YA authors Aaron Hartzler (What We Saw), Ellen Hopkins (Traffick), Patrick Ness (The Rest of Us Just Live Here), Lynn Weingarten (Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls), and Cammie McGovern (A Step Toward Falling) came together on May 29 at BEA for a panel discussion titled Talking to Teens About Tough Topics, moderated by Margot Wood of Epic Reads. The authors spoke about the origins of the specific stories they have chosen to write about, as well as about how YA books that deal with difficult subject matters can enrich and inform readers.
Hopkins has written about addiction in Crank and subsequent books, a topic that she has been acutely familiar with in her own life. The many individuals impacted by addiction in the series mirror the way that addictions in real life have a rippling effect, she said, affecting multiple people, whether children, teenagers, or adults. She has also tackled the subject of prostitution in Tricks and its follow-up, Traffick (S&S/McElderry). While Tricks dealt unflinchingly with the realities of becoming embroiled in the sex industry, Traffick, Hopkins explained, asks the question of whether “you can go home after being in that life.”
McGovern’s experiences raising a child with disabilities strongly informed A Step Toward Falling (HarperTeen), which features a protagonist, Emily, who looks the other way when she witnesses a girl with developmental disabilities, Belinda, being attacked. The story alternates between the two characters’ points of view and the complicated emotions that both experience in the aftermath. Part of McGovern’s motivation for writing the novel was to convey how having a disability “isn’t a dark, tragic issue” in and of itself. In fact, teenagers with disabilities are also facing exactly the same issues as other teenagers, she said; their disabilities separate them by potentially giving them more resilience, as is the case with Belinda.
For Weingarten, while Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls (Simon Pulse) is definitely a work of fiction and not based on personal experience with a suicide, she was intrigued by “the topic of super close, super intense female friendships” and the ways that they can become all-consuming for teenage girls, rivaling the experience of falling in love.
In Hartzler’s first book, Rapture Practice (Little, Brown), was a memoir and an opportunity to overtly bring his own story to the page. His novel, What We Saw (HarperTeen), is based on the Steubenville rape case and is about “coming of age amidst sexual violence.” He felt drawn to write a fictionalized account of the Steubenville case in part because “I have always had a horse in the feminist race.” His own experience growing up gay in a small town has taught him how “homophobia is deeply rooted in sexism.”
Patrick Ness emphasized that The Rest of Us Just Live Here (HarperTeen) is certainly a work of fiction and not drawn from a particular experience in the author’s life or to a specific issue, but rather speaks to greater “emotional truths.” Ness believes strongly that children’s books need to stand alone as stories rather than being issue-driven. “Books for teens don’t need to be important; they just need to be true,” he said. In writing his latest work, which centers on a male protagonist suffering from extreme anxiety, he was cognizant of wanting to steer away from a character standing out as being remarkable or embroiled in remarkable circumstances. “I wanted to write about not being the chosen one... about the guy who just wants to have lunch without the school blowing up.”
When they are writing about addiction, suicide, mental illness, and other topics, Wood wondered if the panelists ever come up against limitations in terms of the content they can include for a young audience, and whether young readers today are facing a darker world with more significant challenges than previous generations.
McGovern said she has been pleasantly surprised to learn how few limitations there are now for authors writing YA, and she believes that authors are often responding to what teenage readers are seeking. Books can sometimes serve as a means to safely “look closer at darkness” perhaps in an attempt “to understand it and name it.”
Hopkins has not encountered any resistance to writing particular content in her books. She also emphasized how the point is not to write edgy content, but to “write what the story demands.” Weingarten echoed the sentiment that YA authors aren’t intentionally trying to shock or push limits. Nothing is off limits for YA authors, she said, “so long as the content is there for the right reasons.”
The panelists also agreed that, while the world has not necessarily grown more menacing and malicious, for today’s teenagers, social media has significantly altered the way they communicate, view the world, and possibly view themselves. With ubiquitous presence of social media in teens’ lives, “now bullying can come into your bedroom,” Ness lamented.
The speakers concluded the conversation by sharing either what they are working on next, or books that they have particularly admired of late. Hopkins said she has been interested in tackling “parental alienation” and “teen cancer,” though not necessarily at the same time. She first thought about writing about cancer some years back, but then she found out that “John Green has got this book coming out,” so she decided to wait a few years.
Hartzler is working on a book based on an incident in which a group of girls simultaneously developed a series of verbal and physical tics, tentatively titled Twitch. Books he’d recommend for anyone’s reading list the work of Carrie Mesrobian, including Cut Both Ways (HarperCollins) and Sex & Violence (Carolrhoda Lab).
For McGovern, while she recognizes that there may be a lot of dystopian fatigue in the industry, she is still intrigued by “altered worlds” and the sense that “the world can transform itself at any moment.”
Ness highly recommends Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (Candlewick). In closing, he also responded to Hawkins’s hesitation to follow in John Green’s footsteps and McGovern’s desire to possibly write her own dystopian novel, offering some unexpected writerly advice to the audience in the process. Writers can’t worry that what they are writing might have been done before, because virtually everything has. Instead, they should remember this: “A book is not a song,” he said. “It’s a performance of a song.... Pick a good song and sing it well.”