Sunday Reflections: Let’s Update Those YA Lit Articles with Current Titles, and more suggestions for how we talk about YA lit in the media
Several years ago, I wrote a post to the media asking them to write their hot takes about YA literature differently. It was snarky and full of anger at a media that continued to denigrate YA literature and by proxy the teens that read it. At the time, their was a lot of pearl clutching about how dark YA literature was, without a real acknowledgment of how dark the lives of real teens can be, and often are. Recently, there have been a lot of additional articles about YA, with a lot of focus on the idea of “Toxic YA Twitter”, which as best as I can tell is really just people from marginalized groups asking for better representation in YA literature and calling out those books that they feel have harmful stereotypes and representation that may harm teen readers of color.
But what all of these articles have in common is that they continue to discuss YA literature using books like Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent as their go to reference. One of the most recent ones did add The Maze Runner series to the list. The problem with this is, every single one of these books is around 10 years old or older and aren’t really representative of YA literature today. They are a small microcosm of YA lit, and in many places they are now a historic perspective on YA but by no means offer a good look at what is happening in the current YA lit marketplace nor do they represent what today’s teens – the intended audience for YA – are reading.
For example, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has topped the New York Times bestseller list for 2 consecutive years. Like the books mentioned above, it was made into a move. Angie Thomas’ most recent release, On the Come Up, debuted on the NYT Bestseller list and was a title that we had so many holds on before release that we had to order additional copies. None of the books mentioned above have appeared on my library’s hold list for years. In fact, given the circulation statistics of the Twilight series, I could easily have justified weeding them from my library’s collection, though I did not.
It’s interesting that articles discussing YA tend to focus on that handful of older titles and neglect to mention more recent bestsellers for several reasons. One, in the past few years the bestseller list has grown increasingly diverse, which is a good thing. But when writers focus on this handful of older titles, they are continuing to highlight white, cisgender and heteronormative titles. Both The Hate U Give and The Children of Blood and Bone, another long term NYT Bestseller, are written by women of color, but they keep being written out of the narrative about YA literature.
Simon Vs. the Homosapien Agenda by Beck Albertalli is another NYT bestseller that got the movie treatment. It is the story of a gay boy trying to figure out who he is and is accepted by his friends and family. This is just one of the growing number of LGBTQ titles that are popular among teen readers and have been high circulating, NYT bestselling titles in the past few years. Yet the titles being mentioned in these articles fail to represent LGBTQ teens.
Twilight was a huge hit among teen readers, but the first book in that series was released in 2005 and the final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, was released in 2008. I’m not excellent at math, but that seems to be almost 11 years ago. While there are some teens today that still seek our and read these books, this series is by no means as meaningful to today’s teen readers or the landscape of what’s happening in YA as many newer titles. As a reference for discussion on YA lit, it’s now a weird go-to reference.
The same can be said for The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner series. What’s also interesting is that several of these authors haven’t really released a new YA title in many years. Further, the author of The Maze Runner series was recently accused of sexual harassment and if I am not mistaken, is currently without a publisher. Veronica Roth is the only author from this particular group who is currently and actively publishing YA books and her most recent series, Carve the Mark, has been criticized by people of color as engaging in racist and harmful tropes. The titles in the series have debuted on the NYT bestseller list, but they have not had the demand or circulation as other titles among my teen readers.
It’s also interesting that these articles which seem to want to focus on older titles often fail to mention authors of color with longstanding careers, such as Walter Dean Myers. It is unfathomable to me that you can talk about YA literature in any form and not mention Walter Dean Myers, who was a prolific writer and was the first recipient of the Printz Award Medal in it’s inaugural year for his book, Monster. Sadly, Walter Dean Myers is no longer with us, but no discussion of YA literature seems complete without mentioning his influence on the category. By the end of his career, Walter Dean Myers had written over 100 books for children and teens.
However, if you want your article to reference authors who have been publishing for a long time and are still publishing, I would recommend authors like Sarah Dessen, who writes popular contemporary books and has been in this business for almost as long as I have. Her latest book, The Rest of the Story, will be released later this year. Might I also recommend A. S. King, who writes mind-bending surrealistic fiction that recognizes teens as intelligent readers and challenges them to think outside the box. Her newest book, Dig, will be released on Tuesday, March 26th. These are just two of the authors that teen readers continually ask for who are still actively engaged in writing YA literature.
What I would like to see in articles about YA literature is some better and more current examples of titles that are of interest to today’s YA reader. Unless you are writing a historical perspective on the category, it seems outdated and out of touch to continue to use this small handful of examples that aren’t even the most popular titles with today’s teen readers. I also would like to see more diversity in the titles being used as examples to better reflect today’s teens. 40% of the population are not white, so shouldn’t the titles we talk about when discussing YA literature reflect the world?
Since the days of The Hunger Games and Twilight, YA publishing has exploded. I have read figures that state that the YA literature category has experienced an increase of around 400%. That’s a lot of growth and a lot of new titles to talk about. And my experience working in libraries directly with teens for 26 years has proven several things:
1. A majority of YA lit titles have a short shelf life and high turnover rate. Titles that my teens were begging for even 2 years ago can have a sharp and sudden drop off in circulation, demand and popularity. There are always exceptions to this rule, but it’s an important perspective to keep in mind.
2. There is often a huge difference between what adults readers of YA are interested in compared to what teen readers of YA are interested in. When discussing YA literature in the media, maybe we need to be more clear about what types of readers we are discussing. As the title of this blog probably informs you, I’m here for teen readers. I begrudge no adult who wants to read YA for whatever their reasons, I’m just personally dedicated to serving and advocating for teens and would like YA category to continue to be written with them in mind and I would like articles that discuss the YA category to be cognizant of teens as readers.
3. When discussing YA in the media, we need more data to help support our discussions. We need things like circulation data, bestselling data and feedback from actual teen readers. This will help us make sure that we are, in fact, talking about YA literature in ways that center factual data and actual teen readers. I’m tired of lazy articles that discuss what’s wrong with YA literature and continues to reference Twilight as THE teen book example.
4. When discussing YA in the media, I want some background discussion at the beginning of the article about a person’s qualifications to write said article. Are you an author? Are you a publisher? Are you a librarian? How long have you been actively engaged in the YA community? What are your credentials and why are you a knowledgeable, reliable and unbiased source of information? In a time when we are trying to inform the general public how to suss out fake news and seek out reliable news sources, we should be asking this information of every article written about teens and YA lit.
To be true to this above demand, let me take a moment to tell you that I have been a YA/Teen Services Librarian for 26 years. I have worked at 5 systems in 2 states in various types of communities, both rural and big cities. I talk with teens directly on an almost a daily basis about books and use circulation data and patron requests to help me purchase books for libraries and build inclusive collections of YA lit. I run this blog, write articles for journals like School Library Journals, and have spoken and taught at numerous conferences and webinars.
If you are a media entity seeking to publish an article about YA lit, please seek out reliable sources and actual data and make sure to talk about current titles that reflect the diversity of YA lit readers. I would recommend contacting a handful of YA librarians in public and school libraries and asking them what their teens are reading and asking them for some circulation data. Most librarians should have a way to go in an run a circulation report to tell you what the highest circulating titles in their YA collection are. In most cases they can give you historical and current data. You should also look at things like the New York Times Bestseller list which will also tell you how long a title has appeared on the list.
If you are a reader of these articles, please take a moment to look at them critically and ask yourself what makes them qualified to write the article, whether or not they have an agenda they are trying to push, and to examine critically the list of titles they are using to talk about YA literature.I would recommend immediately questioning the validity or intent of any article that is referencing older titles and seem to have no knowledge of current YA publishing trends.
If you are a publisher, author or YA librarian and you are asked to consult on an article being written, please take the time to answer thoughtfully and diversely, being respectful of and centering actual teen readers. Provide examples with data whenever possible.
Moving forward, let’s all agree to talk about YA literature differently in the media making a conscious effort to center teen readers and to more fully represent the breadth and scope of all that YA literature has to offer.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network