Realistic YA fiction: is it the next big thing, or has it been here all along? Five authors gathered for a BEA panel on May 31 called Realistic Fiction – The Next Hot YA Genre, to discuss whether the young adult pendulum is swinging away from paranormal and dystopian genres to contemporary. The guest speakers were Robyn Schneider, Katie Cotugno, Cat Patrick, Suzanne Young, and Corey Ann Haydu. Moderating the casual and high-spirited dialogue was Margot Wood of the Real Fauxtographer blog.
The authors agreed that realistic fiction has recently caught the eye of a vampire-weary industry, but believe that contemporary YA fiction never really went away. Cotugno, author of How to Love, (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Oct.), pointed out that even in paranormal or dystopian-themed books, there need to be relatable characters: “You want to read about characters who are experiencing what you are,” she said. Haydu, author of OCD Love Story (Simon Pulse, July) acknowledged that the popularity of John Green’s novels – about teens falling in love under trying circumstances and navigating the maelstrom of adolescence – has recently given realistic fiction a bump. But she also mentioned The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar as vintage examples of realistic books geared toward a younger audience. More recent favorites for the group include Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life (Little, Brown) and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Griffin).
There is no lack of steamy romance and violence across the gamut of paranormal fiction. But with the rise (or revival) of realistic YA fiction, which often tackles tough issues head-on – and without the guise of a supernatural veil – new questions about age-appropriate content inevitably come up. Is anything off limits? asked Wood. The short answer from the authors: no. But they agreed that there should be good reasons for writing edgy content, and that it’s important to write responsibly, honestly, and to not talk down to readers or moralize. When writing about core emotional experiences of adolescence, the authors all have different ways of finding a tone that is authentic. Haydu re-reads her own journals from that time period in her life. Patrick shared that she doesn’t write about what specifically happened, but she does use events in her life as a way to extrapolate the way a character would feel in a given situation. Schneider emphasized the value of representing universal emotional experiences in fiction – stories that are relatable while still being fresh and of-the-moment.
Among other topics that the speakers addressed were whether realistic fiction tends to have greater long-term resonance than genre fiction, whether a realistic YA story has to have an element of romance in order to captivate readers, and what the authors hope to see more of in new YA fiction. Haydu believes that “only time will tell” what books become classics, pointing to otherworldly stories like The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. “It’s hard to put a finger on what makes something last,” she said. Young echoed Cotugno’s earlier point: “The otherworldly has to have some realistic elements to give it staying power.”
On the question of romance, the panelists were pensive. “Teens come of age through romance,” Schneider said. For Haydu, romance doesn’t have to be the main focus of realistic YA fiction, but she admits she would have difficulty writing a novel that didn’t contain some romantic element – be it lust or a quiet crush. Cotugno observed that, structurally speaking, “romance can give a nice, clear arc” to a story. However, she added, “you don’t need a romance to resonate emotionally.”
The authors shared some thoughts about what they would like to see more of in YA novels. Young seeks stories that honestly and cogently address serious issues facing teenagers. Schneider would like to see more books that deal with illness and disability, but not necessarily as a central focus of the story. The authors also are anxious to see more stand-alone novels, as opposed to trilogies or longer series. Patrick said that fans often write to her, wanting to know what happens to the characters once the book is over – essentially begging for a sequel. But she sees standalone books as particularly valuable: readers finish a book and use their imaginations to decide what happens to the characters next, rather than having the answers at the ready. Schneider has similar feelings on the subject: “I love stand-alone books,” she said, adding that there is something deeply gratifying about having to say goodbye to characters at the end of a story. On the other hand, Young said she also loves it when side characters from novels reemerge in subsequent spinoff titles.
Partnerships and Points of View
Questions from the audience introduced even more topics: how physical descriptions of characters can enhance or detract from the reading experience, favorite YA guy characters, collaborative writing, and whether an adult p.o.v has a place in YA fiction.
Patrick and Young spoke about their recent collaboration on the novel Just Like Fate (Simon Pulse, Aug.), which brought them closer both creatively and personally. The authors created the story by e-mailing sections back-and-forth; it was a highly organic and surprisingly moving experience that Patrick described as being like “writing and reading a book at the same time.”
The five authors agreed that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to including adult characters in YA books. After all, they said, it’s a bit odd when all adult characters are inexplicably MIA or vacant vessels. But Schwartz believes that writing from an adult’s perspective can sometimes result in the narrative feeling removed from the teenage experience.
Park (from Eleanor & Park) and Colin Singleton (from An Abundance of Katherines, Dutton) reigned as more than one panelist’s favorite male characters. Schneider admitted that she unabashedly loves Ezra Faulkner from her latest novel, The Beginning of Everything (HarperCollins/Tegen, Aug.), noting that “he sees himself in a way that others don’t.” For example, he believes that he is physically unattractive, but other characters in the book allude to the fact that he’s quite good-looking.
On the subject of character’s physical traits, the authors agreed that there is some value in allowing readers to create their own visions of what a character looks like. Young also noted the tendency for YA books to romanticize the physical appearance of some boy characters, because 16-year-old boys are not always as mysterious, dashing, and debonair as some YA jacket art might suggest (same goes for girls, of course). Writing clear physical descriptions of boy characters, Schneider said, is far less important than creating “boy characters that feel emotionally real.”