You Can Read a YA Book on the Train

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On February 8, 2011, in our largest Brown Bag Lunch to date, over 150 YPG members gathered at Random House to discuss an increasingly popular topic among readers and publishers: Young Adult literature. Panelists David Levithan (VP/Editorial Director at Scholastic), Sara Shandler (VP/Editorial Director at Alloy Entertainment), Jennifer Klonsky (Editorial Director of Simon Pulse), and Barbara A. Genco (Editor, Collection Management at Library Journal) weighed in on how this booming section of the industry garnered readership over the years and how it is now taking the lead in popular titles circulating around the reader community. That’s right: YA novels. You see them in bookstores, made into TV shows, and if the novel is popular enough you’ll see it at a theater near you. YA novels are taking the publishing industry by storm, though this wasn’t an overnight success.

The panel was introduced and moderated by Levithan, the comedic YA guru who oversees the fiction list, the cross media publishing program, and the PUSH teen imprint at Scholastic (as well as being a successful YA writer himself). Levithan emphasized that the Young Adult genre serves as a test case for the entire scope of publishing, especially in areas of technology and media. While the rest of the publishing industry is awaiting a digital business formula to determine their future paths, Levithan insists that YA audiences are paving the way, specifically pointing out that the “mommy blogger” has become the new book critic.

As a proponent of these new measures, Shandler explained that every YA novel is a coming-of-age story—the struggle, the means to the struggle, and its resolution are something teenagers and adults alike are looking for. She also emphasized that while the writer is ultimately writing for a teen audience, the writer is also writing for his or her editor. Very little can afford to be lost in finding that middle ground. Writers shouldn’t change their voice for the YA reader, since in many cases the reader isn’t a teen; though if they are, the writer runs into the risk of offending them by “dumbing down” their work, because as Shandler noted, “Teenagers are savvy and sophisticated.”

Her advice tied in well with what Klonsky had to say about YA publishing. Klonsky explained that, though there have been many “lightning in a bottle” moments in her career, she still remains close to the fundamentals: finding works that speak directly to the hearts of teens, but that can also be placed on the adult shelf to augment readership. She touched on her experience as an editor in the YA industry and how she has remained successful by understanding that she’s allowed to have her own point of view when working with an author. Klonsky explained that while branding, title imaging, and social media/self-promotion is clearly the key to creating a household name, an author’s name won’t go far without the right kind of voice.

Library Journal’s Genco took an historical approach to prove just how profound an impact YA writing has had on the publishing industry and linking the beginning of the YA genre with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye. “Adolescence, the coming-of-age story, young adulthood—these are the core values in a YA novel. Salinger was the first to accomplish that in a meaningful way,” Genco explained. She also noted that the success of the genre was due to its birth at a moment when such themes of struggling to define one’s individuality and independence resonated with a young audience ready to defy the “Silent Generation,” the complacent generation of their parents who would not speak up for themselves in an age of conservatism.

The Beat writers (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, etc.) rose to this very occasion. Their novels were intellectually hip, transcended age and class to reach a truer meaning of existence, and found that the age sixty was the new forty and that we could all be young at heart. Nowadays in YA literature, as all of our panelists have made clear, thirty has become the new fifteen.

Just as the Beats did fifty years ago, younger generations today continue to search for identity, companionship, independence, and love in a complete and passionate way. Whether through the eyes of a wizard, a vampire, or a drug-addled debutante, they find their voices in YA novels, and their life lessons play out in satisfying and entertaining ways. In any case, readers are always searching for good stories with a sense of life breathed into them. What better way to achieve that than through the eyes of a young adult?

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