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Find more The State of the YA Novel
KRAUS: What did you read this year that really surprised you?
KUEHN: I don’t read much science fiction, but one of my favorites I read this year was
Parker Peevyhouse’s upcoming debut, Where Futures End. Having very much enjoyed Marcus Sedgwick’s
Midwinterblood (2013), I was intrigued by the structure, which consists of five
interconnected stories. It challenges the notion that YA is focused on the
experience of adolescence as seen through the lens of one certain character.
PÉREZ: I’d say the inclusion of adult POVs in YA reflects the expansiveness and
growing sophistication of YA. The other instances that came first to my mind were imports, such as Nick Lake’s In Darkness (2012) and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (2012), and that does make me
wonder if there might be greater precedent for this abroad.
I think the presence of an adult POV, or other narrative choices
that haven’t been common in YA, is less a tactic for shifting the focus from kids than it
is a way to broaden engagement by offering other vantage
SCHWAB: It always makes me question whether it’s YA.
I’ve always felt like an adult POV takes the story, at least in part, out of the teen’s
That said, it’s something I enjoy as a reader. It breaks down the boundaries in genre that
so often feel arbitrarily imposed. Interestingly, the first book I ever wrote—it got me
an agent, but not a publisher—had three POVs: a 12-year-old girl, a 50-year-old
professor, and Death, and in 2008, I was told it would never, ever be published in
MG/YA because of that. So, sign of changing times?
KUEHN: If you think of all the adult books that teens love to read, it’s clear that
reading from a teen POV is not necessarily the most important thing, and breaking the mold
of most YA is an exciting thing to watch authors do. The one thing I’m always wary of,
however, with adult POV, is if any amount of sentimentality comes through.
SCHWAB: I guess I’m more jaded, because I sometimes see those insertions and
think marketing is doing it to gain the perks of a YA (award consideration, YA appeal) and
the placement of adult (shelf space, crossover, etc.).
PÉREZ: I think it’s healthy for there to be greater variety in
what gets read as YA. In part, that’s my own selfish desire because it gives me more room
to craft difficult stories for the smartest readers I know, many of whom are reading YA.
There was a minor online kerfuffle over one librarian describing as a “design flaw” the
absence of a glossary for Isabel Quintero’s brilliant Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (2014), which makes
extensive use of Spanish without italics or insta-translations. I’m hoping that the boundary expansion from Gabi will open the way for YA
fiction that explores translingual stylistic possibilities even more fully.
KRAUS: Do you all see trajectories
that point to new directions in YA?
SCHWAB: I think the expansion and increased flexibility in not only narration
but also format is fascinating, from the illustrations in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2011), to the intricate framework of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae (2015), to the use of video stills and notebook fragments in Dawn Kurtagich’s The Dead House (2015).
KRAUS: Just looking at Illuminae as a product being sold has got me wondering how narratively and/or
linearly splintered a major-release YA book will be allowed to get. There’s no Infinite Jest or House of Leaves in YA and that makes some sense. But Illuminae,
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle (2014), A. S. King’s I Crawl through It (2015)—there’s something new and strange brewing out there.
KUEHN: I keep wondering if there’s a place in YA for very, very dark humor, the kind not driven by any particular moral compass. I’m thinking of a YA version of The Wasp Factory or something. But I also wonder if there are philosophies/styles of literature that appeal more to teens. I know that plenty of adults look down on YA, but I wonder if some of the literary disdain of YA comes from a discomfort with the earnestness of it, where adults sometimes like to hide behind cynicism.
This rings true to me—some adults can’t handle the fact that YA involves a lot
of “for the first time” for its characters. I think that impatience especially comes out
in response to the handling of romance and sex in YA.
KUEHN: Earnestness can so often be the most effective way to tell a
story. It keeps the reader present and in the moment, even when that’s hard to sit with
(think Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl, 2008). I loved Stacey Lee’s Under a Painted Sky (2015), which tells exactly the story it sets
out to tell and is compelling, beautifully written, and wholly satisfying.
SCHWAB: As someone who writes for both the adult market and the YA one, I’m fascinated by
the feedback I get, primarily an expectation from adults that a certain measure of
transparency or simplicity is warranted in YA, whereas overt complexity—structural and
metatextual—is not only warranted but expected in adult, and when it’s present in YA,
they often use it as an example of why that book is more adult than YA! This is
diminishing to both genres.
KRAUS: Is there anything you would’ve liked to have seen more of in 2015?
KUEHN: There were a number of wonderful books this year addressing rape
culture: Courtney Summers’ All the Rage (2015) and Kristin Halbrook’s Every Last Promise (2015) are two I really connected with. I’m eager
to read stories that show how rape culture plays out in equally destructive ways among different social classes, different cultures, in conservative and more progressive-leaning settings, cities and suburbs, and elite schools.
I also wish there were more books where the main characters acknowledged or had to reckon with their own privilege.
And finally: more fatalism, please! Only Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary (2015) gave me that this year—though Amy
Reed’s Invincible (2015) plays with this a bit in a different way.
SCHWAB: I honestly found myself wishing for a little more character-driven fantasy. There’s
such a heavy emphasis on plot in fantastical fiction, but I found myself a little
disheartened by the characters—they often function as archetypes instead of realistic
people. Rae Carson (Walk on Earth a Stranger, 2015) does this so well, but on the whole, I feel like it’s become too much of an either/or.
PÉREZ: Now that a House of Leaves-esque YA is on my wish list, I suppose I’m allowed to
lament that it hasn’t happened in 2015, right?
KRAUS: Anyone else simply longing for more novels of sprawling, reckless ambition? I know some authors who simply can’t afford the time that would take; they have to publish book a year to put food on the table.
KUEHN: On the ambitious debut front, David Arnold’s Mosquitoland (2015) comes to mind, as does Todd Hasak’s Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You (2015) and Stephen Metcalfe’s The Tragic Age (2015)—all written by men. I do think men get to be ambitious far more often than women, which makes me wonder if the notion of “literary ambition” is a slightly gendered one. Critically, women are more often appreciated for beautiful language and emotional resonance, not for their Big Ideas or for having a balls-to-the-wall sort of style . . . and I’ll be honest and say that some of my motivation stems from determination to beat the boys at this game.
SCHWAB: Ding ding ding.
PÉREZ: When it comes to ambition and women, I think we have to authorize our own ambition,
not look for that from outside.
KRAUS:This year seemed to mark a tipping point where voices in places like Facebook and Twitter
achieved serious momentum. Do you think social media is influencing
how writers write, positively or negatively?
SCHWAB: Social media is such a double-edged sword. I owe so much of my following
to Twitter and love engaging with readers, but it’s a slippery slope, and I’m not
convinced it’s always the best use of an author’s time or a reader’s. I’m still a big
proponent of social media as a dialogue, not a podium, but that mentality can also be
dangerous. At the end of the day, an author’s first job is to write, and so I think it’s a
matter of priorities.
KUEHN: I can only speak for myself, but I know that if I read or see
something online (or anywhere else in my life) that makes me feel defensive, then that’s a
cue for me to deconstruct that reaction and figure out what it is I’m defending, to look
at places where I hold power and privilege and where I don’t. I do think it’s important
for authors to be able to discern between “My feelings are hurt” and “That person meant to
hurt me.” Those are two different things.
PÉREZ: I hope nobody is letting social media dictate what they write or don’t write. I
think the influences of social media are more diffuse: conversations or confrontations out
on the Internet sometimes fuel questions that get carried back to the page. Reviews are
one area of potential “influence” that may be pernicious for authors, especially if
writers don’t maintain a firm distinction between what readers say they want and what is
actually good for a book—or for the project the author set out to accomplish.
KRAUS: Lastly, tell me about a book or two from 2015 that you love, but that you think might not get the attention it deserves.
PÉREZ: My big vote goes to Carrie Mesrobian’s Cut Both Ways, which has caught a lot of
hostility from readers who seem more focused on what the book doesn’t do (comply with
moral prescriptions, conform to a formula of a satisfying ending) than on what it
does so well (evoke the emotional landscape of adolescence, present gender and sexuality as an ongoing project
rather than an identity that one zips oneself into like a wet suit). In my view, it’s a sophisticated YA that may beckon readers
toward the engagements of adult fiction even as it reshapes the possibilities of realistic
fiction in YA.
SCHWAB: I’ve honestly read so many good books this year, but at the top of the stack? Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf. I want every single person to read that book, because it’s a
gorgeous, character-driven alternate history that’s also tautly plotted, has a
supernatural element, and is just all-around stunning.
KUEHN: Here are two layered, complex, challenging, emotional, and brilliantly uncomfortable books that I wish, wish, wish more people were reading and talking about: Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction and Elana K. Arnold’s Infandous. They both dare to step outside the box of so much recent contemporary YA, and I love them for that. I want more of that.
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