Teens Writing Teens: September’s BBL on Teenagers with Book Contracts

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The Outsiders, first published in in 1967, began a genre of books for and about teenagers—and it was written by one, too. S.E. Hinton wrote her bleeding-edge coming-of-age novel as a fifteen- and sixteen-year-old high school student. Nowadays young adult literature is still defined by that acutely teenaged voice, and it seems teen and tween authors are writing themselves back into the genre. At September’s YPG BBL, “A Teenager with a Book Contract?!?” which took place on Tuesday, September 16th from 12:30-1:30pm at HarperCollins, moderator  Karl Jones (Assistant Editor at Grosset & Dunlap) and panelists Jessica Shoffel (Associate Director of Publicity at Penguin Young Readers Group), Daniel Lazar (Senior Agent at Writers House), Virginia Duncan (VP & Publisher of Greenwillow Books), and Anica Mrose Rissi (Executive Editor at Katherine Tegen Books) discussed this trend and shared their experiences working with young(er) authors with the 35 YPG members in attendance.

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It was easy enough for everyone to agree that any good book comes first from good writing. Panelists noted that their teen and tween authors are writing well beyond their years; they are thoughtful, professional, and smart—a rare, but wonderful combination. They have not just high-quality writing, but also a talent for revision. Lazar emphasized that, when editing, it’s important to recognize that though the problems apparent in writing by young authors might look different than what you’re used to, they come from the same place; it’s not a kid thing, it’s an author thing. And at the end of it all, the writing can’t be good writing for a teenager—it has to be good writing period.

Young adult fiction is all about an authentic teen voice, but it doesn’t follow that that voice needs to come from an actual teen. When young writers write young adult fiction, they write about their adolescent experience with the added challenge of still experiencing it. Panelists suggested that adults can often tell a better story; writing exactly in the moment is real and authentic, but doesn’t always make for an enjoyable narrative. Recalling discussions on diversity, Rissi asserted that it is a failure of writing to consider someone so other that you can’t get inside them—and skilled adult writers can and do write great teen voices. But when a teenaged author (with the help of an expert publishing team) works to universalize their own voice, it comes with an especial authenticity. As Duncan noted, teen writers’ novels are not the stories of their own lives, and so a lot of the editing process involves developing experiences that these young authors know so well into a more accessible, universal form.

Getting readers invested in books by youth, as always, requires a great pitch and publicity. The general consensus tended against using an author’s age for publicity. Duncan launched Falling into Place by Kat Zhang in-house without mentioning the author’s age, and Rissi observed that  authors who pitch themselves based on age may be less interested in writing as a career (the hook of being a teenager, by its nature, can’t last). Shoffel emphasized that the “kid author” angle is the low-hanging fruit; it’ll get a foot in the door, but there has to be something else to make it a really appealing pitch.

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Reader appeal also tends to vary, panelists agreed, between age groups. Lazar and Shoffel, who both worked with young author Jake Marcionette on Just Jake, both shared that because Marcionette wrote for a slightly younger middle-grade audience, his age was an effective selling point: twelve-year-old Jake was the perfect age for tween readers to look up to. But when it comes to teens, young authors may not find immediate success among their peers. Panelists who had worked with older teens noted that teen authors can sometimes feel peer pressure to hide their love of YA. It isn’t until they age up and out of their intended audience that they become more open and able to present their work to classmates and friends.

Panelists also shared advice for young publishing professionals who might work with adolescent authors, focusing on how to navigate the peculiar power relationship. To a teenager with a first book deal, publishers can be scary. So it’s important to get your author to a place where he or she feels like they can tell you the truth. Accomplish this through honest, open communication—right from the start. Get to know the parents, the agent, and the kid’s schedule, and understand that at this point in his or her life, he or she has to prioritize exams and school. You have to convince your author that you are not their teacher, and it’s okay to turn in a messy first draft. It’s their book, and they need to know that.

Nurturing these authors can be both a privilege and a challenge, the panel agreed. But the greatest strength of youth must be its audacity—a willingness to break the rules, if only because they don’t know them yet. Shoffel’s advice to young authors is this: don’t stop breaking barriers. We have too many of them.

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