Being a teenager isn’t easy. That’s been the case for generations, but it’s arguably truer than ever in a world growing increasingly complicated. What’s also true is that publishers of YA fiction are striving to amplify a variety of teen experiences and engage and entertain a large, diverse readership. We spoke with editors about three areas of expansion.
More New Faces in Fantasy
The YA fantasy genre continues to expand at a steady clip, allowing characters who may have previously been relegated to sidekick status, or not represented at all, to move into the spotlight. “It’s so exciting to see underrepresented characters take center stage in worlds that we haven’t already explored thousands of times in YA,” says Sarah Shumway, executive editor at Bloomsbury.
In the foreword to His Hideous Heart: 13 of Edgar Allan Poe’s Most Unsettling Tales Reimagined (Flatiron), editor Dahlia Adler says she was inspired to bring characters from society’s margins to the center via Poe’s stories. Sarah Barley, editorial director of young adult publishing at Flatiron Books, was sold on the project immediately. “I fell in love with that pitch,” she says. “It’s a way to honor the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whom we’re all studying and love or loathe in the 10th grade, and to bring new life to these relatively homogenous perspectives. It’s a moment of homage and fun.”
According to Melissa Frain, senior editor at Tor Teen, more diverse voices, plots, and topics have indeed been coming her way, but, she says, “I want more! Readers want and deserve to see their media reflect the breadth of the world they live in. I hear so much from authors that they’re writing the books they wish they’d had as teenagers. I think as a result we’re finally starting to see our books reflect a more realistic range of experiences, and readers are really responding to that.”
Forward momentum in this area is on the radar of Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “I’ve definitely been seeing more diverse YA fantasy submitted over the last five or so years, and more by authors of those diverse backgrounds, too,” she says. “I credit this in part to the efforts of We Need Diverse Books and other organizations, as well as #DVPit. We’re always seeking to acquire more books that reflect our world, and more books that feature historically underrepresented characters.”
Though Kendra Levin, editorial director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, says she’s pleased with any uptick the industry may see in representing characters that have historically gotten short shrift, publishers have a long way to go. “I hesitate to lump all YA fantasy featuring any kind of underrepresented characters together as a monolith, because under that umbrella, there’s such an incredibly broad and varied spectrum of literature,” she states. “But I do feel that, as publishers, we have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to offering representation to a whole range of historically marginalized groups in all genres, including fantasy, and that’s something the group at S&S is certainly invested in doing.”
Jenny Bak, editorial director at Jimmy Patterson Books, addresses the publishing industry’s journey toward more inclusion. “I wish it were otherwise, but there aren’t enough people of color in editorial roles,” she says. “Being one of the few, I think I tend to get projects with POC characters in hopes that I will give them extra consideration—and I will.”
Bak recalls the deep significance of representation in her own experience. “I was one of those nonwhite kids who begged for a blond and blue-eyed Cabbage Patch doll,” she says. “It’s because I was conditioned through books and TV to see those traits as the epitome of beauty. In order to demolish that, we need to show kids heroes of all kinds. I’m proud that Girls of Storm and Shadow [a sequel to Girls of Paper and Fire, due out in November] has an Asian protagonist who openly and passionately loves another girl while battling the monarchy.”
Ling at LBYR references the windows-and-mirrors analogy popularized by Rudine Sims Bishop when she says, “Readers are hungry to see themselves mirrored back at them in the books they read, and readers are also seeking books that serve as a window into other worlds. I know that, when I was a child, I hungered for any depiction of Asians and Asian Americans in the books I was reading, and was not finding them. I’m still looking for this in the books I read today. We need this representation across all categories and genres.”
The window aspect of representation in teen lit can have a powerful positive ripple effect, according to Tor Teen senior editor Ali Fisher. “Teenagers are confronted by prejudice and hatred every day, from peers and from those who run the country, so it’s vital for young people from all communities to feel valued and seen,” she says. “And it’s also good for people to read outside of their own experiences to learn to empathize and understand. In some ways, diverse YA fantasy is kind of like Empathy 101 with a side of cool magic.”
Like several of her fellow editors, Liesa Abrams, v-p and editorial director at Simon Pulse, points out that the fantasy and science fiction genres in particular “have always served as vehicles to metaphorically explore social issues” as well. She mentions Tracy Deonn’s debut novel Legendborn, due out in fall 2020, as an example of how new voices can expand the genre. In the story, Deonn merges a modern twist on King Arthur mythology with themes specific to the experience of a black teen in the American South. “People might say love triangles have been done to death—but they haven’t been done to death in a Southern black girl magic fantasy series, because we simply haven’t had enough black authors writing these stories in YA fantasy,” Deonn says. “It’s not just a numbers game of filling more slots, it’s about how marginalized voices are able to spin these tropes in fresh ways.”
The book descriptor “clean teen” has been bandied about for years now. Though its use isn’t universal, most in the book business will recognize it as a label that some librarians, educators, and publishers are using to indicate YA books considered more suitable for younger or more sensitive readers because they are lighter on sexual or violent content and typically do not contain profanity.
“We refer to these books as ‘clean teen’ as well as ‘younger teen,’ ” says Annie Berger, senior editor at Sourcebooks. “We tend to see these as books that don’t have explicit sexual content, excessive violence, drug or alcohol use, or [obscene] language.”
Kendra Levin at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers observes that “the meaning of ‘clean teen’ can depend on the context, but within publishing houses, I think it’s most often used to describe a buffer zone between middle grade and mature YA—books specifically geared toward the younger end of the teen spectrum. You could also call this young teen and 12-and-up YA, as opposed to 14 and up.”
Clean teen as a concept invites controversy. Those who work with YA books and readers frequently categorize titles by genre, into groups like fantasy-adventure, mystery, supernatural romance, or dystopian. Many people we spoke with for this article don’t consider clean teen a distinct book genre, and they avoid using the term because it suggests some judgment of a book’s content.
Beverly Horowitz, senior v-p and publisher at Delacorte Press, says she hears the term when she attends various educational, library, or bookselling conferences or gatherings. “People ask, ‘Do you have something clean?’ Or they may say, ‘Do you have something for readers less interested in more sophisticated teen stories?’ ” she says. “Are we speaking the same language here? I think we are.”
Pat Scales, former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and author of the “Scales on Censorship” column for School Library Journal, believes that “clean teen is a form of labeling that plays into the hands of censors. Who decides what gets classed as clean teen? Are they implying that books not labeled ‘clean teen’ are unclean? Do these people have the right to determine what is appropriate for others? One family’s idea of clean may be very different from another family’s idea.”
Levin at S&S feels similarly. She says, “I don’t love the term ‘clean teen’ because it feels a bit puritanical to me, the implication being that a certain kind of story is clean and anything else is dirty.”
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers uses age-based categories for its YA offerings. Ling explains, “We currently have two age ranges designated for YA. The book will either be categorized as for ages 12 and up or ages 14 and up. The former category would be what some might consider clean teen.” She points out that the in-house breakdown is often guided by a book’s content, though there is not a strict formula for making the distinction. “Generally, I’d say books that include teens having sex, drinking, or doing drugs, dropping a ton of ‘f-bombs,’ [or] killing are generally categorized as for ages 14 and up,” she adds. “Although it’s not a hard-and-fast rule by any means. As we all know, kids and teens develop at different rates. Many kids are reading adult books when they’re 12, so this is all so subjective.”
Aimee Friedman, editorial director at Scholastic, says she believes that, for a book to fit the clean teen mold, “the characters need to be teens, somewhere between 14 and 17, maybe 13, and dealing with what are generally thought of as teen issues—high school, preparing for college, romance, friendship, independence, body image, politics, social media, familial tension, to name just a few topics. But the content of the book doesn’t contain any overt sex, drugs—rock ’n’ roll is okay—or language. It’s basically somewhere between a PG and PG-13 rating; it’s a story that a teacher or parent or librarian would feel comfortable giving to an 11- or 12-year-old as an ‘aspirational’ read.”
One of the most frequently cited reasons that gatekeepers and publishers give for seeking out the type of books “clean teen” is used to describe is the need to provide material for younger readers who are “reading up.” This term refers to kids with advanced reading skills who want to read teen or even adult books, but may not be emotionally ready for more complex subject matter.
“There’s a need for YA novels without risqué content, because of course there are loads of bright young readers who read up, and parents of these kids don’t want to worry about their children encountering difficult content before they’re ready,” says Anne Heltzel, executive editor at Abrams’s Amulet imprint. “For those precocious elementary school kids who have aged out of middle grade and are hungry for something more challenging, these are perfect.”
As Suzanne Costner, an elementary school library media specialist in Maryville, Tenn., observes, “Fourth and fifth graders who are excellent readers go through every series or topic that appeals to them, and then beg for more. They often want books that have been made into popular movies, such as The Hunger Games and Twilight, but the content of those types of books is too violent or has too many romantic situations for their age level and for their parents’ comfort.” In her view, books that offer “favorite topics, adventure, excitement, and romantic interest without any physical intimacy—and have more advanced vocabulary or lengthier stories—are what these students need.” Costner says she doesn’t refer to these books by any particular label, but that she lets parents and teachers know about books that are age-appropriate for readers who need a challenge.
“There are a lot of young readers out there who have either graduated or are looking to read up from the traditional middle grade age range, but aren’t quite ready for all of young adult books,” says Berger at Sourcebooks. “We definitely want to give those readers quality projects that they will enjoy and that gatekeepers will feel comfortable recommending to them.”
Scales, for one, doesn’t buy the language that some gatekeepers use to talk about young readers’ needs. “I’m concerned about the loose use of ‘reading level,’ ” she says. “Reading level refers to a person’s ability to read. Most middle school students can read what any teen or adult can read. They don’t flock to YA books because of their ability to read them; they read them because the books interest them.” She echoes the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights when she adds, “Prejudicial labels such as ‘clean teen’ are used as warning and designed to restrict access. There is a slippery slope here, and parents should be warned about this practice.”
However, Costner maintains that her professional assessment of the books available to her students is often sought and appreciated. “I have had parents come by the library or visit during a book fair and ask if YA titles were available, concerned that their children would check them out or buy them and encounter content that was not appropriate,” she says. “I have never had a parent say that I was censoring their child’s reading choices.”
And, of course, for any number of reasons, some readers will simply prefer the kinds of stories that happen to fit the clean teen label. “We have always published and will continue to publish what has been historically called ‘clean teen,’ ” says Mara Anastas, v-p and publisher of Simon Pulse. “There is always a place for books for teens that can show how couples can connect with words and feelings without necessarily having sex. As a teen-only imprint, it is important for us to represent teens in all the ways that they interact with each other. So, while we address tough issues such as sex and violence, it’s also important to be relevant with our publishing by including books that appeal to readers who want to experience great fantasy, romance, or friendship stories, with an emotional journey that doesn’t have to include explicit violence or sex.”
Levin at S&S says that the spike in popularity of YA fiction among adults has changed the market landscape and “allowed teen fiction to stretch in so many wonderful ways—in sophistication, in subject matter.” But, she adds, “an unfortunate side effect has been that, as so much YA fiction has scooched up toward that adult audience, much of it is no longer meeting the needs of younger teens who may not be ready or interested in reading about older teen characters who act more like 20-somethings.” Anecdotally, she has heard from many parents of young teens that their kids “already feel so much pressure from the world around them—from current events, social media, the school environment—that they look to fiction as a real escape, a place where the stakes can be low and the consequences can be gentle. I think there are many teen readers out there looking for the experience that clean teen can offer.”
Horowitz at Delacorte says, “I think the idea of a book that is not either focusing on the sexuality of the teenagers who are involved, or the eagerness to have sex, is in some way just part of the conversation about the variety of kids reading our books.” She points to titles on the Delacorte list by authors Jennifer E. Smith (Field Notes on Love) and Julie Buxbaum (Hope and Other Punchlines) as examples of books that may appeal to clean teen aficionados.
Among the companies that embrace the clean teen label wholeheartedly is Clean Teen Publishing, cofounded by authors Rebecca Gober and Courtney Knight in 2013. The publisher has devised its own ratings system with the goal of offering more detailed disclosure about the content of its books. Books receive numerical ratings in each of four areas—language, romance/sensuality, violence, and drugs/alcohol/smoking—and the combined score is used as the basis for designating a book as suitable for 12 and up, for 13 and up, or “for the mature young adult audience.” The company’s commitment to readers contains the statement, “We do not believe in censorship; we believe in the right to know.”
The Blink young adult imprint of HarperCollins Focus also launched in 2013 to publish clean teen titles. On the occasion of its five-year anniversary, Annette Bourland, senior v-p and group publisher for Zonderkidz and Blink, recalled the imprint’s genesis. “I thought there was a need for really good literature that didn’t push the boundaries of what you might see in the movies or hear on the radio, just a really good book, without having to worry that your teen was picking up something that you haven’t talked to them about,” she told PW at the time. Blink has published more than 50 books, and it counts Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander and Virginia Hamilton Literary Award winner Nikki Grimes among its authors.
“For YA, we publish content that is realistic and relevant with protagonists facing real life’s hard challenges,” says Ilise Levine, director of sales and marketing at Shadow Mountain Publishing. “But we want to create a safe space for young adults to explore the hero’s journey. One of our publishing parameters for kids’ books, including YA, is no drugs, no profanity, no sex, and no graphic violence. But that doesn’t mean some idealized, happy-go-lucky, unchallenging YA world; the feedback we hear most from librarians and booksellers is that there are so many kids hurting out there. So we want to publish books with characters who are flawed, troubled, and hurting, and show how they can overcome hard things, not with magic or something external, as may happen in our middle grade books, but with their humanity.”
Regardless of one’s comfort level with the term “clean teen,” books that can be described that way are here to stay for now. Friedman is among those who would like to acquire more such books, as “there is definitely an appetite in the market, and certainly Scholastic’s book clubs and book fairs see success with these types of books,” she says. “And I’m specifically looking for more clean teen by authors from marginalized backgrounds, featuring diverse characters and a broad spectrum of experiences.”
Everything Classic Is New Again: Gender-Bent and LGBTQ Retellings
Tales as old as time cycle their way through every generation, but these days they often appear in fresh guises that reflect contemporary society. Of late, it seems that gender-bent and LGBTQ retellings of classics—from fairy tales and myths to Shakespeare and Dracula—have been on the rise.
“Readers like to see what an author is going to do with a famous story and recognizable characters who are just begging to be messed with,” says Sara Goodman, editorial director of Wednesday Books. “I think it’s the messing with the story that appeals to readers the most.”
Frain at Tor Teen believes that YA readers have become “increasingly conscious of and vocal about how uniform many retellings have been. There’s something really satisfying in combining the familiarity of the classic story with a perspective that feels more true to the world we live in,” she says. “Our forthcoming The Princess Will Save You by Sarah Henning is inspired by The Princess Bride, but takes the damsel in distress out of the picture. It’s so much fun to see a spin on the classic adventure in which the princess is the rescuer instead of the rescued.”
A prevailing insight from many editors is that retellings, like other genres in YA, are starting to be more influenced by societal shifts as well as by a broader spectrum of author voices coming into the industry. “I’m seeing more gender-bent and LGBTQ reimaginings of classic works as we move further from labels and traditional gender roles as a society,” says Heltzel at Amulet. “I think readers are less interested in ‘traditional,’ heteronormative relationships in literature as those become less reflective of their own lives and experiences.” Heltzel says that Blood Countess by Lana Popovic´ (due in January 2020), which will kick off the Lady Slayers historical fiction series about “real murderesses from various eras,” provides an exploration of female psychology, but “as an added bonus, it contains a very sexy—yet twisted!—queer romance.”
Barley at Flatiron says she has received classics retold with an LGBTQ twist for several years now on submission. “I think people are looking for different kinds of love stories and want to see different types of representation,” she says. “I’ve always been a big believer that teen fiction should represent a wide variety of teen experiences, and retellings, a genre unto itself, offer another space to do that. The category has gotten a lot more expansive in the last five to seven years, and that’s exciting.”
Barley published Girls Made of Snow and Glass, which she describes as “a reimagining of ‘Snow White’ with an LGBTQ romance” by debut author Melissa Bashardoust. Bashardoust’s second book, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, due in May 2020, combines a retelling of the 10th-century Persian epic poem the Shahnameh with elements of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “Sleeping Beauty.” “It felt entirely fresh and surprising to me,” Barley says.
Bloomsbury Children’s Books will publish Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella Is Dead, an LGBTQ retelling of the fairy tale, in July 2020. Executive editor Mary Kate Castellani says the forthcoming book “gives the stakes of true love the twist so many readers have been waiting for, where the heroines of a fairy tale not only fall in love with each other, but show their strength by breaking down the kingdom whose rules threatened to keep them apart.” Castellani praises the author for recognizing that “she had the power to change our canon by rewriting a story that was clearly missing broader perspectives and young women acting with agency.”
In many ways, classics can act as a spark, providing authors with exceptionally fertile ground on which to build new, inventive work. Melanie Nolan, v-p and publishing director at Knopf Books for Young Readers, points to A Court of Miracles by Kester Grant, an Indian Creole author from Mauritius. The book, which is due in 2020 and launches a trilogy, is a mashup of Les Misérables and The Jungle Book. “The opportunity here was to explore two really long-standing, embedded classics,” Nolan says. “Yet what the author wants to do with The Jungle Book is turn it on its ear. As she puts it, ‘Kipling was an imperialist. What does he know about Indian culture?’ And Les Mis offered her the opportunity to take a classic, beloved yarn that has traditionally featured white characters and give it a diverse cast.” The result, she says, is the kind of book that “any reader could open up, no matter what their perspective is, and lose themselves in.”
Though publishers recognize the hard work that’s still to be done in all facets of achieving more diversity, their newest titles offer hope that the world of YA fiction is becoming a more welcoming, inclusive place to be. “It’s exciting to be publishing at a time where so many underrepresented voices are finally being heard—and in every category,” says Alessandra Balzer, v-p and copublisher at HarperCollins’s Balzer + Bray imprint. “But as the industry numbers tell us, we still have a ways to go.” Nolan also mentions the upside of progress so far. “I think that’s really the joy of this era that we’re in with YA,” she says, “seeing the inventive lengths that these authors are going to, to create the right stories but also give voice to characters who represent them or who haven’t been seen as readily.”
Going forward, the only sure bet is that different types of books will flow in and out of favor with readers, colored by the social and cultural norms of the day. “Readers quite rightly want to see themselves and their friends in the characters on the page; they are not that interested in spending time with dusty and dated stereotypes from days gone by,” says Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press.
Horowitz at Delacorte maintains that keeping an eye on the signs of the times will continue to be key for publishers. “I think societal changes are all part of how people are approaching talking about teenage interaction, in a broader way than they had been,” she says. The current wave of teen activism on display is just one example Horowitz gives of something teens are passionate about right now. “Young people today want to get on with their own lives,” she says. “They understand that they have the capacity to possibly make changes; the adults aren’t doing it. It may be that the cooler thing to do is to become involved in your community and in the world.” But she cautions, “The market is always shifting. You have to stay on top of the various cycles of what’s going on. You have to be more nimble than ever.”
For more of our Spotlight on YA, see "YA 2019–2020 Booklist: The Big Picture."