With all the books like, “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” the Young Adult Genre has been rediscovered by all ages of readers. I didn’t know much about this genre, so I figured the best way for me to learn was to ask some authors in this genre. Once again, it turned into a round table discussion with Beth Kephart, Elizabeth Mosier, Siobhan Vivian, and Melissa Walker.
Wittle: Who do you feel are the most influential writers in young adult literature today?
Kephart: Well, I am just going to have to preface this entire response sequence with three words: present company excluded. Because I happen to think the world of my co-panelists.
Everyone has different definitions of “influence.” If the question is, which YA writers are inspiring the greatest readership of YA books, then you absolutely have to point to writers like John Green, Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jay Asher, Libba Bray, Jack Gantos, Markus Zusak, Maggie Stiefvater, and other powerhouse authors whose books hit the bestseller lists upon publication and are readily embraced by younger and older readers alike. Not only that, but some of these authors are just plain good at what they do. While I wish that John Green would vary his characters just a little bit, for example (the sound of their voices, the way they speak) I was one of the many who cried my way through Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. And I adore what John Green does for kids, how he empowers “nerds,” how he makes books cool. Maggie Stiefvater is terrific in her own right—so multiply talented, so artistically inclined. Laurie Halse Anderson and Jay Asher have made it okay to talk about anorexia and date rape and suicide—not by sensationalizing the topics, but by artfully exploring them. Libba Bray and Jack Gantos have made quirky not just all right but popular. And I don’t have to say anything about the phenom Markus Zusak and his international sensation, The Book Thief. Anyone who reads me or my blog knows just how extraordinary I think he is.
There are other kinds of influences, of course. Ruta Sepetys with Between Shades of Gray, has demonstrated just how powerful and popular historical fiction can be, even if the topic (a Stalinist purge) is difficult. Ruta’s book also hit the bestseller list, by the way, on the week of its publication. Patricia McCormick has proven that very sensitive topics like cutting and the teenage sex trade can be addressed for younger readers—with huge literary style. Gary D. Schmidt with books like Okay for Now (which is for a slightly younger audience, but still…) reminds us how good good old-fashioned can be. A.S. King has shown us how wonderful and smart wacky can be. Thanhha Lai once again proves the power of a story told in prose poetry with Inside Out & Back Again. The list goes on—there are many fine writers that I am not naming here. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be working within this genre. I’ve written about all these books on my blog, by the way, as well as the beautiful books of my co-panelists.
Mosier: I’m in the midst of a residency at Radnor Middle School, teaching 7th graders to write narrative essays about the books that have changed them as readers, as writers, as people. It’s the rare kid among these newly minted teens who isn’t reading Suzanne Collins or some other author of dystopian fiction. Though there is much controversy about whether or not teenagers should be reading fiction that is by nature alarming and often depressing, my students tell me these books give them hope. The fictional characters’ problems aren’t their problems, and yet they can work out their real anxieties within this fictional landscape. But perhaps most hopeful of all—and true of any YA novel—is the fact that these teenage protagonists act as agents in their own lives and solve problems themselves—often the problems created by adults.
Vivian: I am in love with Maggie Steivfater’s The Scorpio Races. I think it’s such an interesting book, and one that only she could have written. It’s got it all—action, adventure, a romantic element—and yet it’s unlike anything else out there. I’m quite excited for her newest, The Raven Boys, which comes out this fall.
Walker: In terms of being widely read and reshaping the conversation, I think John Green and David Levithan have a really positive influence. I’d also be remiss not to mention Sarah Dessen, who keeps Contemporary at top of mind even when the shelves are filled with dystopias and otherworldly fare.
Wittle: Who or what influences you to write in this genre?
Kephart: The teen readers themselves. I meet them in stores. I correspond with them through my blog. I teach them. They are smart, beautiful, alive, yearning, and I try to live up to their hopes for the books I write. I am equally inspired by the large number of adults who have decided to read my YA books and to talk to me about their own pasts, their once-ago dreams. This is a very vocal and loving readership.
Mosier: I read Lord of the Flies, a dark novel about a group of stranded English schoolboys who create a hierarchical, violent society, when I was thirteen. The book confirmed what I knew from direct observation in seventh grade: that childhood is not all sweetness and light. The book both frightened and comforted me because I sensed that William Golding knew (and wrote) the truth about human nature and the pressure of context on behavior. Now, when I write for teenagers, this book sits on my shoulder, checking to make sure I’m not condescending to my reader or romanticizing what I remember to be a very complicated time of life.
Vivian: I’m always influenced by the stories of real girls that I find online…newspaper articles, blog posts, stuff like that. They are usually written from an adult perspective, and I like giving a voice to their side of the experience.
Walker: My inner voice is set solidly at 17, and it has been since I was 10. It’s that voice I hear when I’m writing, and trying on other ages or situations never seems to flow for me. I love the teenage years–highest highs, lowest lows, so many truly meaningful firsts. It’s a time that is full of emotion and passion and everyone’s experience is universal and incredibly unique all at once.
Wittle: Discuss briefly your book writing process.
Kephart: My goodness. I’m not sure I can be brief. Or, I am trying to think of ways to be brief. I have written YA novels that take place in the past (during the 1876 Centennial, for example, or in 1871 Philadelphia), books that take place in foreign places such as Juarez, Spain, and Berlin, books that are told in the past tense, books that are told in present tense, first-person books, third-person books, books with dual narrators, books that feature girls, books that feature boys. My process, then, is simple: I have no idea what I am doing or going to do every time I sit down to write a book. I have to figure it out, step by step, and every single time it feels as if I have never done this before. And like doing it at all will be impossible.
Mosier: I write line by line and read over what I’ve written before I continue which, for a novelist, is like dancing en pointe through a marathon. Don’t try this at home! The habit of condensing is ingrained in me from writing short stories, and it’s hard to shake for drafting in longer form. I do outline, but usually only loosely; I have a series of pictures in my head that I connect with words, one following another like panels in a cartoon strip. I grew up reading comic strips, including book-length compilations of Peanuts by Charles Schulz—and from those cartoons I learned to structure a narrative: how to set up a conflict and how to increase tension toward a punch line. But the YA novel I recently finished, Ghost Signs, is a mystery with a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story until the last scene—and so I had to plan the book pretty meticulously, with time lines and plot graphs that looked more like notes for Trigonometry than for a novel.
Vivian: It is a gut-wrenching exercise. I am filled with self-doubt and insecurity the whole way through. However, I am buoyed by moments joy when something small feels like it is working, and usually there are enough of those to see me through to the end.
Tune in Friday when we continue this discussion.
About the Authors:
Beth Kephart’s seventh YA novel,SMALL DAMAGES, due out in July, has received starred reviews and early acclaim. She blogs at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.
Elizabeth Mosier is the author of The Playgroup, part of GemmaMedia’s “Open Door” series to promote adult literacy, and My Life As a Girl (Random House). Find Elizabeth at www.ElizabethMosier.com
SIOBHAN VIVIAN is the author of THE LIST, which has received stars from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Her other novels include NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, SAME DIFFERENCE, and A LITTLE FRIENDLY ADVICE. For more on Siobhan, go to www.siobhanvivian.com
Melissa Walker is a Carolina girl who lives in Brooklyn. She’s a former magazine editor turned Young Adult author, and the co-founder of iheartdaily.com. Her latest novel is Unbreak My Heart. For more information on Melissa, go to http://www.melissacwalker.com and http://www.iheartdaily.com