Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Criticism and censorshop (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

As I write this, we’re about 2/3 of the way through the month, and I’m seeing a pattern in these posts. Overwhelmingly, when we talk about “criticism of YA books,” it seems the main criticism is that the books are too edgy, with a side helping of condescension about YA books being lesser forms of literature.

I used to get upset when opinion pieces featuring these viewpoints would appear in major media outlets (many of them written, inexplicably, by people who seemed unfamiliar with actual current YA literature). But it didn’t take long before I stopped caring. Now every time distress over such an op-ed sweeps through my Twitter stream, I don’t even bother to click the link.

As for the censorship that sometimes grows from such criticism, I keep trying to understand it. I can still hardly believe that of all the real-life problems teenagers face—drugs, bullying, disease, poverty, war, bigotry, the difficulty of getting an education, and on and on—censors will focus on a book as the serious threat that requires their energy, attention, and action. It’s difficult enough getting books into kids’ hands; why should we be trying to take them out?

My current thinking is this: All those dangers I mentioned are big and scary and overwhelming. People don’t know how to keep their kids safe from them all, because it is simply not possible. Life is full of risk and trouble. But a book is a concrete thing. Banning a book is a concrete action that is easily achievable (sadly, I have heard of too many cases in which a single complaining adult—or even the fear of a potential complaint someday—has kept books off shelves). It gives the illusion that an adult has done something to “keep children safe.” In such situations, books stand in for the real dangers that are still out there in the world.

For me, books have always been the opposite: they have been my armor and my tools in facing those real-world dangers. This was especially so in my childhood and my teen years. It’s one reason I have spent so much of my adulthood writing for this age group.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

It's Good For You (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I've spent a lot of time in the children's/YA world.

I've formally studied the history of women, children, and families.

I've worked as a youth services librarian.

I had a brief stint in children's and YA literary criticism in grad school. (Which is why the name of this topic has confused me all  month. I keep having to remind myself that we're talking about the criticisms people direct at YA, not literary criticism, which is something entirely different.)

Most recently, I've been in this world as an author.

Through it all, I've noticed one thing. No matter our professional role, we all want these books to be good for children and teens. Within that, we may have very different ideas of what is good for them: sex/no sex; profanity/no profanity; risky behavior/no risky behavior; drugs and alcohol/no drugs and alcohol, etc., etc., etc.

At the back of any discussion of YA, if you dig deep enough, is this idea that the books should be good for their target audience. We mostly try to deny this urge to give young people books that are good for them. But it's there. Even when the thing we think is good for them is exposure to a lot of bad things. So maybe that's my criticism of the YA world, as a librarian/critic/author. Sometimes we're not very self-aware about the fact that the book banners and the parents doing the challenging aren't the only ones who want the books to be good for the kids. (Note: I don't think it's really a bad thing to want the books we write and share to be good for readers. I can't imagine any of us want our books to be bad for readers. I just get the sense that in the adult lit world, there's less overall stress about whether the books are good for you or bad for you. I could be wrong.)

Now, to get around to Personal Criticisms I Have Heard. I did something very silly and wrote a YA historical set in the Anglo-Cherokee War (You've heard of that, right?) called The Last Sister. And I got a lot of criticism of the why-did-you-even-do-that-are-you-stupid? variety. This mainly from people who were trying to sell it.

I will be honest with you: that book polls really well with adults. Even so, one reviewer did question why there was so much romance in Serious Historical Novel. (Harrumph! Didn't I know history is all about wars and politicians and Important Man Things, not girls who go around crushing on every grungy backwoodsman who crosses their path?)

I suspect it's because we think history is good for us, which it can be. The Last Sister has even been accused of being (horrors!) educational. But isn't every good book (I flatter myself that it's a good book) educational?

Anyway, I didn't write it with education or history or really any other good-for-you thing in mind. I wrote it because I had a story I wanted to tell, which, I've discovered, is the only way I can write at all. I can't really write when I have Something To Say. I can write only when I have a Story To Tell, and the choices I make in telling that story (sex/no sex; profanity/no profanity; risky behavior/no risky behavior; drugs and alcohol/no drugs and alcohol, etc., etc., etc.) are a function of the story itself and the choices that are right for those characters, in that book, at that time. Also, I write historical fiction because I am sneaky enough to know that people don't always recognize historical curse words or risky behavior. Alas, people always recognize sex.

Last year, I released a digital holiday short story called "The Quickening." It features characters from The Last Sister and deals with 18th century pregnancy termination. I was not trying to make a statement about being pro-life or pro-choice. I was living with the characters in that place, in that time, with their situation and the decisions they were making. I honestly didn't even know what the major conflict in the story would be until I was well into writing it.

So far, I have not received any criticism for that story, probably because very few people read it.

I feel I have strayed from the original topic, but here is something to think about, something from my formal historian/critic days.

As adults, we occupy a privileged space. Adult privilege is a thing, as any child or teen will tell you. While there have been a precious few children and teen authors, for the most part, adults are writing for young people, and in the process, deciding what's available for them to read, all while working from our own definitions of what's "good for them."

So I try to just write stories, and not worry about whether the stories are good for you or not. I'd like that to be for the readers themselves to decide. And I can only write what I can write, anyway. Whether it turns out to be good for anyone is anyone's guess.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Your book was so cute -- Jen Doktorski

F***.  It’s happening again.
That’s what I’ve been thinking all month as I’ve been reading and enjoying everyone’s blog posts about criticism of the YA genre.

In high school I was the human litmus test for parent-approved activities. Whenever my friends asked if they could go to a party, or the mall, or anywhere that may or may not have had the potential for the kind of trouble teens tended to get in to, their parents always asked the same thing.
“Is Jen going?”

A “yes” answered earned them a stamp of approval.
In additional to being practically invisible, I was the good girl in high school. The Jiminy Cricket on my friends’ shoulders who would reel things in before they got out of control. And now I fear too many of my high school experiences have crept into my characters and my writing. I have to say, I'm questioning, in a good way, whether or not I've been holding back instead pushing boundaries. 

I want some hate mail dammit. (That’s right, I said “dammit.”)
I want my books to be banned.

I want to get uninvited to a school visit due to explicit content in my novels.

I don’t want my books to be the good girls of YA fiction. It’s not what I intended. Granted, the first novel I wrote, Famous Last Words, which was the second one published, was all about a girl who was tired of being so straight edge. But in How My Summer Went up in Flames, the main character, Rosie, is served with a restraining order for setting her ex-boyfriend’s car on fire. She then goes on a road trip with three guys to stay out of trouble while she awaits her court date. Here’s some of the criticism I received about that novel.
I don’t believe her parents would let her travel cross country with three guys.
She was shopping at Macy’s? I thought her parents were having a tough time financially.
I don’t believe her parents would have let her keep her cell phone.
The worst one of all?
Your book was so cute.
Hello, people! She set her ex-boyfriend’s car on fire. On fire. Oh, and I’d like to add that she and her friend tried on sunglasses at Macy’s, they never purchased anything. Additionally, all the above criticism came from adults.
This month How My Summer Went up in Flames comes out in Hungary. Here’s a peek at the cover of the Hungarian edition.
I’m happy that Rosie, Matty, Logan, and Spencer will be introduced to a whole new audience. Maybe my writing will seem edgier in translation. If not, there’s always the next book.


Friday, July 22, 2016

"What Were You Thinking When You Wrote (fill in the blank)?" by Patty Blount

It's been four years since my first novel was published.

You'd think I'd be used to the criticism by now.

I'm not.

I simply stopped reading reviews.

Writing YA fiction is a privilege. I'm honored when teen readers tell me how much they connected to a character, or how deeply my words and stories touched them.

This is why I write.

But I also hear from parents and educators. And every once in a while, they're none too pleased with me.

There was one from a school librarian in the mid-west who told me SEND was exactly the sort of book she'd like her students to read but because it contains F-bombs, she could not, in good faith, stock it on her shelves. She apologized and then, in the next paragraph, wrote, "What were you thinking, filling a book meant for children with such profanity? And the sex! I would never get approval to stock this book on my shelves so I won't even bother submitting the request. Please consider writing cleaner books. "

I have this image of a woman clutching her pearls with one hand and churning the butter with the other.

I never wrote her back -- what would be the point?

So here's the reply to her and all others who seek to sensor what young adults read:

No. No, I will not write 'clean' books to satisfy some puritanical notions one small group thinks is right. 

I write the stories I write because I want readers to close my books and feel like someone understands them and the issues they're facing. When I was that age, I had one author I could count on -- Judy Blume. When I faced a devastating diagnosis at the age of twelve that almost sentenced me to live the next two years in a back brace, it was a Judy Blume novel that showed me this wasn't the life-ending ordeal I thought it would be. When I fell for a high school senior when I was in ninth grade, it was a Judy Blume book that convinced me I was NOT ready for sex yet...and lost the boy. (Thank goodness! for I ended up marrying his friend.)

I write because I have children. My children have friends. Through my children and their friends, I know what issues challenge teens -- suicide. Drug use. Sex. Abuse. Bullying. Divorce. Daredevil behavior. Drinking. Sports. 

As a parent, I want nothing more than to imagine my sons will forever remain the perfect newborns I brought into this world. But they can't. Living a satisfying life means they have to face and deal with all those challenges I just mentioned. I don't want them to hide from those things, pretending they don't exist, pretending that by turning away, they are somehow protected from them. No. No, I want them prepared. I want them armed and ready to not just face these issues, but to confront them head on and win. 

Have you ever said or done something wrong and said, "I didn't know! If I'd known, I never would have said (or done) that!" I have -- too many times to even count. If only I knew, I might have changed my behavior -- or not done something at all. 

I don't want my children faced with an unchangeable reality because they didn't know something I could have -- and should have -- explained to them. 

Like it or not, our children are facing some serious matters. Hiding them, shielding them does more harm than good. I won't be a part of that. 

You don't have to read my work. But please don't tell me how I should write it. 

I am proud of the work I've written so far and not because of the awards they've earned.... but because of the messages I get from readers. One told me she plans to be a crisis counselor after reading Some Boys. Another told me he stopped making fun of a classmate after reading Send.

That's the impact I care about.

So... to all the parents and teachers and adults who think books should be sanitized before they let a child read them, please consider reading my books WITH your children. This is the best way to share your wisdom, your beliefs, your morals with teens reading subject matter with which you have issues. I've done this with my sons when they were afraid about certain things.

Because the best way to stop being afraid of something, in my opinion, is to read about that scary thing in a book that shows characters fighting the same fight...and winning.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Profanity in YA (Alissa Grosso)

A couple of years ago I received an angry email from someone who had read one of my books. Here's the entire text of the email:

I enjoyed the premise of your book and found it interesting but could not read it because of the language.  Why did you think it was necessary to have such awful language? No need, in my opinion for the use of the \"f\" word! I skimmed so I could read the end but I could not and will not recommend this book to any of my friends or book club groups.  You are a talented author and I would really appreciate being able to read your next book.

Naturally, I took this email to heart, and never again included a shred of profanity in anything I wrote. Just kidding.

What made this email easy to dismiss, was the fact that it wasn't from my target demographic. At least so far, all of my published novels are YA, meaning the target audience is teens. I don't have a problem with grown-ups reading my book, but unless they are my agent or editor, I don't feel the criticisms of these grown-ups have much weight.

Now, that's not to say that all teens universally adore my books. They don't. That's cool. What is interesting is that so far I have not heard from any teens who were disgusted by the occasional profanity or were shocked and offended by the occasional reference to premarital sex. Those teens who didn't enjoy my books or who took issues with some portions of them had other concerns, some that I agree with, some that I don't, but that's for another discussion.

Today, it's time to talk about words. Now, I'm lucky in that my publisher, Flux, has never had a problem with the use of profanity in my books. I've heard of other authors with other publishing houses who have had to clean up some of the language in their books. What is and is not acceptable in YA varies from publishing house to publishing house, and can depend a lot on the target demographic. I've had middle school classrooms read my books, but some teachers worried about strong language might pass up titles with four-letter words, and publishing houses that are aware of this insist on cleaning up language to make the books more appealing to these teachers.

Though once again, this is an issue of adults having issues with the words. One figures that the students might not care so much.

I find our fear of and obsession with bad words a bit bizarre. I should point out that I grew up in New Jersey where the dialect might be a bit more colorful than it is in other parts of the country. We call athletic shoes sneakers not tennis shoes, we call our Pepsi soda and we've been known to sprinkle our sentences with words like fuck and shit and the like. So, maybe I don't entirely understand people who are shocked by these sorts of words.

I am so thankful that there isn't a rating system for books like the one that exists for movies. I'm not sure I entirely agree with having a ratings system at all, but I certainly I don't agree with the ratings system as it currently exists.

As an example, I want to use a movie that happened to be set in my home state, which I enjoyed called Win, Win.

What bothered me about the movie is that it received an R-rating, and I genuinely can't understand why. Yes, there were some of those scary words, but it was set in New Jersey, that's how we talk, goddamnit! There were some references to drug use, but it certainly wasn't glorified in any way - as it happens, the teenage protagonist has a troubled home life because of his mother's drug addiction. So, if anything, the drug references were cautionary in nature, which would seem like something you would want impressionable teenagers to be exposed to.

The double standard is that I have watched countless movies that received only a PG-13 rating, but which were riddled with violence. I'm talking about movies that had lots of people shooting and killing each other, which seems like something you might not want impressionable kids to see. It's hard to believe that according to the Motion Picture Association of America that hearing the word "fuck" spoken in a movie is somehow far worse than seeing a bunch of people shoot and kill each other.

Of course, it's not just the MPAA that's the problem, we have television news outlets that are extra cautious about bleeping out any "bad" words, but have no problem showing videos of actual people being murdered. I'm not talking about simulated film violence, here. I realize that not all news programs are guilty of this strange double standard, but the ones that do really disgust me.

Are there words that are damaging and disturbing? Of course there are, but, alas, many of these words are not words that get bleeped out on television or that are removed from books written for young people. Words that denigrate, spread hate or that are used to abuse others are pretty awful, but often the same people who get up in arms about the word "shit" in a YA novel don't make so much as a peep for words or phrases that spread hate.

If you write for teens, I encourage you to choose your words carefully and think about how they will affect your teen readers. Profanity shouldn't be used gratuitously, but if it suits the character, the story and the setting, by all means use it. Never forget that your audience is teenagers, and they value authenticity.

As for adult readers of YA, whether you are reading for pleasure or reading as a gatekeeper of one sort or another, remember that you are not the target audience for the book, and remember that profanity on its own is not an evil, corrupting thing. And, of course if you are tempted to write an email to a YA author after being shocked at finding such filthy language in her book, ask yourself, does she really give a flying fuck?

When not busy corrupting young people with foul language, Alissa Grosso spends her time hanging out with her boyfriend and her dog, making videos on YouTube and selling stuff on the internet. You can find out more about her and her profanity-laden (okay, they really aren't that bad) books at

Saturday, July 16, 2016

YA Books, Back Then, Were Not Dark (by Jody Casella)

Since I've been writing books and stories for teen readers I've gotten questions at conferences, at book signings, at schools, in my interactions with teachers and parents-- always adults ask these questions-- something along the lines of

Why are YA books so dark?

By "dark," they mean stories featuring sex, violence, depictions of drug and alcohol use, suicide, foul language

but also, depending on the particular adult, might mean stories that center around racism, homosexuality, any religion not Christianity, or books containing magic or witchcraft (I met a librarian in Florida who worked at a school where several parents in the community held a real-life book burning of Harry Potter books).

When I get the Why Are YA Books So Dark question, I usually ramble on about how there's a range of YA books out there and not all of them deal with stuff that makes adults uncomfortable, but I also try to put in a plug for these books, 

that I believe stories for teens are important, essential, even, at helping them navigate the world, that books are probably the safest place to explore complicated and controversial issues, that there's nothing in these books that kids haven't heard in the halls of school or seen in movies or on the internet or experienced through friends or in their own lives--

But often, as I am talking, I can see in their faces that these anxious, concerned adults

don't remember what it's like to be a teen.

Or they do, but are either willfully forgetting the trouble they got into, the idiot mistakes them made, or they stubbornly insist that times have changed. 

And not for the better. 

YA books, back then, were not dark. 

Not dark, anyway, like this:

A fifteen year old girl is new in town. Wanting to fit in, she starts taking drugs. She loses her virginity while high. Later in the book she runs away from home and is raped. In the end, she dies. 

Or this:

A girl meets a boy at a party. They fall in love and the relationship turns physical. The two have sex and it's fairly graphic. For example, the boy tells the girl the name he's given to his penis. Also, the girl's best friend is dating a boy who tries to hang himself. 

Or this: 

A girl's father dies and the grieving and financially-struggling family move into the mother's childhood home. The siblings live in the attic. The brother and sister have sex. The youngest sibling is poisoned to death. 

In case you're wondering these books are

Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks, published in 1971

Forever by Judy Blume, published in 1975

Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews, published in 1979

They were read by nearly everyone I knew (some of us reading the books multiple times), but weirdly, eventually, we forgot how we passed them around, how we poured over the descriptions, giggling or squirming uncomfortably, expressing shock or understanding at what we found in the pages, 

the flawed people, the neglectful and/or well-meaning but not-quite-getting-it parents, the stupid choices, the heartache, the fear, the love, the violence, the ridiculousness,

and then we grew up, and had our own children 

and freaked the hell out at what they were reading. 

*bonus points if you know the name of Michael's penis

Friday, July 8, 2016

Criticism in YA Can Come From Within--The Crit Squad by Kimberly Sabatini

All this month, on the YAOTL Blog, we are writing about criticism in YA. And I can tell you, I'll be watching these blog posts with interest--this is an area wide open for discussion.

But today I'll be focusing our internal critic, otherwise known as the Crit Squad.


The Crit Squad is made up of the evil twin brothers of those fabulous guys coined by Stephen King, called the Boys in the Basement. Isn't it shocking how some people can be related?

Even though they were born from the same DNA as the the Crit Squad, the Basement Boys are very different. Those fabulous basement guys work within your subconscious mind and mine fabulous ideas from you hidden, inner depths and bring them out into the light.


The Boys in the Basement--they get the job done! They are hard at work when YOU ARE your own worst critic. You can rely on this team. They know every nook and cranny of your inner self and they do their best to pull your best stuff out of storage so you can use it in your writing.

The Crit Squad? Not so much. They are as stuffy and judgmental as they look. And they sit on your shoulders, whispering into your ears, while feeding on your own worst fears. When you're writing, they are the guys who spin your inner compass just for the fun of seeing where it lands. 

Do you have a unique and quirky idea for a book you don't think has ever been done before? The Crit Squad will immediately begin to ask all the most destructive questions. Who's going to read that? What if it's not action packed like The Hunger Games or Divergent? What if it's not commercial enough? What if it's not literary enough? Too much sex? Not enough sex? Will swearing keep it out of classrooms? Issue books are over done, right? What shelf would this be placed on? Isn't that POV over done? Don't agents hate prologues? Doesn't everyone despise love triangles now? It's a great idea--maybe--but wouldn't someone else write it better? Can I do this without an outline? Can I do this with an outline? Wouldn't something else be a better idea?

And before you know it, those questions will lead to even more destructive declarative sentences... My agent's going to hate it. My editor won't understand it. It isn't as good as BLANK. No one is going to read it. No one is going to want it. 

The Crit Squad can kill a YA book before the Boys in the Basement even get a chance to dig in and get working. 

Clearly, the Crit Squad was not helpful, but here's the tricky part. You can never evict the Crit Squad. They have a rent controlled apartment in your head and they are never leaving! So what can you do? You must learn to use them for their designated purpose and work them to your best advantage. They are there to keep you from doing stupid things--really stupid things--like sending out a rough draft of your uncritiqued novel to thirty-four different agents. They are meant to be the brakes when your adrenaline is racing so out of control you can't slow down to grab some common sense. Believe it or not--we need the Crit Squad! But at the right time and in manageable doses. 

Unfortunately controlling them isn't so easy. The Crit Squad has an ego and they feed on fear. It whips them into a frenzy. Once they do a few things right, they think they do EVERYTHING right. Hubris much?

But no matter how strong willed the Crit Squar is, it's your job to know when to tune them out. They should NEVER be allowed in the creative phases of your work. Their voices don't belong anywhere near you when your drafting. Your creativity can not survive their criticism. You must pull them out at the RIGHT time and give them your full attention while you have them out. Appreciate what they add to the process and then--while they're preening about their success and they're distracted---admiring themselves in the mirror, shove them back into their sound proof box until you need them again. You must control your inner critic in order to make good art.

How do you picture your inner critic? What methods have you used for keeping the Crit Squad from becoming destructive? 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"When Are You Going To Write for Adults?" (Joy Preble)

“So, do you think you’ll ever write for adults?”

This is one of the questions I’ve been asked numerous times since I began writing YA novels. On the surface it’s not unreasonable; one could assume it’s asking if YA is the only type of novel I ever see myself writing. And actually, I have some middle grade ideas and possibly even some picture books simmering in my head, so I could totally mention that in response.

Except that’s not what the question is asking. It’s asking when I will stop playing around and writing ‘just for kids’ and actually write a ‘real’ book. As though writing for children and young adults is somehow less legitimate of an artistic pursuit, for a less legitimate audience with a less legitimate need for storytelling.

I have taken to responding: “Maybe. But would you ask your pediatrician when he or she is going to finally start treating adult patients?”  That tends to nip things in the bud.

It’s not the first dismissive or even hostile question I’ve received since my first YA novel came out in 2009. When first novel DREAMING ANASTASIA debuted, a librarian in the school district where I was teaching actually came to my classroom after school one day and asked me if I was ‘encouraging tobacco use’ since one of the main characters smoked cigarettes. Her implication was that I probably was and if so perhaps I should be uninvited to the then district-sponsored book festival. At first I thought she was joking. How could she possibly believe that a character’s smoking habit was in the novel not only gratuitous, but included with the express purpose of me advocating tobacco? And that by implied extension, keeping this book and its tiny handful of references to cigarette smoking by an immortal Russian who had been around since the Bolshevik Revolution out of the book festival would somehow keep teenagers safe from all evils.

She had to be playing with me.

She wasn’t.

It happens so often it no longer surprises me. YA books are challenged for their use of language or for sexual content, as though readers want to believe that these things do not exist for teens. Resolutions to stories are sometimes criticized if they are not clear and unambiguous, if the ‘bad guy’ isn’t appropriately punished and dealt with. As though teens have no ability to deal with gray areas. Well, of course they do. Teens live--and have always lived--in a world that includes--as it always has--sadness and violence and love and hope and awful things and wonderful things. They suffer bullying and harassment, experiment with drugs and sex, deal with poverty and divorce and loss and rape and war. They dream big. They are cowardly and heroic. They speak in all sorts of ways. They betray and lie and protect. They are human. Even if their age ends in the word 'teen.'

Female characters in particular take the brunt of this misguided ire, although certainly it’s not limited to gender. My narrator in The Sweet Dead Life series, Jenna Samuels, starts the first book at age 14. Some readers have taken exception to her occasionally salty language—and we’re talking words like ‘asshat’.  As one reviewer put it, “Some things that turned me off just a little: Jenna’s language and independence.”  Would Jenna would have received the same criticism if she were a fourteen year old boy? I am not sure. But I have my doubts.

In full disclosure, I do understand that this is why fewer YA main characters are only fourteen, and in fact fewer characters in general, with MG novels aging them down to 13 and YA aging them up to at least fifteen and more frequently sixteen. Because not only do younger readers (for whom the content of a YA novel might or might not be inappropriate) generally read ‘up’ and look for stories about characters a few years older than they are,  there is something in between about that age that makes readers want characters to act younger, to retain a greater sense of innocence. Of course, I also want those leveling that criticism to spend just one day subbing in a junior high…

Here’s a Writer’s Digest article that discusses that YA/MG issue.

And my friend and awesome author Dianne Salerni talks about it here, too:

And the very savvy Mari Mancusi talks about another side of the protagonist age issue here:

All of this, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. And all of it goes back to the underlying issue that sparked that original question that I get asked so much: The perception of teenagers as somehow ‘other,’ of requiring stories that are ‘less’ in some way, that present them only in their most idealized (and thus imaginary) form.

 When am I going to write for adults? 

Right now, the answer is never.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


YA authors often hear discouraging or negative comments: too much sex, swearing, etc. I've heard it, too.

A BLUE SO DARK: features "rough" language.

PLAYING HURT: features a sex scene.

FERAL: features violence.

But here's one thing I've heard--more than once, more than often--that's great.

Actually, it's incredible:

"I like to read YA books because they just seem more real to me."

I've heard it from teens and young twenty-somethings and even a few readers who could technically be classified as "seniors." I've heard it from teachers. I've heard it from parents.

Once I heard that word, I felt--well--understood. I felt as though I'd done my job.

I also felt as though I had a new goal. Each time I write a book, I ask myself, would a teen call this "real"? I even asked it when I wrote my latest YA, SPARK (which is actually magical realism, rather than contemporary).

If the book doesn't breathe--if I don't think it has a pulse--if I don't think it walks and talks and that main character seems like she could very well be a person walking the streets of my readers' hometowns--it's back to the drawing board.

Whatever the subgenre, from here on out, I'll always be aiming for "real."

Monday, July 4, 2016

#thingspeoplesaytoYAauthors (Bill Cameron)

I’m coming up on an inauspicious anniversary: almost a year ago, I had my first in-person encounter with someone who held young adult fiction—and young people in general—in utter contempt. My wife and I were attending a banquet, and found ourselves at a table full of strangers. During the What Do You Do For a Living? part of the introductions, I mentioned my writing and said I had a young adult novel coming out the following year.

A woman sitting across from me immediately announced, “I hate young adults.” She then launched into a wide-ranging condemnation of young people, and young adult books and movies. Her husband and adult son chimed in with uninformed support. It made for an, er, awkward banquet.

I blogged about it at the time, so I’m not going to rehash the experience here. But as I was thinking about our theme for the month, my mind kept coming back to that moment. The cavalier confidence with which these people shared their scorn was both shocking and unsurprising all at once. Too many people are ignorant of the lives of young people and yet only too eager to speak and act as if they somehow know what’s best. They’re voting against school funding, they’re challenging and banning books in libraries and schools, they’re disinviting authors from speaking engagements. The damage a so-called well-meaning adult can do in the lives of young people can be devastating.

One of the more pernicious and, to me, infuriating criticisms of young adult literature falls under the What About the Children? umbrella. These people don’t want children to read books that feature unseemly topics or behaviors. Swearing, drug use, and sexual activity seem to be the biggest triggers, but it can really be any topic someone arbitrarily decides is “inappropriate for children.”

The instinct of those advancing this position seems noble on the surface—after all, what kind of monster doesn’t want to protect children? The problem with this kind of thinking is it dismisses the fact children live in the same world adults do, and too often have to deal with and adapt to the grimmest of circumstances. By the time I was ten, I knew how to protect a drunk adult from choking on their own vomit, had witnessed assaults and other crimes, and had fled my home on multiple occasions to call the police. Once I had to load the car with Christmas presents, then unload them after my mother had driven us to the police station. The gifts all been purchased by her boyfriend with a stolen credit card. I carried them past him, handcuffed to a chair, to a counter where they were logged into evidence—still in their wrapping paper. I was in sixth grade.

One of the ways I coped as a kid was through books, and I was lucky that the adults in my life didn’t censor my reading (or even notice what I read). Many of the books I read were critical in helping me feel like I wasn’t unsalvageably weird or broken. I don’t know what I would have done, for instance, without a book like Harriet the Spy—which has been challenged or banned many times. Writers like Paul Zindel and Judy Blume also helped me feel like I had a place in world. Many of the books that were most important to me are among those most likely to be banned—always at the behest of well-meaning adults thinking of the children.

It can be disheartening. Courtney Summers, a breathtakingly talented author whose book Some Girls Are was targeted by a “well-meaning” scold last year, has tackled the criticism with both incisive blog posts and wry humor. Last week, in a series of tweets under the hashtag, #thingspeoplesaytoYAwriters, she lampooned some of the more common YA-critical tropes.

Among my favorites are:

And let’s not forget about that sweet YA cash:
(I swear, sometimes I think people believe there’s a giant Harry Potter/Hunger Games endowment, and all you have to do is write a YA novel to get your piece of the pie.)

Speaking for myself, I write the stories I do because they're stories I’ve needed—as a child and as an adult. If others need them too, all the better. What I’m not doing is running some kind of con, or trying to subvert impressionable youth. For all the challenges I experienced as a kid, I know there are many, many others who face much worse.

Stories that tell an unvarnished truth are often what these readers need—young and old alike. Sometimes that means adventure, sometimes it means romance, or space opera, or fantasy. And sometimes it means an f-bomb gets dropped, or a kid commits a crime, or smokes a cigarette, or  does any of a host of other things that happen in the world the hand-wringers want to pretend doesn’t exist. It does no one any favors to pretend the world isn’t what it is. But by acknowledging and grappling with the real world we may help some young reader see they’re not alone.

For some people, that can make all the difference.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer Time--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

“At loose ends?” my husband asked me this morning as I wandered around the kitchen, sitting at the computer for three minutes, putting a few dishes away, listening down the basement stairs to see if the dryer was still running, and then heading back to the computer to check the email I had checked a mere three minutes earlier.
Yes. It’s the fourth day of summer for me and I’m already at loose ends. If I was twelve I would come dragging into my mother’s room to say, “I’m bored.” In fact, there is a lot about the start of my summer that is akin to that twelve-year-old’s. I’m a teacher and for the past nine months, my life has been full of lesson planning, arranging and moderating discussions, doing dorm-duty and grading, grading, grading. Like that twelve-year-old, I had the euphoric moment when I was done for the summer and I had that first day of lazing around and feeling fine about it (I watched Pride and Prejudice for the eleventh time). But now I’m four days in, and I don’t know what to do with myself. Oh, there are plenty of projects crying out to me: finish that novel! Write that blog! Paint that wall! But it feels impossible to prioritize with these wide open days in front of me.
That’s the promise of summer to me: time. From the craziness of the school year, it seems like the ultimate luxury. But there’s a discipline that comes with these wide open days that, at the moment, is eluding me. This is a new feeling. My kids are in their late-teens and twenties. During previous summers, I had their swim meets, playdates, and day-camps to organize my days around. But now, they drive, they have jobs, they report in but don’t rely on me. I’m left to my own devices.  

In a few more days--unfocused, loose-ends kinds of days--I will impose some structure on the time. I’ll get up early and run; write for a few hours; take care of house stuff; read. I’ll work hard enough that I will give myself days off for a trip to the beach or to the mountains. When late August gets here, I’ll get mopey again. What’s going to happen to all my lovely time? I’ll moan to my husband who works in a twelve-month job and is a good enough man that he actually feels sympathy for me. But right now, I haven’t changed gears yet. That’s coming. And I’ve already been able to check on thing off my list: write that blog post!