The current YA landscape is something of a study in contrasts. What Jessica Regel, an agent with Foundry Literary + Media, has been hearing from a lot of editors is that they could really use a laugh. In light of recent global events, she says, “I think editors and readers are looking for some escapism.”
But given what is going on in the world today, editors are also looking for titles about... what is going on in the world today. Rena Rossner, an agent with the Deborah Harris Agency, is “seeing a lot of books about anxiety—I even represent some of them.”
Regina Brooks, president of the Serendipity Literary Agency, notes an increase in demand for YA nonfiction about teen activism “on a myriad of topics—environmentalism, entrepreneurism, politics, social justice, etc.”
Brianne Johnson, an agent at Writers House, is getting manuscripts about all sorts of mental health issues, including depression, disordered eating, and narcissism. “Books with strong social justice themes are in high demand,” she says. “We need empathy-building books that explore our world from as many different perspectives as possible. I feel like this has been reflected in a really exciting way in both what people want to write about and what editors want to publish.”
We spoke with a dozen agents about YA trends, which seem to be a fairly accurate reflection of what’s going on in wider society. Most noted, too, how the category has matured in the dozen years since Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the book many cite as kicking off the current YA boom.
The Han Effect
Many agents say the number-one thing they’re looking for at the moment is a sharply written rom-com. Credit Netflix’s surprise summer hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a movie based on Jenny Han’s YA trilogy, with sparking the current hunt for read-alikes.
“The success of Jenny’s beloved series has invigorated interest in teen rom-coms with upmarket writing and rich emotional layers,” says Brent Taylor, an agent with Triada US. “I’ve heard from the co-agents that I work with around the world that they are seeing a hunger for similar titles in their countries, as well.” From Triada’s list, Taylor cites Nina Moreno’s forthcoming Don’t Date Rosa Santos (Hyperion, May 2019), about the teen daughter of Cuban immigrants determined to defeat a family curse that dooms love, as a title with likely appeal to Han’s fan base.
Laura Dail, who runs her own agency, thinks Debbie Rigaud’s Truly, Madly, Royally, which Dail sold to Scholastic and is due in August 2019, also has hit potential with rom-com readers. Inspired by the courtship of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle, it’s the kind of “high-concept, smart romantic comedy and epic love story that editors are asking for,” she says. Bonus points for its ethnically diverse cast—a feature that is very much in demand, as well.
As Thao Le, an agent with Sandra Dijkstra & Associates, puts it, rom-coms with ethnically diverse characters “make my heart super happy.” She adds, “I think marginalized readers should be able to see themselves in fun, lighthearted stories with happy endings.”
The demand for romantic comedies is, of course, fueled in part by Hollywood producers looking to capture lightning in a bottle like Netflix did with To All the Boys. “We have producers and studios combing through our backlists for stories in a similar style,” says Kate Schafer Testerman of KT Literary. Publishers are calling, too, she notes. “I had a call with an editor just yesterday, where she requested sweet, fluffy rom-coms. Amy Spalding’s The Summer of Jordi Perez has done so well this year because it speaks to that need for rom-coms—not just for hetero couples, but for LGBTQ protagonists, whose stories don’t always need to be about their coming out.”
YA Takes on #MeToo
Agents report there is also demand for stories from the toxic end of the relationship spectrum: novels that tackle the issues raised by the #MeToo movement. “We’re seeing more and more books published about sexual assault,” Regel says. “It’s no longer a taboo subject. Books help kids make sense of their world, and books that amplify the message of the #MeToo movement, with characters who are struggling to come to terms with sexual assault, show kids that they aren’t alone.”
And that’s not just true for kids: “I think that so many people I interact with—authors, editors, and other agents—all seem to know someone or are someone who has been personally affected by the movement, and it relates to the stories we want to tell and help be told,” Testerman says.
Jill Grinberg, president of Jill Grinberg Literary Management, says the #MeToo movement has already had a profound impact on her list. “One of my agency’s big submissions for the fall is a novel that deconstructs high school rape culture, told from multiple—sometimes conflicting—POVs in the vein of One of Us Is Lying, that tackles the impulse of organizations to prioritize the reputations of abusers over the stories of victims.”
Grinberg previously sold Deep Dark Blue (Feiwel and Friends), a YA memoir by Polo Tate, who entered the Air Force Academy at age 17 as a star student and athlete and was sexually assaulted twice within her first year. Tate was so traumatized, Grinberg says, that she almost didn’t survive. “I have a 13-year-old daughter, I talk with lots of teens, and I’d like to do my part to put out books that honestly reflect their experiences and, crucially, raise awareness,” she says. “Girls are subtly encouraged to tolerate teasing, rude comments, and even unwanted touching, because it is ‘just boys being boys,’ rather than speak out. It’s time to speak out.”
Seeking Diverse Content and Creators
The push to diversify YA literature—and children’s publishing in general—continues to make headway, though not as fast as some would hope. “I try to be realistic about progress,” Brooks says. “The publishing landscape in the children’s/YA space seems to be shifting a bit faster than in adult. I’m seeing new faces in editorial and have been really excited to work with an African-American marketing associate on one of my books, but I’d love to see a few more people of color working as book designers, publicists, and digital marketing professionals.”
Testerman agrees. “I think there are steps being made, but we still have a long way to go,” she says. “Imprints like Kokila and Salaam Reads are fantastic, but we need to see diverse voices both in the workplace and on the creative side across the board, not just in specialized imprints. That being said, concrete action like the We Need Diverse Books insert from Scholastic Book Clubs, spearheaded by Preeti Chhibber, is very impactful, especially to librarians, teachers, and parents.”
Joanna Volpe, president of New Leaf Literary & Media, is even more forceful about the need to make sure not just creators but editorial staff better reflect the world’s ethnic and racial composition. “This is uncomfortable to say, but it’s true,” she says. “There’s no way we can support a creator from a marginalized background to the best of our abilities if all, or the majority, of the people on the team to bring a book to the shelves are white, cisgender, and able-bodied. Whether we’re well-intentioned or not, those of us that fall into that category—which is the vast majority—come to our jobs from a place of privilege and different levels of ignorance. And, as a result, we just can’t fulfill all of the needs of the creators. More importantly, we can’t fulfill the needs of readers and the industry as a whole.”
Many agents mentioned that the challenge now is to move beyond tokenism. “I do think publishing is becoming more receptive to diverse storytelling, but I continue to feel like there’s always that idea of one book to rule them all, when publishers should make room for multiple stories and perspectives from the same marginalized group,” Le says. “Until we stop seeing rejections that say things along the lines of, ‘We already have a story about x,’ and start seeing books published that reflect multiplicities of experiences, we still have a long way to go,” Rossner says.
Still, there are victories to celebrate even while acknowledging that more can be done. Dail points to a recent week on the New York Times bestseller list: “The top five books on the YA hardcover bestseller list were written by people of color,” she says.
The real challenge, of course, is finding new voices from underrepresented groups. Brooks attends writers conferences—a few dozen each year—with an emphasis on those that specifically seek to attract diverse audiences, such as the Color of Children’s Literature Conference. She actively looks for creators new to YA storytelling. “I’m finding writers outside of publishing,” she says, “i.e., television writers such as Doreen Spicer-Dannelly, author of Love Double Dutch!, and Afro-Punk filmmaker James Spooner, who has a manuscript in the works.”
Regel attends a lot of conferences, too, and, like many other agents, pays careful attention to queries. “I also represent the book packager In This Together Media, and their focus is working with brown and black writers and promoting their stories,” she says. “It’s been a dream working with them and their writers.”
Social media has been a boon. Le actively participates in Twitter contests such as #DVPit, a pitch event for agentless manuscripts from marginalized creators, and #PitMad, a Twitter “pitch party.” But, like Taylor, who says he “absolutely loves” Pitch Wars and looks forward to it every year, Le still relies heavily on what arrives in the mail. “I continue to find about 90% of my clients from the slush pile,” she notes. “Querying may seem old school, but it works.”
Comics for Teens
Agents are also hoping that YA sees a similar boom in comics to the one being experienced in middle grade. So far, however, there’s been more promise than payoff.
“This is a space I’ve always read and worked in, but selling original comics and graphic novels has always been tough,” Volpe says. “Prior to 2017, I had sold only three graphic novel/comic book projects in my whole career, and not for lack of trying. Since 2017, I have sold five—and counting: a mix of middle grade and YA. I am thrilled to see a cry for more books in this space.”
Brooks is hard at work in this area, too, signing Shawn Martinbrough, a critically acclaimed creator-illustrator whose work has already been published by Marvel and DC Comics. Part of the challenge, Taylor says, is persuading publishers that YA readers want the same kind of escapist illustrated stories as younger readers. “I think there is an attitude that middle grade graphic novels get to be goofy and commercial, and YA ones should be literary and smart. I’d love to see YA graphic novels published for every single type of reader—the ones who want something commercial or fun, in addition to the ones who are looking for stories that are a little more quiet and emotional.”
The audience for YA comics might have to be driven by creators who already have a following and can pave the way for newcomers or lesser-known authors and illustrators. “I think the YA comics that are breaking out are from huge established voices with their own audiences,” Testerman says. “YA readers will go into the comics aisle to follow Rainbow Rowell or Cassandra Clare, for instance, but we’re not yet seeing the same ravenous appetite for comics as in middle grade, where it doesn’t matter who the author is so long as the story is told well with pictures.”
A Crowded Marketplace
In some ways, YA is a victim of its own success as a now-established hitmaker. It’s hard for a new author to break out, and perhaps even harder for an entirely new subcategory, such as YA graphic novels, to break in.
“Out of all the age categories I represent, I do personally feel that YA is the toughest,” Taylor says. “I am a young enough millennial that I was a teenager when YA was just starting to pick up steam with the publication of Twilight, so my biggest challenge has been finding YA novels that are completely unlike anything I’ve seen over the last decade.”
Is the YA marketplace overcrowded? Absolutely, Volpe says. But, she adds, “It’s overcrowded with some incredible books! Which makes it harder for books to rise to the top and be discovered.” It remains an exciting space to be in, she says. “It’s a market that sets trends and one that is always challenging the status quo, at least compared to other traditional publishing spaces.”
Manuscript Wish Lists
Agents say they are still eager to see manuscripts from distinctive storytellers. “Pair a fantastic voice with a smart and sophisticated plot with a lot of depth, and I’m smitten,” Regel says. “I’m particularly interested in books that break stereotypes. And I’ve been wanting a book written by a Native American writer for a while now.”
Dail says there’s unmet demand for more Latino stories: “I’d like to see Latinx voices not just in coming-of-age or realistic stories but in all genres.”
Volpe says she’d love to see some smart and witty contemporary fiction, as well as books that take place after high school, with slightly older protagonists. “Many young adults I know continue to identify as YA through most of college, so why aren’t we telling their stories?”
Taylor thinks the demand for issue-driven YA shows no sign of abating. “I would love to see YA stories authentically capturing issues that are affecting teenagers today: the drug epidemic, harassment and abuse, gun violence, the failing American health-care system,” he says. “Publishers have a tendency to pigeonhole books on these topics as ‘issue books,’ which is frustrating. These topics get a lot of coverage in the news today, and I would love to see writers thoughtfully and artistically interrogate these topics so that we can arm teen readers with the knowledge that they are not alone, that we see and hear them, and that there is a way for us to all pull each other through the darkness.”
Likewise, Johnson is “particularly interested in books that have a strong social justice angle, as well as stories that explore mental health in timely, relevant, fresh ways,” she says. “I want the books that I represent to either make people feel less alone, or to broaden their empathetic understanding of the world. Empathy-building stories are always on my manuscript wish list.”
Le wants more “contemporary fantasy that’s rooted in our real world, magical realism, and contemporary stories with humor and compelling relationship dynamics,” she says. But, she adds, “I’m definitely sensing high-fantasy fatigue all around. People are looking for more grounded stories.”
Rossner, who is based in Israel, hopes for more stories that showcase the diverse world we live in. “In particular for me, that’s looking for Jewish stories from all walks of Jewish life, especially ones that tell stories of resistance, quiet or otherwise,” she says. “I am also always looking for diverse fantasy, with a special desire to see more Jewish and Israeli science fiction and fantasy in the marketplace. I also have a special place in my heart for novels in verse.”
Which Way for YA?
Most agents agree that fantasy will take a backseat to realistic fiction in the immediate future, and that the fantasy that does get published is likely to address the social issues teens are grappling with today: sexism, feminism, racism, and violence.
Taylor hopes to continue to see publishers using technological innovation to deliver stories in new ways. He pointed to the recently published novel Sadie by Courtney Summers (Wednesday Books) as an example. “The podcast within the story made listening to the audiobook a unique and incredible reading experience,” he says. “I have such admiration for the way Macmillan published that book in general, but specifically how they published the audiobook. I believe the exponential growth of audiobooks is an indication that people are still yearning to be told a powerful story, but that the way they experience that story may be different. I’m excited to see how we can innovate the reading experience for teens, who are already at the cutting edge of technology.”
Agents predict that YA authors will also continue to do what they have always done best: push the envelope. Johnson is excited about Unpregnant by screenwriters and debut novelists Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, which she recently sold to HarperTeen and is due out in fall 2019. It manages to capture two of the most in-demand characteristics of the moment. It addresses a socially important topic—access to abortion—within a road trip story about a teen who must travel from Missouri to New Mexico to have a legal abortion without parental consent. It’s also, Johnson says, “hysterically funny: think a YA Thelma and Louise with a much happier ending.” Foreign rights have already been sold in a dozen territories.
“I can’t imagine anyone reading this story walking away from it without an increased empathy and understanding for the plight of vulnerable young women in America today who simply need better access to reproductive health care,” Johnson says. “If a teen reader walks a mile in someone else’s shoes, it’s going to give them a warmer, more nuanced, and hopefully less judgmental outlook on people different from themselves.”