Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Blurred Boundaries in YA literature

In my last post, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to attend the YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium in St. Louis earlier this month.  I am still using this blog space to write about some of the insights I gained from that conference.

Another trend discussed widely among both authors and librarians at the symposium was the blurring of genre-boundaries found so often in YA literature. While there are certainly ample titles that can be clearly classified in a particular genre, there are also a rising number of titles that don't fit easily into any one box. Indeed, our Teen Room patrons often wonder why we don't have separate sections for mystery, horror, science fiction, etc., on our shelves. More accurately, they wonder why we don't have a special shelf for the "vampire books."  While a lack of space for such separation is one very practical reason, the increasing overlap of books into more than one genre also makes it difficult to shelve YA literature this way.  For example, those "vampire books" might be horror (Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series); paranormal (Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series) or romance (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books).

This blurring of genre boundaries does not only occur with books about vampires, but with all types of YA books.  I attended one session specifically about this YA literature trend, and would like to share some of the presenters' thoughts here.

from YA author Helen Frost -- Frost writes in narrative verse, a genre-blending style that has been most popularized in YA literature by Ellen Hopkins. Frost's novels, including The Braid, Keesha's House, and Crossing Stones, also use poetry to tell a story. Frost spoke of using not only the words of the poems to convey the characters' personalities and motivations, but also the form. For example, she wrote the poems in Crossing Stones in different styles to match her four main characters' personalities:  free verse for a more independent spirit, and more traditional forms for those characters more bound by society's expectations. Frost spoke of reading verse-narrative novels metaphorically, akin to "surfing on water" where prose is the land, poetry is water, and a verse-novel is not quite immersed in either form. For Frost, the popularity of verse-novels, which blur the boundaries of prose and poetry, is reflective of teens' own psychological state -- being not quite immersed in either childhood or adulthood. 

from YA author A. S. King -- King is one of only a few American YA authors to write in a style called "magical realism." Her novels include Printz award honoree Please Ignore Viera Dietz; Everybody Sees the Ants;  and the recent Ask the Passengers. Just as it sounds, magical realism incorporates elements of both fantasy and realistic fiction, resulting in a story that is grounded in contemporary settings and situations, but will suddenly shift to an event or perception that is not quite real. Reading magical realism requires a certain suspension of disbelief: a reader bent on making sense of all the events will often end up frustrated.  Hispanic authors have long written in this genre, and King admits she's read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred years of Solitude dozens of times. For King, however, a genre definition is not important.  "I just write what comes out of my head." she says, admitting that she herself does not always know what her characters will do until events happen. That attitude of just "going with it" appeals to King's YA audience; speaking like a teen, King questioned "what if it (life) is all just a fantasy?"

from YA author Scott Westerfeld -- Veteran author Westerfeld is experienced at genre-blurring: his Uglies series blended science fiction and dystopia long before the Hunger Games came out, and more recently, Westerfeld authored the Leviathan trilogy, which rewrites World War I history as a blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and steampunk.  (For a good explanation of steampunk, visit The Leviathan books not only blend genres, but also feature illustrations that enhance the story.  Westerfeld explained how the writing of the books was a true collaboration with his illustrator: while he generally authored the story, there were times when an element of an illustration inspired Westerfeld to create a new scene in the novel. Westerfeld observed that one reason teens enjoy novels that blur the boundaries of more traditional genres is that they are still haphazard readers, sampling stories from a variety of genres according to their moods; they have not yet identified themselves as "mystery readers" or "science fiction readers" as many adults do.

Although the prevalence of genre-blurring novels can frustrate those of us who would like to easily categorize them, the truth is that these novels serve an important need for teens to sample a variety of styles, genres, and even storytelling methods. The more teens read different kinds of literature, the more fluent readers they become . . . and the more likely they are to discover a type of novel that genuinely appeals to them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Young Adult Dystopian Literature -- A Big Thing

In this blog post, I am taking a break from writing about this year's Soaring Eagle nominees; I will get back to that list of titles very soon. Instead, I would like to use the next few posts to reflect on a professional learning opportunity I had in early November. I was fortunate to be able to  attend a national conference sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association, focusing specifically on Young Adult literature. The theme for this year's conference was "Hit Me with the Next Big Thing."  It was a great opportunity to meet teen librarians from all parts of the nation, learn about ways teen services differ (and stay the same) throughout the world, and hear some amazing YA authors.

The most valuable part of any conference are those opportunities to network with colleagues and authors.  In that light, let me use this space to share some of the insights I took away from the people presenting in the front of the room, and the people sitting across from me at the dinner table.  I have too many observations for one blog post, so I will limit this one to the three authors who presented at my preconference session, "Shining the Light on Dystopian Literature."  (For clarification, the term "dystopian" refers to a utopia --ideal society -- gone tragically wrong.  In recent YA literature, however, the term has also been used to refer to post-apocalyptic stories, in which a future world has been affected by some sort of disaster.) Some thoughts from these three authors:

from YA author Pamela Service:   It is interesting that the rise in YA dystopian literature has made science fiction more popular among teens; veteran author Service established her career writing science fiction for all age levels. Service, having just arrived in St. Louis from upstate New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, commented that she sees immense potential for publishing YA novels about environmental disasters. Technically, these novels would be post-apocalyptic rather than dystopian, but their relevance to world events would certainly increase their importance, and therefore their popularity.  Many YA authors are already writing these types of novels: one award-winning example is Paolo Bacigalupi's duology, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.   Another example, closer to home for us living in Wyoming, is Mike Mullin's chilling trilogy about survival after the explosion of the Yellowstone caldera; two of the books, Ashfall and Ashen Winter, have been released so far.

from debut author C. J. Redwine:  Often parents and teachers have concerns over the popularity of YA dystopian novels such as the Hunger Games trilogy; let's face it, these books are dark.  Redwine, a former English teacher whose first book, Defiance, has just been released, wisely pointed out that dark themes have been part of the young adult literature canon for several decades. The idea of young adults having to survive in a world without parental guidance, and making tragic mistakes, while currently popular in Michael Grant's Gone series and James Dashner's Maze Runner trilogy, can be easily traced back to William Golding's classic The Lord of the Flies. And while we cringe at teens fighting to the death in Hunger Games, the all-seeing, all-oppressive government that devalues human life has been a force in our literature since George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, and Lois Lowry's The Giver.

 from YA author Ilsa Bick:  Bick, whose YA novels include Draw the Dark and Ashes, had so much to say about why teens are drawn to dystopian literature that I could dedicate this entire post to her comments.  To be brief, however, she pointed out that a large part of the attraction is rooted in developmental psychology:  teens are wanting to explore a reality that is more scary than the one they live in; they bond with heroes and heroines who can overcome immense odds; and they learn from those characters' experiences what they themselves would do in similar situations. Bick observed, as have many other YA authors, that the reality of teens' lives today is a dystopia (a potentially ideal world gone tragically wrong); with the rise of  bullying and violence in schools, frequent natural disasters, and increasing rates of teen suicide, pregnancy, alcoholism and drug abuse, it is hard to argue with her observation. 

However, all three authors agreed that YA dystopias differ from those written for adults in that they are more hopeful and offer teens a way to improve the world they live in. In YA dystopias, there is a focus on survival and compassion. Like all good literature, these stories ultimately showcase the values of self-sacrifice, persistence, creativity and resourcefulness. While YA dystopian literature cannot be called the "Next Big Thing," it certainly is "A Big Thing" now, and deserves our attention and understanding.