This week, the second part of my interview with librarians Sarah Dentan, Kevin Moore and Britt Donohue…
ANDREW PETERS: A pesky topic among YA authors is the elusive subgenre of “edgy” YA. So many publishers and agents say they’re looking for it. But a common complaint by authors is that they’re asked to pull back on the mature themes in their work. One writer I know was told that the expletive “frickin’” was not appropriate for a middle grade book.
What are your thoughts on edgy YA? Are there lines that get crossed that move a book from the YA to the adult section of the library?
KEVIN MOORE: No. Well, there shouldn’t be. Our system is pretty dedicated to intellectual freedom, and book re-location is not done lightly.
Keep in mind, middle school books are aimed not only at public libraries, but at middle school libraries themselves, as well as libraries in K – 8 schools. They tend to be much more sensitive regarding those issues, because the “book challenge bar” is much lower. Don’t get me wrong: school librarians care very much about intellectual freedom, and some have risked their jobs to protect student access to materials that some interest groups find offensive. But they have much less leeway and can be easily overridden by an administrator intimidated by an angry parent.
BRITT WHITE: The “voice” is most often what differentiates a YA book from one that is more appropriate for adults. There are some extremely edgy YA books out (Ellen Hopkins, anyone??) that still have a teen voice and resonate with and are appropriate for that age group.
SARAH DENTAN: I like the way Laurie Halse Anderson talks about this issue – her books are edgy, harrowing, and for some folks triggering, so she knows of what she speaks. I’m paraphrasing inelegantly, but she holds that a teen book has to have a sense of movement through a situation, change or growth over the course of the story, some sort of hope for the future, even if it’s small and not guaranteed. That works for me.
I have a real problem with people who want to water down YA literature (or kid’s literature, for that matter) to “protect” kids. Far too often, they’re actually protecting parents (or less often, teachers) who are unwilling/unable to have potentially uncomfortable conversations with kids about values, history, or other “edgy” topics.
BW: A different way of looking at this issue is that a YA author should understand the audience she’s writing for. “Teen” encompasses a wide range of years, during which an impossibly huge number of emotional, physical, and psychological changes are taking place. So there’s quite a difference in what’s interesting and appropriate for an 18 year old versus a 13 year old.
A nice development is the emergence of “tween” books, aimed at kids anywhere from 8 to 13. There are several authors writing quality material for younger teens that hits on topics they relate to, without stepping further ahead of them, as in the case of edgier YA—which may be totally appropriate for older teens.
AP: One positive thing is the increasing number of titles with LGBT themes. I doubt there was a single book in my high school library that included a gay character. If a kid goes to a public library looking for those kind of stories, what are some of the typical titles/authors she’s likely to find?
SD: I was actually just talking to a selector about this. When I was in library school, 15 years ago, I did a paper on LGBT YA lit, and I could count on one hand the titles available, including those in which the gay character was tangential.
I’m not up to speed on LGBT teen works, but I’m happy to expound on queer picture books. Elementary-level books with LGBT content will, I think, be the final frontier in this area. As kids come out at younger ages, there will be more call for LGBT materials at this level. It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out.
BW: Alex Sanchez ( RAINBOW BOYS Trilogy, SO HARD TO SAY ), Nancy Garden ( ANNIE ON MY MIND ) , Ellen Wittlinger ( PARROTFISH, HARD LOVE ), Julie Ann Peters ( BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS I’LL BE DEAD ), Deb Caletti ( THE NATURE OF JADE ), Brent Hartinger ( GEOGRAPHY CLUB, SHADOW WALKERS ), David Levithan ( BOY MEETS BOY, WIDE AWAKE ), ME Kerr ( DELIVER US FROM EVIE )…just to name a few. Another really great thing that is happening is the appearance of gay characters within a non-LGBT focused story. What I mean is that the gayness of any one character is not the central theme of the story. It’s just treated as one aspect of who that person is, and oftentimes not even the most important aspect.
AP: A peeve of mine with brick-and-mortar bookstores—both the big ones like Barnes & Noble and even the independent ones—is their LGBT selection is so limited: celebrity non-fiction, erotica, self-help books, and that’s about it. Do you find libraries doing better or worse? I mean, LGBT fiction now comes in so many genres—mystery, fantasy, horror, etc..
SD: This really depends on the library system. Berkeley has a very well-balanced collection for teens and adults. San Francisco has a rich collection and an LBGT-focused neighborhood branch. I’ve seen many places, however, where the YA collection is richer than that for adults.
KM: I think libraries more likely do better than commercial stores, because they are not driven by a profit mandate, but a public mandate to serve a wide range of reader interests. Obviously, the culture and times have changed, so the public’s appreciation of “diversity” has grown, too. I think libraries have done a good job on being out on the leading edge. And I speak actually from my experience in my pre-librarian just-a-patron days when I stumbled across a book in my local branch’s fiction section, Robert Rodi’s FAG HAG. Bright green cover with neon pink lettering. Couldn’t miss it. Naturally I borrowed it.
BW: Similar to retailers, it’s not unusual for libraries to keep to large, general genre designations, like mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, etc., and not separate their collections into more specific genre designations such as a Christian Fiction or an LGBT section. But I think by and large, we do better in terms of stocking LGBT titles.
AP: What YA LGBT fiction has impressed you?
KM: Sara Ryan’s EMPRESS OF THE WORLD is a groundbreaker in treating a summer love affair between two teen girls as a complex, confusing and sweet episode in their lives. One girl realizes she’s gay, the other that she is bi. Ryan avoids a lot of the coming out clichés by treating her characters as individuals with unique interests and personalities, and her resolution shows her characters as having actually grown up a little. (Full disclosure: Sara’s a friend; but honestly, it’s damn good.)
BW: Just generally, I’m impressed that LGBT characters are more mainstream in YA fiction. And I find that authors are taking time to address the physical aspects of LGBT relationships. Teens need to be able to see themselves in what they are reading and if authors neglect to address something as important as the physical manifestation of gay love they are leaving teens with an incomplete picture.
I also enjoy that authors like Alex Sanchez are addressing the challenges of being Christian and gay.
SD: I’m more up to date with children’s lit, and we’ve come so far since Leslea Newman’s HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES and Michael Willhouite’s DADDY’S ROOMMATE.
KING AND KING by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijlands is glorious. The inclusiveness of all of Todd Parr’s work is super, and it’s becoming easier and easier to find books where gay families are simply presented as part of the landscape. EVERYWHERE BABIES by Susan Meyers is a personal favorite. Also of note: 10,000 DRESSES by Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray is the first (only?) picture book I’m aware of that focuses on a transgender child.
AP: Librarians tend to be pretty cool, progressive people. And so are most folks in the publishing industry, in my experience. But it is a business, and like the film industry, it’s sort of naturally aversive to risk. Publishing folks will scream up and down: it doesn’t matter who the protag of your story is, or what issues they’re facing; if you write a good story, it will sell.
But if you look at the YA books that get published each year, by the big houses, they’re overwhelmingly about middle class, white hetero kids.
Do you see librarians having an influence in diversifying YA, on that level?
SD: This is an ongoing struggle. I’m desperate for kids’ books that deal with having a parent in prison, an issue touching a huge population of kids. I’ve identified two.
While YA librarians tend toward the progressive and activist, we are still by and large white and middle middle class, and we’re not immune to the common cultural blinders that come with that. So, for example, most folks are aware of the paucity of material reflecting the African American experience, but we might not think to talk up a contemporary African American novel to a classroom of white kids.
I say “contemporary” for a reason. I recently came across a list of books around the African American experience made up wholly of historical fiction. I haven’t seen this same thing in booklists around the Asian American or Latino/a experience. I think there’s something there about racism, about how we “good liberals,” and I include myself in that group, want to believe we’re post-racial, so all that bad stuff is in the past.
That said, Francisca Goldsmith [a Board member of the Young Adult Library Services Association] wrote an article recently that hit this dead on. She looked at it from the perspective of the language we use in describing books. What’s the difference in saying books are “by”, “for” or “about” marginalized folks? How does our language around these materials serve to keep those materials marginalized? Why do we assume people only want to read about themselves? Why do we assume a single book can contain the totality of a community’s experience? We need to challenge each other, and ourselves, to get outside our comfort zones more, I think.
KM: I absolutely believe librarians can make a difference here. Per the public mandate to serve a diverse readership, librarians are constantly seeking materials that will reach underserved populations; that certainly includes LGBT YA. As such, they create a certain level of demand. I don’t want to exaggerate that level of influence, but librarian organizations such as YALSA advocate for more LGBT titles, and maintain lists of books in that category. I think publishers pay attention to that stuff.
BW: Librarians can have an influence if they effectively communicate with publishers and authors what their teens would like to read. A few years ago I had a mother ask me for a book about an African American boy who played chess. I was at a total loss! Changes come slowly, but by librarians attending conferences where authors speak and being very vocal with publishers and distributors, someone will respond.
AP: Including and beyond YA, who are some of the authors that have recently knocked your socks off?
BW: I tend to read a lot of YA authors. Joan Bauer’s new book CLOSE TO FAMOUS was a nice surprise. I love her work, but all her books—geared to ‘tweens’—share a certain style that can be tiresome. This new one had all the Joan Bauer goodness presented in a refreshing way. Another tween book I loved is WAITING FOR NORMAL by Leslie Connor. IF I STAY by Gayle Forman was riveting and heartbreaking, and definitely for older teens.
SD: I just finished THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer. It’s beautiful, complex, lots of stuff about architecture and Europe in the 1940s. It’s shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so I’m thinking of pulling my “to read” books from those awards list.
Probably due to my recent conversion, I’m all about the Jew right now, and there are a few recent reads that stand out – the YA novel HUSH by Eishes Chayil, a pseudonym, about a 17-year-old’s acknowledgement of the truth of her best friend’s suicide, set in a very circumscribed Orthodox community in New York, and Barry Deustch’s HEREVILLE: HOW MIRKA GOT HER SWORD—a graphic novel, the story of “yet another 11-year old troll-fighting Orthodox girl.”
KM: Jim Ottiavani has written several excellent graphic novels on various science themes. BONE SHARPS, COWBOYS AND THUNDER LIZARDS tells the story of the competition between O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope to collect, name and publish articles on dinosaur bones. I think young readers in their teens and in college would really like the humor, suspense and great cartooning.
Raina Telgemeier’s SMILE is great, too. She uses comics to tell her personal difficulties with dentistry as a teenager and how it affected her social life. Very funny and moving. My daughter has read it four or five times already.
AP: So many great suggestions. Thanks guys! So one last question, just off the wall, but kind of bringing things full circle….I mentioned Parker Posey’s PARTY GIRL as a lead-in to our conversation. It happens to be one of my favorite movies, but I’m willing to be enlightened: Is PARTY GIRL good or bad for librarians?
KM: We watched that movie for my introduction to librarianship class in grad school. So I say good, provided you have some tongue in cheek.
BW: From what I can remember, it’s probably good for librarians because Parker Posey desperately wants to be one. AND I’m such a huge fan of PP that I consider anything she does as good for human kind.
SD: I agree with all the above. And I saw it after I’d been working a year or so, in a theater, with another librarian. We laughed more than anyone else, so it does have some insider cache happening. plus it’s way better than “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag”, the only other movie I’m aware of with a librarian protagonist. Noah Wylie doesn’t count.
AP: That’s three for three. We love you Parker Posey!!