For generations, young adult books have wrestled with grown-up social concerns. The interest in such subjects as death, crime, and substance abuse—as dark as they may seem—makes sense for a number of reasons, as teens are a population at risk: rates of the aforementioned issues spike during adolescence, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, especially among young men. Science also suggests that teens may actually feel more than adults, because the parts of their brains that respond to emotions are more active. It’s little wonder, then, that teens are so drawn to reading about the extreme.
In recent years, the explosive growth of the YA genre and the connective power of the Internet have inspired more and more authors to tackle especially tough topics. Some are writing what they know—working through a part of their own history in both nonfiction and fiction, tunneling through difficult emotional terrain in the service of a story. Others are choosing issues that reflect the headlines and current social concerns.
Once a book is published, the author may find those subjects taking center stage in interviews, reviews, speaking engagements, and social media feeds. Many writers are contacted by readers who relate personally to the characters—and who may be in search of some help themselves. Some authors find personal, innovative ways to reach back. It’s a long tradition, going back as far as Robert Cormier publishing his home phone number in 1977 in I Am the Cheese and talking with troubled teens. (In the book, the phone number was for the character of Amy Hertz; when a young caller would ask for Amy, Cormier would say that she was not available, but that he was her father.)
Here we speak with authors of recent books about what motivated each of them to take on an especially tough topic. We asked them to talk about the challenges and responsibilities of walking the line between artistry and advocacy, both during the writing process and after publication, once their work reaches its audience.
Touring with a Book as a Teaching Tool
Author: Jay Asher
Book: Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 2011)
The Issues: Bullying, suicide
The Process: Asher based part of Thirteen Reasons Why on the experience of a relative, who, like Asher’s character Hannah, attempted suicide during her junior year in high school. (Fortunately, unlike Hannah, Asher’s relative survived the experience.) The author says that he waited years to write about it. “I knew that part of the problem with sensitive issues is that, because they’re uncomfortable to address, we have a hard time doing so honestly, if at all,” he says. “I do think my emotions could have been too raw if I’d begun it any earlier, and maybe then I wouldn’t have been able to get as real with the writing.”
The Response: Asher says he initially had rather modest hopes for his debut novel, which has sold more than two million copies and inspired a Netflix series produced by Selena Gomez that is now in production: “I never imagined it would connect as deeply with as many people as it has, with people from so many different life experiences and cultures around the world.” He’s received emails from some readers who said the book persuaded them to seek help, and from others who said that the book compelled them to apologize to people they’d hurt in the past. Asher sent many of these letters to Razorbill: “I wanted my publisher to share in those incredible words because they deserved just as much positive feedback as I was getting,” he says.
Reaching Back: The release of the book coincided with a growing nationwide conversation about the dangers of bullying—especially in schools. Learning that Thirteen Reasons Why was being used as a teaching tool, and knowing that Asher already made a habit of in-school appearances, Razorbill launched a campaign that would bring the author to at least one school in each state. More than 700 schools applied to be a part of the “50 States Against Bullying” tour; though Asher could only visit a fraction of those schools, he ended the tour with a powerful sense of shared experience: “I went to public schools, Catholic schools, wealthy boarding schools, a Native American boarding school, and I never changed my talk for any audience, yet it was beautifully received,” he says. “It all starts with the schools letting the students know they care. That should be obvious, but as my book tries to point out, we need to periodically restate the obvious so it isn’t forgotten.”
What’s Next: Asher’s new book, What Light, is out on October 18. He says that as he was writing the new book, he realized its strong connection to Thirteen Reasons Why: “My concerns about how we treat each other were right there, but from a hopeful rather than cautionary perspective,” he says. “That made me even more excited to get this book published, to show another way to approach this idea that’s obviously connected with people.”
Channeling Fantasy into Real-Life Help
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Books: Six of Crows (Holt, 2015); Crooked Kingdom (Holt, Sept. 2016)
The Issue: Sex trafficking
The Process: For her fantasy novel Six of Crows, Bardugo, who is also author of the critically acclaimed Grisha Trilogy, wanted to illustrate the human cost of corruption in a fictional port city. So she created a character, Inej, who was kidnapped and forced into prostitution. In order to tell the story effectively, Bardugo reached out to a group of survivors of human trafficking. “Many are living in fear, so access to them is highly restricted,” she says, adding that her greatest goal when writing was “to be respectful of their experiences and to show their strength in [Inej].”
The Response: Readers of Six of Crows and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom, out last month, have embraced Inej, Bardugo says. “I think the idea that you can retain your kindness and your faith and your humanity when the world around you values none of those things resonated with a lot of people,” she says. One fan—a survivor of assault—was so moved by the character’s story that she asked Bardugo to write out “Climb, Inej” so that she could turn it into a wrist tattoo as a reminder of her own strength.
Reaching Back: Though Inej becomes more empowered over the course of the story, the specter of her trauma does not disappear, Bardugo points out. “I’m a survivor of abuse myself,” she says, “and treating these things like they’re something that can be fixed in a single moment does a disservice to readers who experience those things in their own lives.” In her research, Bardugo learned about the organization Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which supports survivors of trafficking. She has pledged to donate 10% of sales from the Crooked Kingdom book tour to the organization—a gift that her publisher will match up to $3,000.
What’s Next: Once Bardugo returns from her tour, she will launch a line of apparel inspired by her fiction; all proceeds will support GEMS. Talking about this and future initiatives, she acknowledges that they are meant to offset what she calls an “element of selfishness” in the typical promotional effort. “When you have a new book coming out, you spend so much time promoting yourself and talking about your work, that it’s hard not to get sick of yourself,” she says. “It feels good to use that platform to talk about something else, so I hope to keep it going.”
Finding Writing Success and Healing
Author: Louise Gornall
Book: Under Rose-Tainted Skies (Clarion, Jan. 2017)
The Issue: Mental illness
The Process: Gornall, who says that she struggles with agoraphobia, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder, began writing Rose during an especially challenging time: “It started as a rant,” she says. She forgot about the document until one day, after stumbling on it, she found herself editing it—eventually sculpting her own story into that of Norah, her protagonist. “Norah and I are identical—the only thing that’s different is the ending,” Gornall says, which made for what she calls a painful, and at times “soul-destroying,” writing experience. “I couldn’t have done it without a solid support network,” she says.
The Response: Gornall was nervous about readers’ reactions before the book’s release in her native U.K. this past July. That all changed as emails began to arrive, she says: “People were jumping into my inbox to tell me the story of what they’d been through, saying, ‘I’ve never shared this before, but I’ve read Rose...’ ” Others told Gornall that the book had given them more insight into the reality lived by those with mental illness.
Reaching Back: Inspired by her readers, Gornall created #inshadowselfie, used by people to post photos of their shadows in order to raise awareness of mental illness. During the week of October 31, she will call for selfies and stories on the theme of hope. “It’s not going to cure anybody, but it has brought a few people to me who have said, ‘I needed to see that this week,’ ” she says. “It sounds clichéd, but—safety in numbers.
What’s Next: As Gornall prepares for Rose’s U.S. debut, she reflects on how her own life has changed now that Norah’s story is out in the world. “Two years ago, I couldn’t even step outside of the driveway, and suddenly I’m jumping on trains and going to London,” she says. “I guess it comes back to that strength in community. I feel that I can be honest with people about what’s going on in my head and what I’m thinking.”
Offering a Rare Glimpse into a Closed Nation
Author: Sungju Lee
Book: Every Falling Star (Abrams, Sept. 2016)
The Issues: Growing up in a dictatorship, life as a refugee
The Process: Lee, who fled North Korea in 2002 as a teenager after the disappearance of his parents and years of living alone on the street, says that he first considered writing about his experiences after meeting collaborator Susan McClelland, whom he says “has a genuine heart.” Now a graduate student at the U.K.’s University of Warwick—he is the school’s first from North Korea—Lee says that his goals for the book are twofold: “To encourage people who are suffering and help them overcome their hardships, and to motivate those who enjoy freedom to care for those who do not have the same privileges.”
The Response: This past June, Lee attended the American Library Association’s annual conference to promote the book. “There were so many people who stopped by the booth to get a copy and ask me about it,” he says. His story—of a privileged childhood in the capital city of Pyongyang, followed by life in exile with his parents, and then survival on the run with a gang of boys—has moved audiences of different generations. “I’ve heard some stories about survivors of Auschwitz in World War II,” he says. “One thing that stood out was the hope these survivors had, the faith that one day they would be free. Hope gave them the resilience to survive such hardship.”
Reaching Back: Lee, who now delivers speeches about his experience to human rights organizations in Asia, Europe, and North America, is finding ways to help those still struggling for freedom. “Through the Citizens’ Alliance of North Korean Human Rights, which is based in South Korea, I have helped rescue North Korean defectors suffering in China,” he says. “Please pay attention to those suffering in China.”
What’s Next: Currently touring Europe to promote the book, Lee will visit schools and book festivals including the Manchester Literary Festival, where, on October 15, he will speak to more than 2,000 students. He will then return to his studies in the hopes of pursuing a career as an educator and advocate for Korea.
Shattering the Silence Around Slut-Shaming
Author: Emily Lindin
Book: Unslut: A Diary and Memoir (Zest, Dec. 2015)
The Issue: Bullying
The Process: About three years ago, Lindin read a news story about a Canadian teen who took her own life after ongoing sexual humiliation and bullying. Remembering how she felt at age 11, when she was branded a “slut” by her classmates, the then-29-year-old graduate student decided to post her own sixth-grade diary on her blog. Describing the Canadian teen’s experience, and similar experiences of girls generally, Lindin says, “It was an emergency. Every support system that existed wasn’t enough.” She adds, “What I had was a primary source: the exact words of a girl who went through this. My hope was that at least one girl would read it and be reassured that she wasn’t alone.” Daniel Harmon, publishing director for Zest Books, saw the blog and contacted Lindin about the prospect of turning the diaries into a book, Unslut, which would include her own commentary as well as expert advice.
The Response: Almost immediately upon publishing the diary online, Lindin was contacted by fellow survivors of bullying. “It was like I had invited people to start sharing their experiences by sharing mine—and that changed the course of my life!” she says. “When you take that step where you decide to be vulnerable, it gives other people who can relate the opportunity to do the same thing.” The fact that so many people wanted that permission, she says, revealed to her why her writing and her advocacy was so necessary.
Reaching Back: After receiving an email from a mother who was concerned that her own daughter was being bullied, Lindin suggested that she share Unslut as a way to gently broach the subject. “A few days later, I heard from the daughter, who hadn’t realized that her mother had reached out personally,” she says. The book, Lindin says, can be an effective tool to bridge a generation gap. “Being able to hand someone something and say, ‘Let’s read this separately and then come back together,’ is much easier with a hard copy,” she says. “It makes it more accessible.”
What’s Next: Based on the response from her blog and her book, Lindin has launched a nonprofit initiative that raises awareness about sexual shaming and lets survivors share their own stories. She has also created a documentary film, writes a column for Teen Vogue’s website, and regularly speaks on the topic. “Almost any time I do a public event related to the Unslut Project, at least one person comes up to me afterward to talk about their own experience,” Lindin says. “It’s so fulfilling to know that all I had to do was to talk about my life and what I went through.”
Showing Teens That They Are Wanted
Author: Jennifer Niven
Books: All the Bright Places (Knopf, Jan. 2015); Holding Up the Universe (Knopf, Oct. 2016)
The Issues: Grief, mental illness, suicide
The Process: While working on All the Bright Places, the author’s first work for teens, Niven recalled her mentor’s advice to write something that felt terrifying—but essential. The troubled character of Theodore Finch was loosely based on “a boy that I loved,” Niven says, adding that her biggest priority when dealing with subjects as sensitive as bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies is “to be as honest as possible.” She adds, “You have a great responsibility to do that for an audience—especially a young audience.” To ensure that the characters’ experiences would ring true, she sought the advice of experts and people grappling with mental health concerns.
The Response: Initially, some adult readers voiced concerns about ATBP’s dark subject matter, Niven says, “but the unfortunate reality is that there are so many teens out there who feel like they’re alone—that they don’t matter, and that they aren’t being seen.” The scale of the problem, she says, is evident by the outpouring of messages she continues to receive, close to two years after the book’s publication: “I hear from teens—not just while touring, but daily,” she says. “They are struggling and suffering, and they say the book has saved them.” Early next year, preproduction will begin for the film version of ATBP, starring Elle Fanning; Niven is writing the script.
Reaching Back: Niven, who is active on social media and has an online magazine, Germ (inspired by a website run by Violet, ATBP’s female protagonist), says that she tries her best to provide some kind of response to each message from readers. Both her website and Germ’s contain links to a variety of mental health resources. “If someone seems to really be in trouble or struggling, I always encourage them to talk with a trusted adult—a friend or family member,” she says.
What’s Next: Part of the inspiration for Holding Up the Universe (published on October 4) was the reader reaction to ATBP, Niven says: “I saw how much they needed to feel they were heard and seen, and I wanted to give them the message that they are wanted and loved.” This past August, as part of a prepub promotion for the new title, she urged readers to post photos with positive messages about themselves or loved ones along with #iamwanted (based on one of the book’s themes) and #holdinguptheuniverse. The photos—estimated to be around 3,000 at press time—are still rolling in.
Reframing “What Happens Next?” as “What Can I Do?”
Author: Amber Smith
Book: The Way I Used to Be (S&S/McElderry, Mar. 2016)
The Issue: Sexual assault
The Process: Smith knew for years that she wanted to write about sexual violence, which she says “always held a lot of personal meaning for me.” In early drafts of the book, the voice of her protagonist, Eden, was very similar to her own; it became more distinct during the revision process, the author says. “Personal distance between our lives became really important once the book was out in the world.”
The Response: Some readers were critical of Eden’s initial reluctance to seek help, Smith says: “Though the book itself is really an attempt to explore that very question—how difficult it can be to find your voice and gather the courage to stand up to abuse—I’ve received messages from people who are very angry at the character, at the book, and even at me, for writing about this silence.” These and other responses, she says, reflect how much sexual violence and rape culture are misunderstood. Still, most readers shared positive reactions—and some were quite profound. “One girl wrote me and said that after reading the book, she had the courage to tell her parents about the assaults that she had experienced,” Smith says.
Reaching Back: Though Smith assured herself that she would maintain clear boundaries upon the book’s release, “all that fell apart when I started hearing from people,” she says. “And I thought, I can’t not be a listener.” She regularly receives questions about the book’s rather open-ended conclusion as well as requests for a sequel. “In asking ‘What happens next?’ I hope people will start asking ‘What can I do?’” Smith says. “What can we all do to see that survivors get the help that they need and seek justice, so they can heal?”
What’s Next: “I’m not necessarily an activist but definitely a socially conscious writer,” Smith says. She recently completed her second book, a standalone that deals with “domestic violence, sibling relationships, and rebuilding a life from nothing after an unthinkable tragedy.” It will be published by McElderry Books later next year.
Showing Readers Life Beyond Disability
Author: Josh Sundquist
Books: Just Don’t Fall (Viking, 2010); We Should Hang Out Sometime (Little, Brown, 2014); Love and First Sight (Little, Brown, 2017)
The Issues: Living with a disability, challenging stereotypes
The Process: Sundquist, a survivor of childhood cancer who lost his left leg to Ewing’s sarcoma at age nine, began speaking at hospital fund-raisers while he was still undergoing treatment. By high school, it had become a part-time motivational speaking career. Though he was initially interested in covering more general topics such as setting goals, Sundquist soon realized that “pretty much the only time that anyone was paying attention to was when I was delivering anecdotes about having cancer.” His first memoir, Just Don’t Fall, captured these stories and built on them, including his stint as a competitive ski racer for the United States Paralympic ski team.
The Response: Sundquist says that while he weathered the initial discomfort of “having every acquaintance of mine know all of these embarrassing and awkward things about me,” he also found strength in the spotlight. “Sharing your adversity and having people find meaning in that narrative almost diffuses that adversity,” he says. “It’s the same reason we confide in friends or see a therapist—now two people are carrying a little bit of the burden.”
Reaching Back: Recognized by CNN as a hero in 2007 for his advocacy on behalf of the amputee community, Sundquist, a member of the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team, continues to raise awareness and funds for other causes as well. He has more than 200,000 YouTube followers, and his channel is stocked with short, comic videos that touch on every aspect of his life, such as “What happens to my left shoes?” and tips for surviving the perils of dating, the subject of his second memoir, We Should Hang Out Sometime.
What’s Next: Due in January, Sundquist’s first novel, Love and First Sight, is the story of a blind teen who regains his vision and is surprised that the image of his crush that he held in his mind’s eye doesn’t match reality. Though parallels between his own life and his character’s may be inevitable, he rejects the idea that the story is what some have called “disability literature.” “I wanted to write a story about sensory perception and to force people to reexamine assumptions that they have about seeing the world with their eyes,” he says. “The autobiographical elements can take readers out of the page and make it no longer believable.”
Ellen Hopkins: Author as Confessor, a look at the author and the genre she helped pioneer—issue-based teen fiction
Issues-Driven YA for 2017, a preview of selected 2017 titles that take on tough topics