Thrilling Young Adults: How to Keep the Attention of Today's Teens
Speakers: Amy Alessio, Margaret Haddix, Patrick Jones, Deborah Noyes Wayshak
In a full-to-capacity room, Amy Alessio kicked off one of the first presentations of the day by reading from Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Stolen Car by Patrick Jones, and Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes.
As part of their introductions, the panelists talked about the books they had read recently. The books mentioned will be included on the YA Lit Symposium wiki.
What makes a book thrilling?
Margaret: I write what I think is thrilling and I hope kids think it's thrilling. Two directions we're going in: one towards extreme danger where kids have to survive, a la Hunger Games. Other end is this trend towards lives that are fabulous, as in Gossip Girl; lives that most of us are not going to get to live.
Patrick: three things: 1 is that my belief that kids aren't looking for pretty pictures but good mirrors. 2 is relevance; it's about the books that are "real" to a teen. 3 is the beginning; with all the choices available to teens, they have to be hooked right away. Will Weaver: "the first line is as important to a book as the first kiss to a relationship."
Deborah: As an editor, the voice has to grab you immediately. You can see that in the first page of the manuscript. Has to have characters that the reader will identify with. Doesn't have to be a first-person voice; often found in YA because teens are so concerned with identity, but third-person can be one of many ways to reach teens.
How do you write in different genres?
Deborah: it's driven by the research.
Margaret: Not always consciously thinking about shifting focus; it's about being inside the character's shoes and therefore thinking like that character.
Patrick: With every genre, it's about characters that teens can relate to. character, character, character.
Has pace of books for teens changed in the last ten years?
Amy: shift, like SVH to It Girl but then you have books like Fallen Angels as compared to Outsiders.
Patrick: Count the number of pages and the number of chapters. Pace has quickened; James Patterson has played a large part in this, as has R.L. Stine and Gary Paulsen. Books move a lot quicker; they don't have description. It's about dialogue and action. That's why fantasy is so much longer. Then there's books like Crank, which moves so quickly because of the format.
Margaret: Expectation of more thrills per page. Opposite effect going on, too: used to be that publishers thought that teens wouldn't read more than 200 pages, but now there's plenty of books that are long. Pace doesn't equal short.
Deborah: Belief that people won't read short stories; lots of promise in the form, actually. We can also challenge kids by giving them fat, meaty books. We can't make assumptions; there's a book for every kid and a kid won't read every book.
What is it about today's fantasy that makes it so appealing?
Amy: Many trends that are popular with teens started in adult; but now YA trends are going into adults.
Margaret: Good storytelling, creating this world we don't know about. Certain element: escapism. Lots of pressure on teens; fantasy helps escape the pressures of everyday life.
Deborah: Cynthia Leitich Smith: "All teenagers are shape-shifters." These fantasy books are an extension of the identity search that teens do. Non-threatening way to do so; allows humor.
Any genres gaining momentum?
Amy: Designer chick lit is still going strong. Devil Wears Prada is not that different from Gossip Girl. Cozy mysteries for teens just starting--Linda Gerber and Peter Anthony. Cross-genres, like paranormal romance.
Patrick: works with kids in juvenile detention, so he cares most about urban fic. Lots of coverage recently in SLJ, PW, VOYA. Not just series, but great books like Tyrell.
Deborah: Cross-genres, like Libba Bray and Anna Godbersen. Tough time to be a purist. Everyone's mixing it, in all media forms. In a way it's rejuvenated YA lit; there's less neat categorization.
Is YA lit more exciting than books for other ages?
Deborah: Don't have a favorite; YA is definitely has the pulse of what's going on in the literary world. Can't write for writing's sake like in adult; there has to be a story. It's an exciting time to be doing this.
Margaret: Exciting time in kids' lives. What makes it an exciting age is that kids have such a capacity for growth and change in such a short time. Quest for identity is fascinating to write about. Young adults get so passionate about their books. Kids will say "this book changed my life" and really mean it.
Patrick: is asked why do you write for teenagers; I love cafeteria french fries. Great thing about teens: most of the big things in your life will happen for the first time in these four years. Romance, loss. Such a transformational age, which is what fiction is about. Difficult to write YA lit is how teenagers really behave. Teens are over-the-top and melodramatic; when it's represented in fiction, people may step back and think it's too much.
What are good ways that schools and libraries can do more to put lesser-known authors in front of teens?
Patrick: Need to find a way to do this; if not in person, virtually, for example. Booktalking is a great way to introduce new authors.
Amy: Lots of librarians don't like booktalking. Can deal with the kid in the stack, but has a hard time in front of groups. Just hired a new librarian who sends messages to kids about books through the Wii. Everyone knows about Twilight; need to bring out the lesser-known.
Deborah: Involve teens in the program; have teens write reviews. More involved they feel in recommending books to their peers, the more excited they are.
New ways for librarians to help adults learn about YA?
Amy: Network at local groups or genre groups. Can hire people from these groups to enhance your programs; cops at a CSI program. Also lets you speak with adults.
Patrick: After I do a school visit, I give my card to the host and ask them to tell two other people. Word of mouth.
Deborah: We welcome feedback from adults at Candlewick. Especially from librarians who hear directly from teens. Whatever way we can.
Margaret: Don't do this very well, but conferences and school visits is the best opportunity to promote my books.
How to influence publishers with young adult input?
Patrick: Has teens read his books before his editor gets it. I can't imagine now writing a novel without having this informal editorial board.
Deborah: I'm a very selfish writer; I just write what I want and hope someone wants to read it. Hoped that Ghosts of Kerfol would inspire some creative writing in connection with the original short story that the book is inspired by--Kerfol by Edith Wharton.
Margaret: Is now finding that teen input does play a role in changing her writing. During work on the Shadow Children series, comments from teens during the school visits helped inspire developments in the next book.
Patrick: This is where technology is wonderful. Gets comments on MySpace on his books, or gets inspired by others' MySpace pages.
Amy: After Jack Gantos wrote Hole in My Life, he got tons of letters from readers.
Do awards have as much impact as teen input?
Deborah: For Candlewick, awards are very important. It's a way to get those writers out there that might otherwise not get to a popular status. Popularity is also very important; as an editor, is looking for intersection of popular and literary.
Patrick: Was reading a blog post about his first book; responded to blogger and then the blogger put the email up. Never going to win an award, but he's found he doesn't care. His award is the kid who says "I never read a book before. I read yours." And award stickers don't reach reluctant readers; it turns them off; "Johnny Tremain had one of those."
Amy: Awards bring in adults. Justifies why we keep books that get challenged.
Margaret: Awards equal exposure which hopefully leads to popularity.
Amy: Brought teens to ALA in Chicago; the only panel they wanted to speak at was Quick Picks.
How has technology changed how authors reach readers?
Amy: Teenreads.com gets 150,000 hits a month.
Patrick: Uses Facebook and MySpace to stay in touch with readers.
Margaret: Only got a website this year; seemed self-aggrandizing. Got to the point where it was embarrassing not to have a website. Also really difficult because people were contacting her about information and research into her books. Having the website is so great, so people can be directed there. Didn't put contact link on website, so that she's not disappointing kids by not replying to their email.
Deborah: Question is what kind of site you want to have? Some are basic; some are like Cynthia Letich Smith. Blogging has added another layer of complexity. Some love it; some see it as a marketing task.
Amy: Now publishers want a marketing plan when you submit a fiction manuscript. Get the teens to design your website.
Patrick: Kids love author websites to help with book reports. Has teens help design that content for the website. Teen input upfront, thoroughout and afterwards.
Amy: Technology helps keep the thrill going, if you're doing a series.
Questions from audience
When writing in a genre, do you set restrictions at beginning or do you look at it after-the-fact?
Margaret: Figure out the genre at the end, after done writing. Will change things as the writing happens.
Patrick: Had to figure out mythology while writing his forthcoming vampire book.
Deborah: Depends on who's the most important character to tell the story. Leaves the genre to editor and marketing people.
Who are authors in urban lit who aren't furthering stereotypes?
Patrick: Need to stay out of the adult market, like Triple Crown. The teen stuff, like Kimani Tru, Drama High, Coe Booth, Alan Sitomer. Gigantic issue: even still, if the message is positive, the language is not. We need to get over the language issue; teens use it. If we are going to write books that teens relate to, we have to have books with teens that sound like teens.
Amy: Language is a concern for schools; no way they could carry those books. What I'm hoping will happen is the same as graphic novels: started as adult, and then gradually publishers created ones appropriate for YA market.
Deborah: If I got The Outsiders today, I don't know if I'd publish it. It's not historical and the voice is not contemporary. It's almost quaint, the language.
With pacing getting so fast, how do you help kids read the classics and the assigned reading that is much slower? And how do we get schools to assign more modern books?
Patrick: Book--From Hinton to Hamlet. Show the teacher the theme that they're teaching with the classics, and have them read a YA book. Article by Don Gallo about aliteracy is linked to English teachers. Experience of Patrick's: what turned kids off reading is what they read in school. Alternatively, teens don't have time to read, even if they want to.
Amy: Maybe come up with the modern themes that go along with the classics.
Deborah: What will teachers do with the book I'm editing, a prose version of Hamlet written by John Marsden? How honest can we be in our representations?
Do we find that kids, especially in troubled areas, like being read to? Does that help connect them with books? Or what about other formats?
Margaret: Trend towards having the kids read to them, listening on CD, is wonderful because it exposes kids to books that they may not be capable of reading or resistant to reading.
How do we encourage teens to keep reading as adults?
Patrick: Sounds pretentious, but I write all my books as if a kid will have read only his book. Write books that work on different levels. Books as entertainment are discounted; but those books are hard work!
Margaret: One of the nicest things someone has said about my books is that they see them as a gateway drug. If a kid enjoys a book and that makes them read another book, that's important. Sometimes have to give kids books they like, not necessarily books that are good for them.
When you write series books, do you plan ahead or are you surprised?
Deborah: Agents plan ahead. Way too many series proposals, especially from new authors. Dangerous thing to force a writer into that pattern.
Margaret: Thought of herself as one-off writer; then she wrote Among the Hidden. Everyone demanded a sequel and she resisted, but then wrote on a book-by-book basis. Now is working on a second series, and has done some more planning.
Not a complete and full record; speakers' remarks are paraphrased. Any errors or typos are my own.