Let’s Talk Young Adult Lit: A Chat with the Ladies of the Bookmark

E talks YA trends, tropes, and more with the lovely ladies behind The Bookmark blog and podcast.

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Anisha Singh and I first met in college, where we bonded during weekend debate trips to strange locales across the eastern seaboard (it was with Anisha that I visited my first Wawa–enough said). Aside from being a brilliant debater/ great giver of life advice, Anisha is an avid connoisseur of young adult lit. Whenever I am looking for someone to explore the meaning of Michael’s trip to Japan in the Princess Diaries, or someone with whom to deconstruct Katniss Everdeen as a modern heroine, I know Anisha is the right person for the job. As such, I was thrilled to learn Anisha and her friend Jess had started The Bookmark, a blog/podcast devoted exclusively to YA lit.  As expected, the blog is thoughtful, progressive, and generally a great place for anyone who spent most of their childhood up past bedtime hanging with Meg Murray and Charles Wallace. I could go on about how much I like The Bookmark‘s mission, ratings system, and well-curated selection of YA novels, but instead I’m going to direct you to the interview below. Enjoy!

As a genre, YA lit is relatively young–the first widely recognized YA book wasn’t published till WWII, and the term “Young Adult” as a literary designation didn’t enter common parlance till the 1960s. Why do you think the genre has taken off so quickly since then?

We think it’s possible to say that part of this shift in focus and targeting arose from the shift in lifestyles at the time. Prior to WWII people went from youth to adulthood (marked by marriage and raising their own children) pretty quickly. After WWII the liminal period of high school and college extended and young people had more time to grapple with selfhood before adulthood.

There’s been an increase of books targeting this awkward “not adult yet but dealing with adult issues” stage for a couple of reasons. One is the purely economic – just as the retail market realized they could advertise to teens, publishers realized they could make money by specifically targeting this demographic. Second is the way the world is changing – young people are stuck in a limbo period between losing childhood innocence and dealing with the full stressors of adulthood for a longer period of time and with more complexity; they look to books to navigate these life experiences. YA books provide the map.

Also, a book is YA if it’s written with the intent that teenagers will be reading the book, but we see strong evidence that these books resonate with readers both within that target range and above it, so it’s possible it’s just publishers pushing it as a genre for easier/lazy marketing.

In your opinion, what makes a commercially successful YA novel in today’s market? How might that differ from what you believe is a “good” YA novel?

It’s hard to tell what is going to be a commercially successful YA novel – except books from previously successful authors, they’re pretty much guaranteed to win. It does seem that often, one very successful book creates a trend to publish other related books. A couple of years ago, Twilight sparked more vampire/werewolves/mythic boyfriend books, and more recently, we’ve seen the Hunger Games spur more dystopic future books. Other than that, it’s hard to see what books will be successful. Unfortunately, another key factor is the publisher’s size and investment in the book. Let’s be honest, John Green is going to have huge wins because he gets a huge marketing budget for his books. Some of the books featured on our blog don’t have that advantage, so they have to depend on word of mouth and a smaller initial audience.

To us, good YA novels:

  • Make you experience the world differently (e.g. books with narrators of another gender, race, or financial level)
  • Make you feel at home (e.g. finding someone who sees the world you do)
  • Make you question your world and assumptions but leaves you with some directions for doing so.

New media is changing the publishing landscape in spades. How is this affecting YA lit in your opinion?

Due to new media and digital communities, publishing as a whole is seeing change. A lot of this comes in the form of interaction – with the author, with other fans of the books, and with the world of the book. Before, readers may have read a book, loved it, and passed it on to friends, but their interactions or conversations about the book were fairly limited to their small group. Now, we are able to log on to Twitter, Tumblr, or Goodreads and speak with readers all over the world. This is a fantastic development as it expands the conversations and fans are able to see how different experiences and perspectives affect the relationship to a book. It also allows fans/readers to expand the book’s world – fanfiction is all about that. These united communities can also be harnessed for projects and social change – like the “nerdfighters.” Communities can also be turned “bad,” as many communities can be, but, let’s not focus on that!

It’s possible that, as books spread more quickly and to wider audiences, publishing will winnow trends down to a limited number that appeal to these greater masses. But, thanks to independent publishers, epublishing, and other tools, it’s also possible for books with smaller audiences (or that are unappealing to big publishers for some reason) to find their niche and then grow a ground level community. Epublishing also allows writers to send their books into the world while avoiding the hierarchy and difficulty of the big publishers. This is definitely a pro/con – more books and easier access to readers/revenue is great for writers and readers, but we think there’s something to be said for the quality of books that go through the process of finding an agent and editor before being published. Ultimately, the changes are creating increased access to all types of books and increased interaction between readers and authors and allowing the fandoms to create larger, more vibrant communities.

Any YA trends right now you’d like to see more of? Less of?

We would love to see more books with more diverse narrators, especially strong heroines. But, we want to note that “strong” doesn’t mean the “Strong Female” trope – we want strongly written characters, not just strong, stoic, assertive, physically able women in our books. Being strong involves vulnerability, emotions, and love just as much as courage and physical strength.  The dystopic trend of female heroines (Katniss and Tris) have started more novels like this, but we’d like to see more non-white, non-straight women kicking ass.

(Note: I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard Legend by Marie Lu has a kick-ass nonwhite heroine.)

Though your podcast/site isn’t explicitly geared towards women, there are some (fabulously) heavy feminist undertones. Why do you think YA lit seems geared so strongly towards young women? Any ideas/recommendations to get guys reading more?

While we do pull out feminist issues in our reviews and podcasts, we don’t think that’s a “women” thing. Equal opportunity, privilege, and treatment for all genders and gender presentations are issues that everyone should care about.

We think part of why publishers target young women with their marketing is the (incorrect) belief that women are vapid and empty. Since the belief remains that YA isn’t “real” literature, then of course that’s what young women would want, right? The assumption that young men aren’t interested in reading is a very idea for us. It may have to do with the shift in masculinity that we’re seeing in society – until very recently, gender roles and expectations were fairly narrow and the spectrum of manhood was fairly limited. With the rise of “metrosexual” and the loosening social constraints around being openly gay, maybe it’s an extreme reaction against that? Especially since publishing has long been the world of white dudes, we find it really interesting that, suddenly, reading isn’t for young men. Are the men of today just waking up on their 25th birthday and becoming readers? Are they reading Dostoevsky at 15 because they jump from childhood to manhood without an interim period in which reading YA would allow them to grapple with heavy issues before settling into adults?

We also don’t believe that guys aren’t reading. Growing up, most of our guy friends read books extracurricularly. It’s possible/probable that they are not reading YA (at the rates of young women), but we think that’s because publishing/the world still thinks young men are too good for it and, therefore, aren’t yet marketing to them exclusively. But, the dichotomy of “boy” and “girl” books is problematic in itself. Clearly, we could go on for a while…

To get more young men reading YA, publishing needs to actually market to them and book covers need to stop being slathered in big poofy dresses and squiggly hearts (and that’s to make them more appealing for everyone, not just dudes).

Related question: anytime you control a content stream, you have the ability to shape a particular narrative/ agenda. Do you feel a sense of social responsibility in selecting certain novels to review over others?

Maybe we don’t feel a responsibility, per se, but we do have a commitment to reviewing books with diverse characters and by underrepresented authors. We both know that there are many amazing authors (especially non-white individuals) who do not receive the coverage they deserve, and we try to highlight their books. We do feel a responsibility to draw attention to well-written diversity and representation in the books we review. And, if it calls for it, we highlight problematic passages and try to inspire readers to read critically.

When searching for your next YA novel, where do you look (straight-up library perusal, recommendations from friends, bestsellers, hip indie websites…?)

We use several different methods. In choosing books for the blog, we first look at WeNeedDiverseBooks (www.weneeddiversebooks.org) to see what they’ve noted as new or coming soon. We also follow a ton of authors on Twitter and use their book recommendations as well. Goodreads also has great reader-generated lists that you can search – we used that to find diverse main characters in 2015 books. We also check a couple of other sites for new lists, which are provided below in “Other resources.”

Both of us randomly roam the library shelves as well – so much fun! That’s how Anisha happened to pick up Ashfall, which was a fantastic choice. We’ve also started recommending books to each other, but realize that our tastes are fairly different, so it’s sometimes hard to find something we both love.

How do your personal tastes in YA differ? What have you each learned from the other’s literary preferences?

Our personal tastes could not be more different.

Anisha has the preferences of a fifteen year old romantic. She reads a lot of boy-meets-girl on a beach stories (especially Sarah Dessen), but has gotten into the dystopic romance books as well (Hunger Games, Divergent). Anisha’s reading habits have reminded Jess about the joy of fresh, innocent love and the excitement and anxiety of first kisses.

Jess reads more adventure stories with much less romance. She also gets full credit for introducing Anisha to books with diverse perspectives. She challenges Anisha to actively choose books with diverse characters and stories, rather than “lazily” re-reading or only picking up popular books.

I despise when people dismiss YA books as vacant or unimportant. Can you tell me some personal ways YA books have impacted/shaped you into the mature adult ladies I know you to be?

YA or, really, any good book tells you more about yourself and the world than you ever really expect it to.

[Jessica] Reading encouraged me to look at the world from many different perspectives and to retain my wonder with the world. I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction – so looking at how the world could be and struggling with social issues in new situations. I think my teenage-self learned a lot about character and all the idealistic, best parts of humanity (courage, loyalty, hope, love, honor) from reading. I’m always inspired to (try to) embody those attributes in my life. YA books also showed me that you can always reinvent yourself and that it’s never too late to choose the “good” path. [Key books: Earthsea series, Alanna & Tortall, The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, The Golden Compass]

[Anisha]: The best YA books show narrators in completely foreign situations, but with completely relatable feelings and lessons. The topic that comes to mind most is courage. Many of the best young adult books focus on finding the bravery to do what is important, even when you’re scared (think: Harry in the graveyard, Katniss in the selection process, or Maya during the fight). Bravery isn’t about a lack of fear – it’s about acknowledging it, and choosing to still proceed. While my life is far less dramatic or adventurous than most of the books I read, I often think of these characters and principles as I try to make my own decisions.

Fill in the blanks (I know you both like to bend this rule but force yourself to pick just one book for each):

Favorite YA to movie adaptation:

Jess: I actually think Hunger Games is well done.

Anisha: In general, I try to separate movies and books. If you go to see your favorite book in its movie adaption, and expect it to be the same, you’re always going to be disappointed. Your favorite small parts will be cut, or you’ll imagine a character looking one way, but she ends up being cast differently. The best movie adaptions capture the feeling of the books, even if the plot or details are slightly different. I have a particular love for the first Hunger Games movie – Jennifer Lawrence’s performance really portrayed Katniss well, especially in her relationship with Prim and Peeta.

YA novel you’d want your daughter to read:

Jess: the entire EarthSea series by Ursula K LeGuin, especially the 4th and 5th book.

Anisha: Harry Potter – Because lets be real. Everyone should read Harry Potter.

YA novel you’d want your son to read:

Jess: the entire EarthSea series by Ursula K LeGuin, especially the 4th and 5th books

Anisha: Harry Potter – Because lets be real. Everyone should read Harry Potter.

Best YA novel published in the past year:

Anisha/Jess: This Side of Home by Rene Watson. No explanation needed. Just read it.

Best under-the-radar YA novel:

Jess/Anisha: Anything on our site since March.

YA novel you’d want your boyfriend to read:

Jess: the entire EarthSea series by Ursula K LeGuin, especially the 4th and 5th books – Seriously, these books are just so GOOD and the characters are such great examples of being good humans, family members, lovers, and friends while examining social structure and issues.

Anisha: Little Women – This was the first “young adult” book I read, and I’m irrationally attached to Amy. I want to share that feeling with my fiancé. 

You can choose one YA novel to represent the human species to a group of aliens who know virtually nothing about us (don’t worry they’re smart; they’ll grasp language). Which one do you pick? 

Jess: To Kill A Mockingbird – it’s got awful parts of humanity, but also the best, true parts that I would want any alien to know about humans.

Anisha: Little Women – Even though the book was written in 1868, the characters and situations are still relatable. I think it captures the human experience well – especially the importance of hard work, family, and sisterhood.

Any further resources you’d like to recommend to readers enthused about YA lit (other podcasts, websites, articles, etc.)? 

Anisha and Jess, thank you infinitely! It was a joy to get to talk about this topic in a serious way with two minds as brilliant as yours. I’m also going to get my hands on a copy of This Side of Home tout de suite.

xox E

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