Malahat volunteer Megan Welsh talks with Christine Walde about her role as moderator for Young Adult Fiction: All Grown Up?, one of four interactive panel discussions at this year's literary symposium, WordsThaw. Panelists include Kirsten Andersen, Sarah Harvey, and Robin Stevenson.
This panel will take place Saturday, March 21, 10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m., at the University of Victoria.
As the moderator for the WordsThaw 2015 panel on young adult fiction, what kinds of questions are you most eager to see raised with the panelists?
I'm looking forward to hearing questions that discuss the vibrancy and importance of contemporary young adult fiction. We've got a great panel lined up, with editor and author Sarah Harvey, author Robin Stevenson and librarian Kirsten Anderson. I'm very excited to be moderating such a distinguished group of panellists, and hope the questions will reflect the range of their experience, expertise and passion for fiction for young adults.
Let’s also consider the question, “Has recent YA writing turned to the dark side?” Is this a trick question? That is, violence, sexuality, and thematic intensity are not new to young adult fiction (I think of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, with its teenage pregnancy, gang violence, and murder, not to mention—more recently—your own novels). Is this a matter of so-called “pearl-clutching”—think of the children!—or is something different about contemporary work? Certainly age is no guarantee against trauma: Does young adult fiction—or “good” young adult fiction—speak to this? Does the influx of dystopian novels, for instance, reflect real questions about our governments and futures, or does it cash in on a trend?
There's a lot in this question that needs unpacking. First of all, I think one of the major problems with YA literature is that people believe that it needs to teach a moral lesson, and that it has to be morally virtuous or something; to protect the innocence of youth — whatever that means. Look at all the uproar caused by Barbara Kay and her ridiculous critique of Raziel Reid's Governor-General award-winning novel, When Everything Feels Like The Movies, which she called a "values-void" work of literature. Where is it written that YA literature has to be moralistic? C'mon. The reality is that most teens know other teens who do drugs, who get pregnant, who are in gangs, and even if they don't, teenagers are continually being confronted by a larger adult world that oppresses them with its systems of violence and information. Young adult fiction reflects that world — whether it is dystopian or not —in a way no other literature can; it not only speaks to teens and their shared experiences, but gives them an important voice within our culture.
Or is it, perhaps, that writing for young adults has changed in its approach to content, rather than in its content? For instance, Annette Curtis Klause asked in the introduction to her 1990 novel The Silver Kiss, “What would make a teenage girl so lonely and isolated that she would be susceptible to the charms of a vampire?” Fifteen years later, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (in)famously inverted the question: How can a teenage girl use loneliness and isolation to attract a vampire? We see, too, that young adult fiction—Twilight, for example—is often used to disparage its readers rather than to open conversation. Do you think these kinds of challenges may come up during the panel?
Young adult fiction is a genre. And like other forms of fiction, it has its bestselling authors. It's because of some of these huge successes —like Twilight, for example— that people are even talking about YA literature at all. It's like 50 Shades of Grey and self-publishing: that book blew open the market for self-published authors. And Stephenie Meyer is the same. In total, the series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide in 37 languages. I'm not about to disparage any readers with statistics like that, even though I've never read the book myself. Which leads me to believe that writing for young adults is not about content: it's about context. And the context of a book like Twilight, marketed to a mass global audience of young readers, makes more sense than thinking about the words inside. That's what publishers figured out. They're pitching content — vampires, wizards, werewolves, whatever; which will of course variably change depending on how the market sways — but what they're really selling is context, and of participating in a cult of global readership. And if people want to talk about Twilight at the panel, I'm fine with that, just as long as we also understand it as capitalist phenomena.
If we think about “the genre moving too far from its roots,” what would you consider these “roots” to be? Any particular seminal writers, novels, or themes? Again, my first thought is The Outsiders, but young adult fiction has a long history, and children’s literature an even longer one. What “roots” are we getting away from (if, indeed, we are at all)?
This is a difficult question. But in short, I don't believe we are getting away from any “roots” at all. I think, if I could carry this analogy a little further, that we've just starting digging into the ground of where the roots might be. Sure, there's a tradition of young adult fiction with books like The Outsiders, but what about The Hunger Games and all the dystopian novels being written? We don't yet know what the impact of these books will be on readers and what future ground will be sown.
Similarly, one of the more controversial questions about young adult fiction, I think, asks who its readers are. Some argue that reading is reading, regardless of the book, while others argue for fluidity, that anyone of any age can have a reading stack featuring Suzanne Collins, Anne Brontë, and Angela Davis together. Still others insist that young adult fiction is transitional—Something to be grown out of. In “Who Killed Adulthood?” Sady Doyle argues that while extreme economic and cultural shifts have blurred the lines between childhood and adulthood, adults still have no business reading young adult fiction. As a writer of young adult fiction, do your own feelings fall somewhere on this spectrum? Do you read young adult fiction for pleasure, for business, or both?
I've always believed that a person, whatever their age, should be able to read whatever they want, whenever they want, widely and wildly. As a librarian, I don't believe in censoring people's freedom to read. Personally, I don't read a lot of young adult fiction; I prefer to read poetry or philosophy or nonfiction. As a writer, I find these kinds of stories better inform my writing practice than reading fiction.
What's more interesting to me about this question is evolving models of reading and the changing landscape of literacy. I find that what's often missing from this ongoing debate about whether or not adults should read YA is how we are evolving as human beings to accommodate the translation/interpretation of multi-modal textualities we encounter in virtual space.
Do you feel that writers have a responsibility to their young readers, either in their interactions or in their content, or that adult writers (and readers) have a responsibility to know when to back off?
When I am writing, I don't think “I am writing a book for teens”; I just write. This year I was nominated for a ReLit Award for my last YA book, Burning from the Inside, and it was a real revelation to me that someone had read it and appreciated what I was trying to do, and recognized it as a work of fiction, not just YA. To me that's the most important thing. Being true to my voice as a writer and being true to the work.
Many of our “worries” about young adult fiction sound much like questions facing fiction-writing at large: Will the novel survive? Is publishing a “popularity contest”? Where is the “raw,” “good” stuff? Will reading survive the Internet? Are readers less discerning than in days of yore? Fear, I think, drives a lot of these questions, but do they still hold merit? What is unique about these questions, then, as they relate to young adult fiction?Young adult fiction is still evolving, just as new ways of reading —and writing— in online communities of social media is changing the way we look at words and engage with bodies of information. I'm no predictor of the future. What we should remember from an evolutionary standpoint is that our brains are not wired for reading, although we have learned how to navigate our environment, to "read" it, through print-based technologies. What is the future of reading YA? Will it be a kind of community? A space where WattPad meets YouTube? Perhaps. What I know for sure is that there will always be books, and readers, and stories; since the power of narrative unites us. We cannot escape the beginning, middle and end of our lives. Not yet, anyway.
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