We asked editors and agents to take the pulse of some of the latest trends in teen fiction and nonfiction.
One remarkable feature of Donald Trump’s constantly surprising tenure is this: he is a professed nonreader whose presidency just might launch a thousand books.
“It seems like there was a groundswell—maybe as soon as the day after the election—in every publishing house, with everyone asking ‘What can we do?’ ” says Blair Thornburgh, senior editor at Quirk Books. “My mind went immediately to teenage girls. Teenage girls are really powerful, but they are not always given the tools they need to direct their power.” She hopes the direction they nseed will come from the book that ensued from her brainstorm: Girls Resist! by KaeLyn Rich, a handbook for would-be activists.
The same urge to do something hit YA author Maureen Johnson on Nov. 9, 2016. “It was a ‘man the barricades’ kind of feeling,” says Johnson, who took to Twitter wondering if other YA writers would be willing to put together some kind of protest anthology. Sara Goodman, an editor at Wednesday Books, saw Johnson’s tweet and immediately responded, “Let’s do it!” Eighteen months later, the result is How I Resist: Activism and Hope for the Next Generation, edited by Johnson: a collection of essays, comics, poems, even sheet music, contributed by a pantheon of YA stars, with all proceeds benefiting the ACLU.
Like the others, Alexandra Styron, author of Reading My Father—a memoir about her father, William Styron—admits she “kind of fell apart after the election,” but says it took her a couple of months to figure out what she needed to do about it. “I had been working on fiction that I cared about artistically but which didn’t feel relevant anymore,” says Styron, the mother of two teenagers, both of whom volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “I know a lot of other mothers of teenagers who felt like I did, like we had somehow let our kids down.” One morning in early 2017, “The proverbial light bulb went off,” she says. “I knew I wanted to write a book about activism for teenagers. I pitched it to my agent, and two weeks later, it went to auction and sold to Penguin.” Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing Almost Everything (Viking) debuts in September. “I wrote it in five months because there was a lot of pressure to have it out before the midterm [elections].”
Who would have ever predicted that books about youthful political activism might become publishing’s next big thing? Next month Random House’s (adult) trade paperback division will publish #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line by siblings David and Lauren Hogg, who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Bloomsbury is reaching out to would-be activists as young as 10 with You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World by Caroline Paul, illustrated by Lauren Tamaki. The YA offerings—which kicked off last year with Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World (Algonquin), edited by Kelly Jensen, and Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone (Random/Lamb)—are numerous (see a list of 2018 titles.)
Publishers are also offering YA adaptations of adult bestsellers that address big social problems: Delacorte will release a YA version of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, an examination of the broken U.S. justice system in September; Tonya Bolden has written an adaptation of Carol Anderson’s White Rage for teen readers, titled We Are Not Yet Equal: Challenging Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, Sept.).
Building the Perfect Handbook
Thornburgh began her project by searching already published titles for the kind of handbook she envisioned. Most of what she found felt dated. “A lot of them were, ‘Recycle!’ or ‘Let’s have a bake sale!’ ” she says. “That’s what I grew up reading but things have so changed.”
She turned to KaeLyn Rich, a writer whose work she had admired on Autostraddle, a pop culture website for queer and feminist women. Rich writes a column for the site, titled “Be the Change,” which focuses on organizing strategies, something she’s been doing for more than 16 years. Her full-time job is director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “I’ve read the classic and contemporary community organizing manuals and those, while dear to me, are mostly written by men, often white men,” Rich says. “There’s this huge gap in activism leadership development for women and girls, by women and girls, despite the fact that women and girls have been movement leaders throughout history.”
Girls Resist! walks teens through the nitty-gritty of running a campaign, protesting a policy, or helping to get out the vote. “This is a chock-a-block handbook,” Thornburgh says. “I learned a lot of things just by editing it.”
Paul, who had a bestseller with adult title The Gutsy Girl, also wanted to give young women practical advice on how to engineer change. She grew up in a politically active household where refusing to eat grapes or lettuce was a family act of solidarity with underpaid farm workers. Even when she became an adult, she recalls her mother telling her “in hushed tones that if I did not vote that year, I was not welcome to Thanksgiving because people died for the [right to] vote,” she says.
In You Are Mighty, Paul offers step-by-step guidance on the right way to go about getting attention for a cause or overturning an injustice. “I remember my own nine-year-old passion about things like littering and mistreatment of animals. The feelings were powerful, and real,” she says. “I badly wanted guidance on how these injustices could change.”
Similarly, Styron’s Steal This Country, capitalizes on her own—and her teenage children’s —frustration with the current political climate and their deep desire to move the country in a different direction. Divided into three sections—the why, the what, and the how—Styron provides background on the history of protest movements; a bit about some of the big issues young people care deeply about, including immigration, climate change, and racial justice; and practical tips on how to stage a walkout or a march, or just how to talk to relatives or other adults with different or opposing views. “Kids care about more than we give them credit for,” she says. “But they need a template for how to get what they want, they need information, and they need a toolkit.”
Some of the forthcoming volumes are less about how-to than about keeping the faith and continuing the fight. “We are in an untenable situation, and teens know it,” says Johnson, whose anthology collects essays, poems, a song, and comics from writers, poets, and actors on the topic of resisting despair and nurturing hope. “Instead of just melting down and planning trips to Disney World, we all need coping strategies.”
Finding a way forward is also the aim of Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration (Philomel), edited by Rose Brock, a collection of personal essays about overcoming defeat by YA writers including Jason Reynolds, Julie Murphy, and Angie Thomas. In September, Knopf will release Nevertheless, We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage, foreword by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the title referring to the now famous words uttered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, after he prevented Sen. Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King on the floor of the Senate during confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. His declaration, “She was warned.... Nevertheless, she persisted,” has become a battle cry for many.
The current climate has also inspired plenty of fiction writers. Mark Oshiro—who analyzes books and media on his website, MarkDoesStuff.com—wrote Anger Is a Gift (Tor Teen), his debut YA novel, which his publisher bills as “an anthem for teens and millennial raised on hashtag activism.” Inspired by real-life events, Oshiro’s story recounts a teen’s path to protest, ignited first by his father’s murder at the hands of a police officer and then by the way he and his classmates were being treated like criminals at their own school, with random locker searches and a constantly shifting set of rules.
Ellen Hopkins, who has written more than a dozen novels that address complex and painful topics that teens face, takes on gun violence in People Kill People (S&S/McElderry, Sept.), a topic she says she’s been wrestling with since the Columbine massacre, where two students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher. “The writer in me wants to comprehend the ‘whys,’ ” Hopkins says. “The human in me wants to help mitigate an escalating problem, and I believe writing about it can have a definite impact on a generation seeking revolution. The time for activism is absolutely now, and my readers are engaged and demanding change.”
National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti’s next novel, A Heart in a Body in the World (Simon Pulse, Sept.), also addresses the topic, featuring a girl who literally tries to outrun her sorrow over gun violence through a cross-country trek.
Reaching Aspiring Activists
Editors agree that, though the subject is timely and important, marketing these books will require creativity. YA novels will work their way into well-established channels, but YA nonfiction is a tougher sell in the bookstore environment, where that particular section can be dominated by memoirs by YouTubers.
“We hope the proverbial gatekeepers embrace [Girls Resist!], because they do have a big impact on what’s available,” says Quirk’s Thornburgh. “Libraries will probably not be a problem because a lot of teen librarians are feeling the same feelings as teens.”
The key, Thornburgh believes, is to make the book attractive. She hired Italian artist Giulia Sagramola to illustrate with a contemporary sensibility. “Some of the books I had [when I was younger] were just so dorky,” she says. “No teen would have bought them for themselves.”
Rich says she will work to get the word out through social media channels, by speaking at high schools, and by working directly with the “awesome girl activists” she already knows. “I hope it reaches girls who are just finding that fire in their gut, that hot blue burning that screams, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore!’ and gives them the tools to take action,” she says. “I hope it ignites and fuels the girl resistance: huge, bright movements and tiny, intimate, vital revolutions.”
For more of the latest developments in the YA category, see our 2018 Spotlight on YA.