When a speaker at Tuesday morning’s YA Editors’ Buzz Panel rhetorically posed the question “Does the world need another YA dystopia trilogy?” the answer seemed clear: Yes, as long as it’s a good story. As she and the four other panelists demonstrated, the genre has plenty of room for dystopias, realistic fiction, thrillers—provided they present authentic teenage voices that readers can relate to.
Gennifer Albin’s debut novel, Crewel—the dystopia mentioned above—concerns a world in which young women are tapped at age 16 to become Spinsters, who control society via their cosmic looms. Though Spinsters are gifted with eternal beauty and privilege, they still answer to men in charge. The heroine, Adelice, begins to realize that her world is built on lies. “I like to think of it as a futuristic Mad Men,” said Farrar, Straus and Giroux senior editor Janine O’Malley, citing the book’s atmospheric descriptions of men in sharp suits and women decked out in heels, all with an undercurrent of repression and feminism. “She’s created a world that’s so vivid, you can’t believe you can’t just get on a plane and go there.”
You could visit the world of Ever Davies, the 15-year-old girl at the heart of Donna Cooner’s Skinny, but she may not welcome your company. At 300 pounds, the teen is plagued by a voice inside her head that she’s named “Skinny”—which tells her she’s fat, ugly, and unlovable. After a heartbreaking and humiliating experience, Ever decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery, but even as she begins to shed pounds and take control of her life, said Scholastic senior editor Aimee Friedman: “Skinny is still there, hissing those horrible thoughts. That’s the power of this novel—we are all plagued by a Skinny.” A blurb from Lauren Myracle praises the novel as “the best and the truest depiction of the joys and pangs of transformation.”
All of the novels discussed, whether realistic or fantastical, address the teen hot-button topic of transition. Kat Zhang’s What’s Left of Me takes place in a world in which everyone is born with two souls, one of which is supposed to fade away by age six. In the case of Eva and Addie, that never happened, and only Addie, the dominant soul, knows that Eva still exists, trapped inside their body. Because such “hybrids” are considered a threat to society, they hide their secret—until they learn that there may be a way to bring Eva to the surface, and must decide whether to risk everything in order to do so. Editor Kari Sutherland of HarperCollins describes the sisters as being closer than twins, but “mixed in with the love are believable flashes of jealousy.” The relationship rings so true, Sutherland said, that she was surprised to learn that debut author Zhang—who began writing the novel in high school and now attends Vanderbilt University—is an only child.
Unlike Eva and Addie, the title character of Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz’s Colin Fischer is rather solitary—a boy with Asberger’s syndrome who is uncomfortable looking at others, who doesn’t like to be touched, and who needs index cards to recognize facial expressions. He also has keen powers of observation, which he uses to try to prove the innocence of the school bully, who is accused of bringing a gun to school and blowing up a cake in the cafeteria. Razorbill publisher Ben Schrank called Colin “an Encyclopedia Brown for a new generation,” adding that anyone who’s ever felt socially awkward will relate to Colin, and perhaps come away from the novel a little more forgiving of themselves.”
Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab, and Darby Creek, worked on Meagan Spooner’s violent, postapocalyptic debut, Skylark, when the entire YA genre seemed in need of forgiveness, and the question “Is YA too dark?” was being bandied about in the media. At the time, he said, “We were up to our elbows in the viscera of this book,” in which the protagonist, Lark, faces the choice that all adolescents face in one form or another: “Grow up or die. The only question,” Karre said, “is what kind of adult will you be?” It’s the authentic teenage voice, he adds, that makes a novel successful, no matter the subject. “If the story lacks the teenage voice, it lacks life,” Karre said. “Whether you set a novel in Dubuque or District 12, there’s a universal teenager at the core of every YA novel.”