Joelle Anthony (writer), Abby Ranger (editor), Anita Daher (writer), Mandy Hubbard (agent/writer), Eileen Cook (writer)
What’s taboo in YA, and has it changed?
MH: The short answer is no. I think you have put anything in, but it has to be through the eyes of an authentic teen character. Drugs, loss, losing virginity, etc, as long as it’s through the authentic view. Sex scenes, for example, are more about the emotions than the mechanics. IT’s the way you handle things on the page.
AD: I agree, nothing off limit, how you handle it is important. Anything that right for the story/character is good as long as it isn’t for shock/gratuitous. It has to be there for a reason to forwards the character/story, and the question is how far you go. Have to be truthful to the character.
AR: I agree with both. the only thing I can see as ‘no’ is a grown up protagonist who is experimenting with a younger character without any consequences, growth, etc. If it’s not serving the story/character, take it out.
JA: I don’t read dark and it’s not where I go as a writer. When I work with kids (teaches writing), the only thing that mattes is to own your words and stand behind them. If you’re okay with that, if you can accept that, that’s fine.
AR: We always see this articles saying, ‘why are we letting children read this gross drivel…’ why are we allowing this to be public, audit’s always designed to create an uproar. Responses to that is, there isa lot of darkness because teens are trying to grapple with the darkness in the world, and at the endow these books, there’s a spark of hope. The really bleak endings are more in adult literature, not in YA. We have the responsibility to find that glimmer.
AD: With everything teens are exposed to in the news/internet/etc, but they are only getting snippets of that’s going on. A book is a very safe place for teens to explore these darker issues, to take the journey they might now be able to do through a news snippet or a tv show/movie.
EC: YA is such a new ting that I think most adults forget there was a time you skipped immediately from children to adult literature.
HM: I want to add that if you don’t have these things, that’s okay too. Thee is a market for that. One of my books ‘fool me twice’ is in the Scholastic listing - they never would have piked it up if it wasn’t clean. They want books that are okay to promote for younger teens.
AR: Have to ask, who is this for? Be thoughtful for your audience. Where does this sit in the library, who is going to endorse this? There are specific gatekeepers.
EC: So what about those gatekeepers, librarians, parents, teachers, etc? Do you think about those?
JA: You can’t really control who reads. t’s middle school librarians, etc, the readers who say,, eww, why is there a kiss scene?’
EC: What about banned books? Would you like to write a book that’s banned?
AD: once you book is out there, don’t be afraid of being banned. Write your story as it has to be and worry about hose things later.
EC: Is there something ‘hot’ or ‘not’?
AR: There have been waves that have peaked, like paranormal, then dystopian, lately we’ve had contempt and ‘sick-lit’, and I think it’s silly to publish more because of ‘TFiOS’. It’s very unwise to write to that. What editors/publishers/agents want is to open something up and be completely surprised. Taking some spirit of what people love, that’s out there, that people love, and then translating it to a different genre - but transformed into something new. The heart of what makes a book work, and doing it in your own distinct way.
MH: I have this editor spreadsheet that’s 50 pages long, and one editor I first talked to said to me, ‘I’m always looking up for a surprise’, and that stuck in my head. I signed a book last year I never would have said ‘I’m looking for this!” -> a magical chicken that levitates things with its brains. My only thing with trends are to be aware of the really saturated ones. If you have a lot of ideas, and one is dystopian, maybe work on one of the other ones, you’re kind of stacking the odds against you. Dystopian/paranormal are really tough. But there’s always the exception to the rules.
EC: What do you like best about writing for teens, or why do you work in this particular area?
JA: Because that’s what I like to read, so it was a natural progression, and i agree when Abby said ‘there’s a glimmer of hope’. I’m a really cheerful person, so I like that idea of hope.
AR: I had a great conversation with other editors/agents about what internal age you are, what age you still remember well/connect to. For me, maybe insecure 17yo girl, the goofy 11yo boy who likes adventure. Part of what I love is just that sense of intensity. So many things you’re experimenting for the first time. Everything has a life/death sense of feel to it that in another age might feel flatter/wrong. In the craft of storytelling, part of what I love doing in working for teens is that all those books are so important because you’re trying to hood the attention of someone who has a million options and really short attention span - being able to draw them in and make them feel for that character is much harder than writing for an adult, you don’t necessarily need that strict storytelling craft.
AD: I believe when we go into a creative place, we do have an age we naturally go to. When I immerse myself into a story I go very naturally into a place between 12 and 17. I’m cheerful too, but also moody. The story, the start/middle/end of stories is more important to teens than for adults. Maybe I just never figured out where I fit in. Teens have a very strong BS meter
AR: As a very broad comment, MG is about finding the place in the family house, YA is about burning down the house, the options and complications to that.
MH: ‘The Truth about You & ME’, a 16 year old gets involved with a teacher in university. They’re bantering about about what songs were popular when they were young, and I knew hers, but when I googled to find his, I was shocked that he was only a couple years younger than me! When I wrote my first novel, an agent told me that my voice worked better in YA, so I said, ‘i should read some!’
EC: I know people say to me, I want to write YA, and when I ask, ‘why’, they say, ‘because it’s selling well’, and I don’t like that. If you don’t like it, read it, etc, it’ll come across on each page.
EC Do you have one piece of writing advice?
MH: Let yourself write crap. I have that moment in every book where eI read something and think’, oh my goodness, I wrote this crap?’ but then I look at the books on my shelf and put it into perspective.
AD: Going back to the taboo a bit, with one story I didn’t know they were a cutter, I knew she was depressed, but as I wrote, that’s what made sense. I don’t go deep in my first draft, I go deeper later. I do suggest if you’re going to write about an issue or something, research it. I found out that if a cutter reads about cutting, it’s trigger and I didn’t want to put out a book full of triggers, so I worked with my editor to strategize around that.
AR: Respect your reader. Don’t underestimate them. Another similar/different point is not judging your character, what they want, what they do, etc. Empathize properly with your character. Don’t question the moral/ethical code when you’re in a character’s skin, especially the villains. What is deeply human/relatable about them.
JA: Eileen took mine. My best advice is to read, but more than that, give yourself permission to read. Don’t feel guilty that you’re reading instead of writing. It’s part of your work/art. Read 150 books in your genre every year.
EC: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Ivan Coyote speak, but she to me to send stuff out, and I said, ‘no I’m not ready’, and she said, ‘you’re already not published, so if you send stuff out, the worst that can happen is that you still won’t be published.’ That gave me permission to send stuff out.
Audience question: Are there more taboos in content for MG?
MH: There are more gatekeepers, but also, there’s a lot of things that will go over younger kids’ heads.
AR: I always have to pause at the word ‘content’, every publishing house has different rules and it often depends on a book-to-book basis, the voice, the character, etc, how everything is serving the story. Sometimes it’ll be a question of dialling something back, adjusting the character to get it into the Scholastic listing (into school), and then it’s up to the writer.
AD: MG kids are more interested in school, friends, etc so it really depends on how you hand it.
Audience Question: Difference between YA/NA?
MH: I think it’s tempting to tack NA onto a lot of things, but where this took off originally was the transitional college age with more romance. That’s not a bad thing, but that’s just where things are, and since it started out s e-book, bookstores are actually having a hard time selling hardcopy NA book, but tone of e-books are being stolen. NA isn’t just sexed-up YA.
AR: YA is a broad section, it includes so many genres -> fantasy, contemp, etc. It holds so much, but right now, NA is very small -> sexier/older protagonist with more mature themes. Talked to someone else who said for her, it’s like a combination between chick-lit written 10-20 years ago (in a higher economy) combined with YA. NA is more like.
Audience question: My daughter likes fantasy/etc, but is trying to find YA where they main focus isn’t about ‘the guy’. How much if it is out there?
MH: It’s out there, it’s just harder to find, because that’s what most teens are interested in.
JA: I don’t like books where it’s all about the romance, but mine do have a small romantic element.
AR: One thing I love is that there’s a lot of strong FMC who are trying to figure out who they are and what they want and they do part of that through a relationship, but there are books where it’s not defining themselves completely through the guy/relationship.
AD: I wrote a book before NA was a thing, it was an older YA right out highschool, are publishers interested in NA that is fantasy/etc that is not about the romance?
AR:Yes, as long as it’s not a college setting.
Audience question: MG works very well for boys, but when you get into YA, buys kind of disappear. Not enough stuff is being written that appeals to them.
MH: I had to pass on something I loved once because I knew publishers would turn it down because there was no girl appeal.
EC: I can think of some that did well. ‘Noggin’, ‘Winger’, ‘Carter Finally Gets It’.
AR: This is a very real thing. Publishers find that the readership drops.
JA: I work with a lot of kids at that age and the boys are perfectly happy to move immediately into adult ‘Meet Player One’ (recommended to her by a 13yo boy)
Audience question: What about not ‘sex/drugs’, but creepy instead? Lemmony Snicket for for older YA?
AR: There is a lot of stuff out there, ‘Cavendish Home for Boys & Girls’, there is that there, but there was to be the dark/light balance. ‘A Tale Dark and Grimm’
Audience question: Can you recommend any good darker books our there to read?
EC: ‘Kiss Kill Vanish’, ‘Winger’
AR: Asylum (horror)
MH: ‘Rites of Passage’
EC: Is there a YA you’ve read recently that you are recommending to people that’s not yours?
JA: ‘I’ll give you the sun’, ‘The Sky is everywhere’. Some boy books, ‘Brooklyn Burning’, ‘Blinking Caution’ (sp?)
AR: ‘Eleanor & /Park’, ‘Fangirl’
AD:’The Boundless’ (MG), ‘Kiss Candy Crush’
MH: ‘The Cage’, ‘The Madman’s Daughter’ (same author)
EC: ‘Noggin’ was given to me and was one I wasn’t all that interested in reading, but it was really interesting.
Audience comment: In MG, I find there has to be a sense of humour. It can go dark, but there aways has to be something weird/wacky.
Audience comment: I’m a librarian, ‘Anatomy of a girl gang’
EC: Orca Publishing out of Vancouver Island focus on books for reluctant readers, they have great distribution. The stories explode.
Audience comment: I’m a book seller/writer. ’Now is the time for Running’ - two boys having to escape a village massacre.
EC: The connection between reader/writers seem much stronger in YA, so how do you handle that, and how do you advise your clients on how to handle that, social media, etc.
MH: As an agent first, I think more of my followers are adults/writer/etc, but I do get some. So if you get cute emails/etc, always reply.
AD: I hear much more from MG readers than teen readers. With our publish image, I don’t put anything snarky on social media. I do censor myself. I check in on social media, but I try to keep in mind that I never know who will be reading it, so I don’t put anything mean spirited.
AR: There is such a range of how to use social media, so I suggest just do what feels comfortable. It’ll come across if you’re doing it because you think you have to. You’re at an open cocktail party where anyone can/could retweet your comments/etc. It’s really nice to join a conversation, have people supporting them, especially if before their first book comes out, before they have to do all the self-promotion stuff.
EC: That’s true, I think it really comes across if you’re only doing it to sell your book.
JA: I don’t get a lot of emails from readers, but the ones I do tend to be from librarians, adults, etc. and 11yo boys who don’t like my books, which are more geared towards girls. I do keep all business stuff quiet. I don’t talk about it at all in anything other than generic terms. One thing I keep in mind is, if you do receive something, wait at least 24 hours before responding so you don’t seem like a dork.
EC: I think something to be aware of, I have seen querying writers tweet stuff like, ‘I pitched “x” and they were a cow.” Be aware we can, and do search ourselves. Going back, when I wrote for adults, I never heard from readers, but writing YA, I think it’s so cool to get emails/etc from teens now. That’s why you should do social media, because you want to, and can connect with readers.
Audience question: Do you think NA is going to go the way of chick-lit, or is is going to expand like YA?
MH: Well, are people having a hard time finding those things without the NA? Like, fantasy appeals widely whereas NA started because readers wanted that college setting… which wouldn’t really be applicable to genres other than contemporary/romance. But I can’t predict the future, so who knows.
AR: The bookseller is kindof the one who starts it. Barns & Nobel is the biggest bookstore and they don’t have a NA section, but do they need it? I personally don’t see it.