If you’ve been a bookstore recently, there’s one thing you’re sure to have noticed. Young adult literature is on the rise. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, made waves when it topped the New York Times Bestseller list for 40 weeks, and it’s not alone. The Divergent series by Veronica Roth occupied spots 1-4 (one spot for each book, and another for the boxed set). Young adult is taking over our theatres as well, with the movies like Divergent and The Hunger Games showing true staying power, appealing to teenagers and adults.
It’s an invasion.
At New York City Teen Author Festival, young adult authors came together to discuss what makes writing young adult amazing, and their thoughts on the genre. The event lasted from Monday, when we kicked off the talks with a discussion on utilizing science and technology, and ended on Sunday when over sixty authors sat down for a mass book signing at Books of Wonder, where they showed their appreciation for the people who read and love their books.
During this week, authors shared the writings of their youth, explored the thrill of writing about first love, and tackled the tough topic of writing about grief and loss. While no two books were the same, authors were able to find common ground, sharing how difficult it was sometimes to write about the tougher aspects.
Through all of the topics that were discussed, and across every question and answer segment, authors expressed the things that made young adult literature great.
So, what does it take to make great young adult literature?
There was an undercurrent of humor at every event. Even when authors made us cry at the grief panel, they always created a moment of lightness. At the panel on forcing characters to undergo adversity, the authors found constant opportunities to crack jokes.
The crucial aspect of this humor though, was that even when they involved funny situations surrounding the characters, they never were at the expense of the emotions of being a teenager. Libba Bray presented at the Rock and Revelry event, reading a part of The Diviners series. Even though she portrays her character humorously and doesn’t take herself too seriously, Bray touches on real emotions and shows respect for her characters and their feelings.
Though authors were happy to share some of their humorous pitfalls during their own adolescence, and admitted that teenagers were not always the gold standard of quality decision-making, every single writer believed that good Young Adult writing comes from a place of understanding and respect.
Stephen Chbosky, author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, discussed the process of emotionally returning to that life period, and remembering when a crush wasn’t simply a cute thing, but an incredible emotion that could lift you up or destroy you. Likewise Courtney Stevens, author Faking Normal, shared about the respect necessary to tackle the truly difficult topics. In her novel, her character has lost a great deal, and to deal with the truth of that, she had to show respect for the topic.
This was likewise iterated whenever authors were talking about writing outside of their own personal experience. Understanding that the story was real to someone and being reflective of that, helped authors to express the stories they were conveying with respect.
Authors also agreed that having respect for your target audience and not trying to ‘teach’ the lessons you want them to learn is crucial to creating an enjoyable piece.
With the authors of Eleanor and Park, If I Stay, and Two Boys Kissing around…of course kissing was going to be on the agenda. In detail and with adequate amounts of giggling. One of the many topics that was discussed was whether or not there was a line that adult authors couldn’t cross when discussing love and romance between teenagers.
The overwhelming answer was: No. At the panel on writing about teenagers in love, Gayle Forman stated that she doesn’t think of the process as writing for teenagers, but instead writes the story that needs to be told, an opinion echoed by many other authors. The most important part, it was unanimously agreed, was writing about love and sex honestly.
When writing The Infinite Moment of Us, Lauren Myracle said that she had to push through whenever she found a moment that made her want to pull back, because that’s the only way to write about teenagers in love. She argued that it was important not only to capture the beauty of first love, but also the awkwardness and uncertainty.
Authors also argued that besides romantic love, it was important to genuinely love your own characters. Rainbow Rowell discussed the process of writing her characters and falling in love with them. While anyone who has read her books would argue that that’s easy given how fantastic her characters are, Rainbow argued that her characters were fantastic because she loved them.
But in every work, the issue of authenticity was brought up. Teenagers are old enough to know when they’re being lied to, and while books cover fictional events, they need to have the ring of authenticity to them. This is perhaps best exhibited when discussing the books that are the furthest from ‘truth’ but are required to possess the same authenticity.
At the science and technology panel, authors discussed the role science and research played in creating the worlds they wrote in. While there were huge variances in the topics covered, authors agreed that for them authenticity wasn’t about creating something scientifically possible, but rather demonstrating something true through the story.
Uncrashable Dakota, by Andy Marino, is about an alternate history, where airships have been discovered. Obviously, this is untrue, but the emotions exhibited by the characters to this technology are authentic. The trick, it seems, is not holding back, and if the situation calls for uncomfortable emotions, plunge in. Lev Grossman, author of The Magician’s trilogy added that he always thought it was strange that none of the characters in urban fantasy had read any fantasy. Thinking about this very true and authentic fact allowed him to create the self-aware fantasy world of his books.
Ultimately whether you’re writing about first love, endangered chimps, or airships, remembering to show authenticity, respect, and love for your characters, your story, and your audience is what is going to make a young adult novel great. Oh, and don’t forget to throw some lightheartedness in as well. After all, it’s not all doom and gloom.