Publishing has always been a reflection of the world in which it operates, with novels based on stories ripped from the headlines and nonfiction that takes its cue from the real issues that readers face. But in YA this year, the offerings are not only reflective of the world teens live in but are also responsive, reacting to a generational shift in attitudes. Many of today’s teen readers have grown up in a world where gay marriage is legal. They have always attended integrated schools. They have stood up for classmates’ rights to ask people of the same sex to be their prom dates or to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identities.
“At a time when it constantly seems like our country is heading backwards, we have a generation that is demanding representation that reflects the world around them,” says Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “That world is more open and more accepting than any before it. As with most things, the teens and younger readers are more aware and more progressive than the gatekeepers.”
Some of those teens are also scared and angry. They have read countless news stories about peers being killed in classrooms for absolutely no reason and endured active-shooter drills. They have seen lives destroyed by social media trolls. They are the sons and daughters of immigrants, they sit next to immigrants at school, or they are immigrants themselves.
“Teens are really hungry for someone to tell them things they didn’t know that are important,” says Kate Egan, an editor at KCP Loft. “They’re frustrated when they encounter a book about who you are going to bring to the prom. It’s not that they don’t care about the prom; they do. But these are darker times. They need information.”
We asked editors and publishers to tell us about their 2019 books that are meeting the needs of today’s teen readers—books that feature characters who are gay or trans or gender-fluid, in plots that treat those traits as equivalent to hair color or eye color: as facts about the characters that don’t define them. We asked for books about the topics that are making high school students into activists, such as gun violence, immigration, and women’s rights. They responded with a flood of titles.
The New Default
There’s a moment in Becky Albertalli’s 2015 bestselling debut novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, when the main character, Simon, a 16-year-old coming to terms with his sexuality, asks, “Don’t you think everyone should have to come out? Why is straight the default?”
Albertalli probably didn’t imagine just how quickly Simon’s question might seem dated. But a review of this year’s YA titles reveals a bumper crop of novels where nobody comes out—rather, the sexuality of the characters is treated like a given. In Shatter the Sky (S&S, July), a debut fantasy by Rebecca Kim Wells, Maren sets out to rescue her kidnapped girlfriend by stealing a dragon from a corrupt emperor. Maren’s romantic relationship with Kaia is openly accepted by her parents and society. Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan (Putnam, out now), about a teen whose summer job involves dancing in a giant hot dog suit at a local amusement park, is described by the publisher as a “bi rom-com.” The zombies in Out of Salem (Triangle Square, out now), a murder mystery by debut author Hal Schrieve, are genderqueer. The aliens in The Last 8 by Laura Pohl (Sourcebooks Fire, out now) kill nearly everyone on Earth except Clover, a bisexual Latinx protagonist hiding with a handful of other teenage survivors in Area 51. Several of the characters in Kingsbane by Claire Legrand (Sourcebooks Fire, out now) are gender-fluid. And Once & Future (LB/Patterson, out now) by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy retells the legend of King Arthur with a queen at the head of the Round Table, circled by her loyal Knights of the Rainbow.
“Thank God we’re finally seeing the LGBTQ elements handled a lot more casually,” says KCP Loft’s Egan, who acquired Carmilla by Kim Turrisi. Carmilla is based on a web series that features queer characters “but is not about coming out,” Egan notes. “From the start, you know the main character, a new student at college, is gay. But from the moment her roommate disappears, you’re launched into supernatural territory. There’s a mystery, there’s a vampire, but it’s campy.”
Many graphic novels, too, are featuring characters whose sexuality is not the main driver of the plot. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki with illustrations by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second, out now) is about ditching a toxic relationship. It just happens to feature a same-sex couple. DeadEndia: The Broken Halo by Hamish Steele (Nobrow, Nov.) is the second installment in a series about teens who work at a very unusual theme park. The cast is incidentally LGBTQ. Graphic Universe editorial director Greg Hunter describes Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman (Graphic Universe, Sept.) as a “rollicking queer western adventure” about a Latinx outlaw and a trans runaway who team up to thwart a Confederate plot in the New Mexico Territory. Inclusivity is a big draw for Hunter in making acquisitions, but what sold him on Stage Dreams was how well the author incorporated real history into the plot.
“Researching the lives of 19th-century trans people is not an easy thing to do,” Hunter says. “People who were trans at the time certainly couldn’t be out. But what Melanie came up with is a delight on its own terms.”
There are also new nonfiction choices for readers who hunger for information. Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You by Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne (Magination, Aug.) is an all-inclusive guide for teens who are transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid, queer, or questioning their sexual or gender identity. Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke (Zest, Oct.) is an updated edition of the 2012 book that was on both the YALSA Quick Picks and the ALA Rainbow Book lists.
The presence of LGBTQ characters in YA fiction is, of course, not new. Chanda cites books by Francesca Lia Block, Alex Sánchéz, and Ellen Wittlinger as breaking that ground years ago. “The Weetzie Bat series was challenging mainstream representation of LGBTQIA+ culture for decades,” he says.
Melanie Nolan, v-p and publisher of Knopf Books for Young Readers, nominates David Levithan as “the spokesmodel” for a whole generation of readers and writers. “Beginning with Boy Meets Boy [in 2003], David’s books have offered an unabashedly positive look at being gay—one where being gay is not the point of the story, but just another part of life. I feel like he has been at the forefront of this and paved the way for people such as Adam Silvera, Meredith Russo, and Nina LaCour, because it takes a strong voice to get a chorus going.”
Whereas many of those early books about being gay or trans or gender-fluid won critical praise but had difficulty getting into certain accounts and schools, today’s books are finding an easier path to readers.
“The difference is more about cultural progress in the mainstream book-buying consumer than anything else,” Chanda says. The end result is that “publishers, educators, and librarians don’t have to be the sole promoters of these books,” he adds. “Accounts—independents, chains, and everything in between—see the demand and respond to it with promotion and placement, which allows publishers to publish even more books.”
That’s music to the ears of the writers and editors who have believed in these books all along. “These are books that are meant to be read by any teenager, not just someone who’s questioning their sexuality,” says Flatiron Books editorial director Sarah Barley, who acquired Meredith Russo’s debut novel, If I Was Your Girl, in 2014. “These books really speak to universal experiences about community and belonging. I don’t think those stories should be niche-published. They’re for everyone—adult crossover readers, too.”
Chanda teaches a class on children’s publishing at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and has for years included Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz on its syllabus. “Every year students discuss various books from all angles, including the ‘target’ audience. For the last three or four years when we discuss Aristotle and talk about the ‘target audience,’ the answer has been the same: ‘Everyone,’ ” Chanda says. “If that is not the truest sign of a cultural shift, I don’t know what is. It’s a story of Mexican-American teen boys finding themselves and falling quietly in love, set in the ’80s. A decade ago, that book would be considered ‘niche’—still worthy of publication, but it would be hard to get many stores to carry it.”
Transition to a New Normal
Perhaps no subcategory of this subcategory of YA has experienced more growth than stories featuring characters in some form of gender transition. Barley says Russo’s forthcoming Birthday builds on the success of If I Was Your Girl, which won ALA’s Stonewall Book Award and was named a Walter Dean Myers Honor Book and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Even though there were not many books featuring trans characters when Barley acquired Russo’s first novel five years ago, publishing it was an easy choice, she says, one that she felt even made business sense.
“There was never any kind of opposition to acquiring it,” Barley says. “But what was really valuable was that the reception [at Flatiron] wasn’t, ‘Oh, isn’t it nice we’re publishing this book about transitioning’—it was, ‘This could be a big book.’ We published her in a big way.”
Like the example Chanda uses, a book with a trans main character might have been a tough sell just a few years earlier. That has changed. Even Scholastic Book Fairs, which for years had a reputation of shying away from carrying controversial titles, signed on. “Scholastic actually took If I Was Your Girl,” Barley says. “They didn’t take a million copies, but they carried it and it was featured in their We Need Diverse Books newsletter. They were supporters.”
There’s also this: in the same way that Bruno Bettelheim suggested that fairy tales help children practice being scared, books about all different kinds of ways to be alive help teens think about how to respectfully consider the nature of gender. In The Truth Is by NoNieqa Ramos (Carolrhoda Lab, Sept.), the main character, Verdad, realizes she is falling in love with Danny, a new student who she learns is transitioning from female to male. “One thing Verdad and her classmates have to learn—and they learn imperfectly—is to see him as a guy and to treat him as a guy because their instinct is to not treat him truly as a male,” editor Amy Fitzgerald says. In trying to parse her attraction to Danny, Verdad questions her own sexuality. “It’s a separate journey that is catalyzed by her attraction to Danny and launches her into learning a lot about the potential fluidity of gender. It’s not as clear-cut as she’s been raised to believe.”
In one scene, Verdad does what a lot of people who have a trans person in their social circle must do: figure out the pronouns. “In the first drafts, Verdad would occasionally forget and innocently, inadvertently, misgender someone, which is realistic,” Fitzgerald says. “But being respectful was important to her, so she would stop and correct herself. Her confusion is right there on the page.”
Author Sonia Patel, whose first book, Rani Patel in Full Effect, was a William C. Morris Award finalist, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist. She welcomes the new inclusivity but has one more request: that these stories not be sanitized. Likable protagonists are great, she says, but for many kids who are not straight, the experience has not been easy.
Patel’s second novel, 2017’s Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story (Cinco Puntos), features a trans character and a girl who was pimped out to the sex-trafficking trade by her mother. Both characters were based on amalgams of real teen patients. In a recent blog post, Patel praised the way in which YA has widened to include characters of diverse sexuality, but she also warned that it wasn’t enough if the books about them all featured likable main characters. “When I decided to write, I wanted to produce books based on the teenagers I know, how they talk and think and feel, like you were eavesdropping on my office,” she says. Often these troubled kids are tough to root for, argumentative, and shortsighted, Patel adds, but she notes that to omit their stories would miss the point of the push toward diversity. “Dismissing YA that’s outside the realm of palatable diversity is like a psychiatrist refusing to treat certain teen patients because they have too many issues,” Patel wrote in her blog post.
Facts and Fact-Based Fiction
This month, Orca Books is introducing a new nonfiction line, Orca Issues, concentrating on books about social justice and the environment. “I have kids of my own, all boys, and the way they understand issues like feminism is that basically they don’t,” says publisher Andrew Wooldridge. “We’re choosing topics for books that should be done.” The first two in the series, My Body My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights by Robin Stevenson and I Am a Feminist: Claiming the F-Word in Turbulent Times by Monique Polak, are aimed at high school and college-age readers.
“There’s a lot of Wikipedia-type nonfiction for the middle school reader, but we’re interested in more impactful nonfiction for older teens and young adults,” Wooldridge says. “It’s a more difficult market than middle grade, harder to reach—but the topics are important, and we think there may even be demand in the postsecondary market.”
Many publishers agree that current events are giving nonfiction a boost. “There’s a thirst that needs to be quenched,” says Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press. “Kids want facts and information. Politics is important. Adaptations for young readers, such as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, are doing well, and you can even add more important facts in the back matter so kids will learn more, because these kids want to know more.”
Bloomsbury is offering a YA adaptation of Sam Quinones’s adult bestseller Dreamland (July), about the national opiate epidemic. And HarperCollins is leaning into headline news with Heroine by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins/Tegen, out now), a novel about a college-bound softball star whose athletic career gets derailed after treatment of injuries sustained in a car crash results in her getting hooked on prescription painkillers.
Who’s That Trip-Trip-Tripping Over My Bridge?
Teens have heard all of the warnings about social media but remain enamored with their phones and apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, and so there are oodles of books about the potential pitfalls of social media use. All Eyes on Us by Kit Frick (S&S/McElderry, June) is about two teens whose lives become intertwined when an anonymous texter threatens to spill their secrets. In Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan (Bloomsbury, out now), two teenagers who are tired of the way women are treated at their progressive New York City high school start a Women’s Rights Club—but when their online posts are targeted by trolls, the principal shuts down the club, silencing them. In Chicken Girl by Heather Smith (Penguin Teen Canada, out now), a girl mocked online chooses anonymity by accepting a job waving a sign in a chicken costume.
Perhaps the most intriguing entry in this subset is The Hive (KCP Loft, Sept.), by husband-and-wife team Barry Lyga and Morgan Baden, which takes the problem of online shaming to new heights. In this thriller, a social media platform called the Hive is run by the government and allows people not only to like posts but to condemn them. When 17-year-old Cassie posts an inappropriate comment about the president’s daughter (in a misguided attempt to impress a friend), her remark whips an entire country into a frenzy, forcing Cassie into hiding from a deadly state-sanctioned mob seeking its own form of justice.
The idea for the novel came to KCP Loft from actor Jennifer Beals (star of Flashdance and The L Word). “The proposal was really great—it read like Black Mirror for teens—but we acquired it looking not for a writer for hire but for someone to take the idea and run with it,” says Egan, the editor. “Jennifer suggested Barry because her daughter had read his books and loved them.”
Lyga had a natural collaborator: his wife is the v-p in charge of Scholastic’s social media platforms. Unlike a lot of the novels about teens’ social media use, this one does not scold, Egan says. “I have two teenagers myself, and they are really tired of hearing that social media is bad,” she adds. “This strikes a different note—it’s not about teenagers misusing social media, it’s about teenagers being abused by social media and the ways in which governments and companies can manipulate people behind the scenes. It’s a thriller. You’ll be up late.”
Fugly by Claire Waller (Carolrhoda Lab, Nov.) also centers on the dangerous aspects of social media, but, in a twist, it tells the story from the point of view of the troll. Beth, 18, has been bullied her whole life—but online, she’s in charge, as she adopts the persona of a vicious troll who, according to the publisher, targets the “beautiful, vain, oversharing It Girls of the internet.”
“I had just finished Hunger by Roxane Gay and Shrill by Lindy West before I read this on submission, and the story tapped into that vein of destructive messaging about women’s bodies that causes overweight women to think they are ‘less than,’ ” says Fitzgerald, who is the editor. “It grabbed me right away, because Beth is both atypical and a product of exactly what is wrong with society. I found her realistically flawed and sympathetic at the same time.”
Another hot-button issue of the day—immigration—has also launched if not a thousand books then definitely a shelf full. We Are Here to Stay by Susan Kuklin (Candlewick, out now) introduces nine young adults who have lived much of their lives in the United States harboring a secret: they are not citizens. Originally slated for a 2017 release, the book was reworked to hide the identities of the subjects, replacing their photographs with empty frames and their names with first initials, in order to keep them safe after the Trump administration’s repeal of DACA. Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Refugee and Immigrant Experience, edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond (Triangle Square, out now), is a collection of 64 poems by poets who come from all over the world, sharing the experience of first- and second-generation young adult immigrants and refugees.
Manuelito (Annick, out now), a graphic novel by Elisa Amado, illustrated by Abraham Urias, is based on real stories collected by the author, a Guatemalan activist who helps child refugees being held in detention camps along the southern border of the U.S. “About two years ago, Elisa told me about this phenomenon of unaccompanied children showing up at the border,” says Rick Wilks, director of Annick Press. “She knew a lot about it before all the press, but no one was talking about it. I knew we had to do a book, and by the time the book was ready the issue had hit big time.” Annick is publishing the book in English and Spanish. “Both editions are getting a lot of attention, because there really aren’t a lot of resources out there to help youth find a way into this issue. It’s exactly the kind of book that I want this company to publish.”
Timely topics are also being reflected in fiction for teens. Internment by Samira Ahmed (Little, Brown, out now) imagines a near-future U.S. where Muslim citizens are forced into an internment camp. And Alison Fisher, an editor at Tor Teen, snapped up Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal (June), a novel set in Puerto Rico before the devastating 2017 hurricane. Based on the el Cuco myth, Five Midnights follows five teens struggling with a drug epidemic, gentrification on the island, and the strained relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. “What I love about it is that it is both really dark—there are addiction issues and alcoholic parents and there are literal monsters—but there is also really bright stuff: young love and good food and a passion for art,” Fisher says.
Fisher’s editing career launched with the formation of the We Need Diverse Books movement. “It’s a privileged position,” she says. “I have never experienced any resistance to acquiring a story about a diverse population. In fact, I would say a lot of our accounts are looking for more and more underrepresented stories. That wouldn’t be happening if those books weren’t selling, but I think it’s both a capitalism thing and a very strong feeling about the need to build a global community against, shall we say, other forces that are at work in society right now.”
Cinco Puntos Press publisher Lee Byrd can almost see the border from the company’s offices in El Paso, Tex. The press has specialized in stories from and about Central and South America for decades, and this year will publish The Everything I Have Lost by Sylvia Zéleny (Sept.), about a girl named Julia growing up in a city plagued by violence on the Mexican side of the border. “It’s a well-written book that gives a view into what’s going on here at the border,” Byrd says. “It’s endless immigrants all the time. The whole city has gone into helping mode.”
And though Byrd is thrilled about the recent uptick in interest about subjects that her small press has been focused on for years, there’s a downside for smaller publishers, too: “Some of the Latino authors that would come to us are being actively solicited by the big publishers,” she says. “The big publishers are figuring out there’s a market here.”