warcross (2017). The series I’m most excited about right now has to be Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe series. I’d like to see YA stop tiptoeing around sci-fi and make it as popular as YA fantasy is.

COLBERT: I’m a contemporary realistic reader for life. I want to see more characters of color living in predominantly white towns and dealing with all the micro-aggressions that can bring; I related to that so much in Akemi Dawn Bowman’s beautiful debut, Starfish (2017). Finally, as I was telling a friend the other day, I’m desperate to see more white writers exploring whiteness in their work. There’s an ingrained notion that “race” only means “nonwhite,” and that’s simply not true.

BARDUGO: I’m thrilled to see more authors diving into secondary-world fantasy. I’m thinking particularly of Sabaa Tahir and Rin Chupeco, and also the new work we’ll be seeing from Dhonielle Clayton, Zoraida Cordova, and Alex London. What I love best about so much of the new work I’m seeing is that, yes, it’s gritty and grounded and thoughtful, but it also doesn’t scrimp on the wish fulfillment. I want new magic and romance. I want tormented heroes and brilliant villains, decadent feasts, spectacular clothes, mystical quests. I think all of that has real impact when it comes to the conversation about diversity and inclusion. Kids seeing themselves in these kinds of power narratives can have a huge impact on the way they feel about themselves when they put those books down.

 

If I may, I think there’s an opening in YA for the subgenre of “body horror.” Body horror is often plumbed for metaphors about old age and disease, but why not about puberty and coming-of-age?

HUTCHINSON: When I was a teenager, I was already convinced my body was a horror.

BARDUGO: And now I have that awful John Mayer song in my head. Now that’s horror.

COLBERT: I looked up “body horror,” and now I need to scrub my eyeballs, but if anyone tackled that in YA, I’d want a cowritten book by you and Stephanie Kuehn, Daniel.

HUTCHINSON: What editor do I need to bribe for that book?

KRAUS: Aw, you know how to make a guy feel special. Or at least especially disgusting.

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus was 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.

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