YA? Why Not?
topics like sex, which Forever
famously dealt with, were considered
too adult for teen readers. Blume's editor
at Bradbury Press ultimately created
a new adult imprint for the title,
which Blume had written for teens.
Young-adult authors of the 1970s
and '80s pushed the boundaries by
challenging notions of what teenagers
could handle. It's no surprise that
books by iconoclastic writers such as
Blume and Robert Cormier—Forever
and The Chocolate War, respectively—
landed on the American Library
Association's list of most frequently
challenged books every year from
1990 to 2005.
Decades later, ya literature has
carved out a lucrative space for itself
on bookstore shelves: Blockbuster
series about everything from teenaged
vampires (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight
series) to magical jeans (do we have to
say it?) abound, and sales of ya books
went up a reported 25 percent between
1999 and 2005. And readership isn't
the only thing that has exploded in
the past decade: Contemporary ya lit
has become increasingly relevant and
sophisticated. "In the past, youngadult
books were either lighthearted
fluff or serious message books; now,
[they] are much more complex," says
author E. R. Frank, whose books deal
with gritty subjects like sexual abuse
and mental illness. "I don't think my
first two books would've been picked
up if the previous decade in ya lit
hadn't happened. I think the field was
ready for it at the time."
And while ya books are still regularly
banned, today's authors can
expect greater critical acclaim for
their work. Carolyn Mackler—whose
The Earth, My Butt and Other Big
Round Things made the no-no list in
2006—surmises that the category
stepped up its credibility in the 1990s,
when the National Book Award began
to include ya literature as an award category
and the ALA created the Michael
L. Printz Award for Excellence in
Young Adult Literature, a counterpart
to the Newbery Award. "The quality is
high, the readers are there, the respect
is there," Mackler says.
Sounds good, but producing the
stuff requires bravely revisiting the
years many of us are still struggling
to forget, and who among us is willing
to make that trip? Bitch interviews
five contemporary authors who plumb
the subject of teenhood with aplomb.
In addition to Frank and Mackler, we
talked to Justina Chen Headley, Sara
Ryan, and Ellen Wittlinger about writing
in ya's new golden age.
Justina Chen Headley has written about
all sorts of teens, but race, class and
identity are always a part of the story.
In Nothing But the Truth (and a Few
White Lies), her heroine, Patty, learns
to celebrate her half-Asian heritage,
while Girl Overboard's Syrah is a rich
kid struggling to find herself.
Former psychotherapist E. R. Frank's
writing is unflinchingly honest about
the tough realities facing teenagers.
Frank's clinical work treating adolescents
inspired books like America,
which is written from the perspective
of a suicidal teenage boy in a mental
Carolyn Mackler loves hearing teenagers
talk about their lives, which shows
in her spot-on ability to capture her
heroines' voices, whether it's a type-A
perfectionist like Mara in Vegan Virgin
Valentine or a misfit like Virginia in
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big
Sara Ryan's first book, Empress of the
World, is a love story focusing on two
teenaged girls; its sequel, The Rules
for Hearts, catches up with them a few
Ellen Wittlinger has a dozen ya novels
under her belt, most of them centered
on teens trying to find themselves.
In her most recent book, Parrotfish,
Wittlinger tells the story of transgender
teen Grady as he starts living his
life as a boy.
What ya writers did you read as a teenager?
How did they influence your writing?
Justina Chen Headley: Judy Blume
and Paula Danziger were my favorites.
I think their works are teen classics
because they're so authentic, poignant,
and yes, funny.
E. R. Frank: I loved S. E. Hinton,
Judy Blume. The book A Bridge to
Terabithia was a huge, huge influence.
I was also a fan of A Tree Grows
when Judy Blume's Forever
was published in 1975, the
then-new literary genre of
young-adult fiction was still
unsure of its boundaries.
ph oto il lustration by briar l e vit
68 | bitch f e m i n i s t r e s p o n s e t o p o p c u l t u r e
in Brooklyn. By the time I was a teenager, I was ready to
read what the adult market had to offer: I fell in love with
Alice Walker, John Irving, J. D. Salinger. They all let me
know it's okay to tell what feels like the truth. Stories don't
need to be sugarcoated and happy, it's okay to tell what's
really happening, even if it's troubling.
Carolyn Mackler: I loved the pacing and honesty in
Judy Blume's storytelling. She didn't shy away from talking
about sexuality, family issues, body issues, anything.
I loved the richness of Lois Lowry's stories, the visuals.
Autumn Street opens with a little girl describing a painting
that she made. It was moving to think of trusting a
child with that kind of opening and imagining a child
considering herself an artist at a young age. Lowry really
showed respect for her readers. And Paula Danziger—I
loved her humor and I loved her voice. I loved her threeword
sentences. She was very confident in defining a
character with grammar, and I learned a lot from her
about how to shape a character's voice.
Sara Ryan: Honestly, not many. I did read some Judy
Blume, but when Forever was making its way around the
girls in my sixth-grade class, my friend Tracy told me I
was too much of a prude to handle it. Indignantly, I took
the book from her, opened it to a random page, read the
sentence—"Do you put it on your balls?"—blanched, and
handed it back. I got over my prudishness eventually, but
I still didn't read mainstream ya because I was a hardcore
science fiction/fantasy geek. I read Susan Cooper, Ursula
K. Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Stephen R. Donaldson. I
was also a big Elfquest fan. Susan Cooper was my biggest
immediate influence. In my eighth-grade science class, I
wrote fan fiction set in the world of The Dark Is Rising.
Ellen Wittlinger: I'm 59, so when I was a teenager,
there wasn't a lot around. In those years, you made the
jump from horse books and dog books—things you read
as a kid—to adult stuff. In high school I read a lot of
plays: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams. Reading and
writing dialogue influenced me a lot. I love that you can
tell the story almost entirely by what people say—whether
that narrator is reliable or not.
Another big influence was J. D. Salinger. He really was
writing young-adult literature, even if he didn't call himself
a young-adult writer. His characters just leapt off the
page. There's something about his characters' voices that
I feel I'm still emulating while I write. He really gets
under their skin and looks out from their experience.
f a l l . 08 || i s s u e n o. 4 1 bitch | 69
ya subject matter has broadened over the years, but are there
any subjects not considered fair game?
JCH : There is one gigantic hole in ya lit today, and that's
the dearth of books featuring Latina and black and Asian-
American main characters. The publishing world is getting
better, but there's still a ways to go. I'm not talking
about novels where race is The Issue, but stories where
race is a backdrop.
We've certainly been making strides in ya novels with
Asian-American characters. That's one of the reasons why
I banded with nine other Asian-American authors this
past May to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage
Month with Fusion Stories, a website that introduces
readers to contemporary ya novels written by Asian-
Americans. It's thrilling to be part of this next generation
of stories where characters don't necessarily have to be in
medieval Korea or Japan. They can be snowboarders and
daughters of presidential candidates—and be Asian!
ERF : Any subject is fair game. The issue is that not all
language is fair game. I could write the most upsetting,
sadistic, nonliterary novel in the world and it could get
published—but if it has the word "fuck" in it, it will be
more difficult to get into print.
I've had amazing luck with my first two books, and my
editor and publisher didn't pressure me to change the
language. But generally, publishing companies are in the
business of selling books, and their biggest customers
are libraries and schools. Schools, in particular, are frequently
reluctant to include a book with four-letter words
in suggested reading lists or in their own libraries. [But]
if explicit language is authentic to a character and I'm not
including it, it's not going to sound real. I write realistic
fiction, so it's an issue.
CM : There's always room for new voices, new spins on
stories. Everything is fair game if handled respectfully.
Anything that can be told should be told for a reason, not
just because you can. I say that as a censored author: The
Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things was the fourth
most challenged book in America in 2006 because of its
language and sexual content. All of my books so far have
SR : I try to think less in terms of subject matter per
se and more about how a story is told and how it will
resonate with its intended audience. That said, ya, like
many other genres, needs to get less straight, white, and
EW: There really isn't a taboo subject at this point. It's
how you treat [the subject], not the subject itself. Which
isn't to say that all books are accepted. Your book might
not be purchased by a library, you might not be invited
to schools. But if you can write about it sensitively, you
can write it.
These days, a lot of ya lit can feel really packaged, with
product tie-ins and product placement. A couple of years ago, the
title Cathy's Book mentioned certain Cover Girl makeup lines in
exchange for online ads for the book. Has this climate affected
JCH : The ya lit I read isn't littered with product placement—
these are the critically acclaimed books featured
on readergirlz, the online book community I run with
three other ya authors (Dia Calhoun, Lorie Ann Grover,
and Mitali Perkins). When and if brands are referenced
in these types of books, they are merely used as time
capsules, placing the reader in a specific time and place.
This really is no different from how products are used in
As for true product placement—as with movies where
money is exchanged for mention—as an author I recoil
from that idea. When that happens, your work becomes
a brochure, not a novel.
ERF : People I trust have told me gently that if I don't
get myself a website and become more open to marketing,
it'll become harder and harder to get published. I've
been pretty stubborn because I don't have the time. I feel
like it becomes a whole other career to think about that
kind of packaging and marketing. I tell stories, and I'd
love to become a bestselling author, but I don't have the
energy to put into marketing. I might have to buckle at
CM : Sometimes I think it would be cool to have a doll
attached to my book because it sounds exciting to make
millions of dollars. But I have this certain thing with
coming up with stories about teenagers that are real to
their lives. That's what I do. Short of other minor talents,
that's all I do. For better or worse, I can't change it for
SR : It hasn't affected me. I do try to leave most product
names out of my books, not just as an anticonsumerist
gesture, but also because mentioning specific products is
a great way for your work to become dated. As for ya in
general—well, again, because of the higher profile of the
genre, I think there's more of a sense that there's money
to be made, which means there's a greater probability that
marketers will be attracted to the notion of doing some
sort of advertising between the covers.
EW: I don't think that's affected my work. My writing
doesn't really lend itself to it. Most of that product placement
is for younger kids. I don't think there's nearly as
much for the young-adult audience.
The line between "youth" and "adult" media seems more
blurred than ever. Has this affected your approach to your audience
and subject matter? As a writer, how do you draw the line?
70 | bitch f e m i n i s t r e s p o n s e t o p o p c u l t u r e
JCH : The honest truth is that I write for myself. Once
I get rolling, the character tells me the story, and often
it feels like I'm merely taking dictation, typing as fast as
I can. So as I'm writing, I never really think about who
my "audience" is, but about whether the story is authentic
and compelling and heartfelt. That the story means something.
That the writing is strong. I think striving to get
the story right in both heart and words is why you find
both teens and adults gravitating to ya literature.
That said, I can't think of a more important audience
to write for than teens. These are today's changemakers;
they are tomorrow's leaders. I take it very seriously to be
responsible in my work, meaning that I'm not censoring
myself. I'm representing the world accurately—in all its
beauty and ugliness.
ERF : I am uncomfortable trying to categorize books or
people. I just write the books I want to write. As a writer,
my voice naturally goes to a place that young people connect
to. When I wrote my first two books, I imagined
them as adult novels, but they were published as ya novels.
Right now, I'm working on a book for adults, but it's
not written in a voice that adults are going to connect to.
If it ever sees the light of day, I might rework it and turn
it into a young-adult book.
CM : I don't really think about my audience when I
write. I'm delighted when I hear from readers and they
say things like, "Your book changed my life." I'm still
surprised I even have readers. But I don't think about
what age they are. In part, that's because at any point in
your life, if you find a book—regardless of its intended
age—that speaks to you, it can feel profound.
SR : I don't really think in those terms; I think about my
characters and do my best to tell their stories as honestly
as I can.
EW: I feel that the line is blurred, but in a sense it's
always been blurred. There have always been high-school
kids—even middle-school kids—who want to read adult
books. Now, it's more obvious because we're publishing
to them. In the past, they would've skipped right over
younger books to adult books.
Authors I know struggle with this question, and we
hope that a 16-year-old is reading something even though
we know that an 11-year-old might [be]. We worry about
these things and we're aware, whereas an adult author
probably couldn't care less.
Is it challenging to capture contemporary youth culture as an
adult? How do you get a handle on it?
JCH : As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I am still a
If there is a changing landscape in ya fiction,
then author Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is
helping write it. Born in the United States
to Igbo parents, her work is rich in Nigerian
myths and culture and strong black female
characters who defy social constraints, like
Ejii, the Muslim-girl heroine of Okorafor-
Mbachu's novel The Shadow Speaker, who
chooses when she wears her hijab and
becomes an apprentice to the Red Queen.
Set on futuristic Earth and the planet Ginen,
both The Shadow Speaker and Okorafor-
Mbachu's first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker,
are rich, diverse, groundbreaking, and captivating.
When I was a young adult I was
hard-pressed to find exciting and magical
adventures featuring kick-ass girl-of-color
heroes, but Okorafor-Mbachu delivers them
now, to be enjoyed by all ages.
As a black female author of speculative
fiction, you're breaking a lot of new
ground within the loose territory of the
young-adult novel. Honestly, I don't think
about genres or categories when I write.
Before I wrote Zahrah the Windseeker, I had
written five or six adult novels. When I wrote
it, I didn't think about the fact that the central
character was 13 years old and that
it might therefore be a ya novel. The same
goes with The Shadow Speaker. Really, the
genre of ya gives me the space to publish
my novels, which happen to have young
characters. I imagine both kids and adults
What kinds of freedoms and/or limitations
does writing within the parameters
of ya literature give you? I can't quite
control where a story will go, and I don't
think I'd want to. But there have been a
few places where I've accidentally butted
up against the limitations of ya.
In The Shadow Speaker, the heroine, Ejii,
witnesses her father's beheading. This
scene is not glossed over: There are cameras
flashing, highlighting the horror. You
practically see his head flying. It's awful
and terrifying. The scene had to be that
way: It's a pivotal moment in Ejii's life that
changes her forever. If I had been thinking
about writing ya fiction, I would have toned
down that scene—if I wrote it at all. And I
think my young readers would have missed
out on something valuable.
Fantasy Gi rls
An interview with Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu | By Jyoti Roy
f a l l . 08 || i s s u e n o. 4 1 bitch | 71
16-year-old at heart. My skin still breaks out. I make all
kinds of humiliating faux pas. And I am fundamentally
shy and awkward. All in all, I am highly in touch with
my inner teen.
On the most important level—the emotional one—I don't
think today's teen culture is any different from the teen culture
of the '90s when I was making my way to adulthood.
CM : I think it's exciting. I'm fascinated by teenagers, by
that stage of life. In those few years, you go from being a
child to pretty much an adult. There are so many firsts, so
many ups and downs. I like listening in on their world.
I try to strike a balance between being topical and
fresh without seeming dated in 10 years. That's certainly
a struggle. For my first book, which I wrote in 1998
and 1999, my character uses a calling-card number at
a pay phone. Part of me wants to go back and write in a
cell phone. In my current book, my characters need to
be on a social-networking site, but I worry about using
Facebook. Will Facebook be around in 10 years? Should
I make up a social-networking site?
[But] I always reassure myself that feelings and emotions
are universal, regardless of the technologies and
trends at the time.
SR : I'm a teen services librarian in my day job: I work
with teens, give trainings to other library staff about how
to work with teens, read blogs by and about teens, and
generally spend a lot of time thinking about teens. But
when I'm writing, I don't ever consciously try to capture
youth culture. I try to tell stories about particular teenagers
that feel true.
EW: For years I had my kids around, so that helped a
lot. Now that they're gone, I do some school visits. When I
wrote Parrotfish, I had a transgender high-school student
helping me out with the book. I always do my research.
But in terms of trends or how kids talk, I feel like it isn't
so important. You can log on to MySpace for 15 minutes
and catch onto those things. That's easy. It's more important
to remember the emotions of being a teenager. They
were the same five years ago, 20 years ago, probably 100
years ago. I feel like I really remember things about that
time that a lot of people don't. A lot of people don't want
to remember that time. But I feel that it's the time that
the dramas of your life begin. It's an incredibly interesting
time, and I think that most young-adult authors are
fascinated by it.
Anastasia Masurat is a frequent contributor to Bitch. S he just reread The
Westing Game, and she thinks you should, too.
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