Panel: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Charles Tan: Hi everyone! Thanks for agreeing to do this panel.

In case people don’t know each other, let me introduce you to one another. I’m Charles, your blogger from the Philippines. Today we have:

  • Malinda Lo from the US, author of Ash and Huntress.
  • Tehani Wessely from Australia, who is a publisher, editor, and librarian.
  • Cheryl Morgan from the UK, who is very active in the genre nonfiction and awards scene.
  • Gwenda Bond from the US, who dabbles in a little bit of everything.
  • Tarie Sabido from the Philippines as well, who is a blogger and a teacher.

I’m a bit new at this so we don’t have to be very formal. Feel free to steer the conversation in a direction you think is relevant, but I was hoping to start with the speculative fiction YA books (whether novels or anthologies) published this past year that interested you.

Tehani Wessely: Hi everyone!

I’ll kick things off – I was interested to see the buzz around Beth Revis’ Across the Universe. While dystopian SF is hot right now and abounding, there isn’t a lot of space-based SF around, particularly with such a female element. And I liked it, although on some levels it was a bit problematic. Still, good to see some space-faring SF for young adults around!

Speaking of dystopias (sort of), Aussie Marianne de Pierres’ Burn Bright and Angel Arias were a great read – good and dark, at the top end of the age bracket!

And Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (dark fantasy of a sort – really don’t know how to classify it!) absolutely blew me away – love love LOVED it!

For something a bit different, The Shattering by Karen Healey (New Zealand born author living is Australia) was excellent – tackling some tough themes with a magical element.

The second in Holly Black’s Curse Workers series, Red Glove, was horribly brilliant.

I would be remiss not to mention the sequel (at last!) to Alison Goodman’s The Two Pearls of Wisdom (titled somewhat differently in different parts of the world – The Dragoneye Reborn? Eon?); the new book is called Eona here but again different elsewhere. I loved the first one for so many reasons, but particularly for the way Goodman handles gender, and this is continued, along with a great story and wonderful characters, in Eona.

And for something rather more fluffy, The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross was a fun read.

That’s probably enough from me to start with :)

Cheryl Morgan: Hi folks,

My interest in this is a question of visibility. Earlier this year we went through another round of the endless “why are there no women SF writers” debate. Now I am discovering that there are lots I didn’t know about because the SF they are writing is all appearing in YA books. There appears to be a big fashion amongst publishers at the moment for what they call “dystopias”, though many of them are really more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, and I’ve seen it suggested that “dystopian” is used as an alternative to the dreaded “science fiction”, which as we all know isn’t read by girls. *sigh*

Anyway, I am interested to find out who is writing these books, whether they are any good, and if possible (and the authors are willing) reconnect them with the rest of the science fiction community.

I’m less interested right now in books by men, and in books that are obviously fantasy, because they seem to get more coverage, but obviously there are many great books in those categories too.

This post on my blog, and the ensuing conversation, is relevant.

Malinda Lo: Hello all! It’s lovely to be chatting with you about YA fantasy and science fiction. Thanks for having me!

I will second the love for Karen Healey’s The Shattering and Holly Black’s Red Glove – both wonderful fantasies. I also very much enjoyed Cindy Pon’s Fury of the Phoenix, which is a Chinese-inspired fantasy and a sequel to Silver Phoenix, about a teen named Ai Ling who discovers she has quite a powerful supernatural ability. Along the way Cindy weaves in a backstory about a palace courtesan named Silver Phoenix, and the possibly evil eunuch, Zhong Ye, who loves her. Honestly, Zhong Ye is my favorite character – devious and passionate.

Another I really enjoyed this year is Marie Lu’s Legend, which was just released and already has a movie deal behind it. It’s set in a future, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in the “Republic of America,” and it’s about two teens: one named June, a military heroine, the other named Day, a criminal. June is given the task of hunting Day down. It’s a fast-paced read that has what I think is one of the best dystopian worlds out there in YA right now.

A couple of my other favorites from the last year: Maureen Johnson’s Name of the Star, which combines ghost hunting with a London boarding school (totally adored it); and Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Surrender, which is the third (and final volume) in her excellent Demon trilogy.

Tarie Sabido: Hello, everyone!

Cheryl, I think the idea of “dystopian” as an alternative to “science fiction” is very, very interesting. Could it then be a gateway to “science fiction,” especially for girl readers? High school students in the Philippines inhale dystopian fiction because they love all of the action and romance. The books get them thinking and get them all excited, and of course provide a really awesome escape. Right now they are talking about Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

I’ve heard that after dystopian fiction the next market trend is “science fiction lite.” I’m thinking an example of this is Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us, where there is time travel of sorts, but the story isn’t really about that.

ML: Cheryl, I’m very interested in connecting the YA SFF authors with the rest of the SF community, too. I’ve just contacted SFWA to ask if there’s anything I can do about this within SFWA, but beyond that, I think roundtables like this one are a great way to get the dialogue going.

As for how to find YA science fiction, there are tons of blogs out there that review YA (the YA blogosphere is vast!), but there are a few that I think would be particularly helpful for those who aren’t so familiar with YA in general.

  • The Book Smugglers reviews adult speculative fiction as well as YA, so if you read them you’ll get some of both.
  • YA Highway is a great YA book blog that covers all of YA, but in particular their Field Trip Fridays (posted every Friday) provide a fantastic roundup of what’s been talked about all week in the YA community. Reading Field Trip Friday is a great way to get an idea of what’s been going on in YA, what the hot topics are, etc.
  • The Enchanted Inkpot is a group blog (full disclosure: I’m one of the members) focused on middle grade and young adult fantasy, with topical discussion posts as well as interviews with authors.
  • For reviews, Charlotte’s Library is a great blog that reviews middle grade and young adult fantasy.
  • The League of Extraordinary Writers is a group blog focused on YA dystopian novels, and Brave New Words is yet another one. Both are groups of debut authors, so the posts are more often about writing process and getting published, but they do feature all the new debut dystopians coming out.
  • Finally, the Intergalactic Academy is a newer site that focuses on young adult science fiction. I can’t wait to see what they do in the future!

I think I will stop with these. I admit they’re all US-focused, though the Book Smugglers also reviews UK-published books.

Oh, wait! One more. Lenore Appelhans is a long-time book blogger at Presenting Lenore, and her first YA SF novel is coming out in fall 2012. She has blogged a ton about YA dystopians and has many lists of YA dystopians if you’re interested.

Gwenda Bond: Starting with the issue of favorites of the year, I have to start by saying this was an extraordinarily strong year for YA fantasy and science fiction. I could name a slew of books I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see on the ALA awards lists or for the Norton, and that I recommend without reservation. And–perhaps best of all–there’s such a range represented among the year’s best.


Many of my favorites have already been mentioned–Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Holly Black’s Red Glove, Karen Healey’s The Shattering, Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Surrender (such a great series), Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, and, yes, seconding whoever mentioned Beth Revis’s Across the Universe and the fact it’s nice to see more space-set SF. I know I’ll forget some and kick myself later, but I also thought Franny Billingsley’s Chime, Malinda’s own Huntress, Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, and Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls were wonderful. Oh, and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road has such a striking voice. I could go on–and I realize looking over this that I’ve mentioned only books by women, without meaning to at all (I also loved Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath and Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, so there)…

But this segues nicely into Cheryl’s question about how many women are publishing SFF in YA and not really being *seen* by the larger field. I do think this is getting better, as the conversation between the two expands. I also think that children’s lit – and YA too, as an outgrowth of that – have always been friendly to women writers. Some of the reasons for that may historically have been problematic (the entire enterprise being for children and, thus, viewed as somehow lesser than Books For Adults), but now it’d be very difficult to argue it’s anything less than a good thing, resulting in lots of exciting work by women finding great success in the YA field.

What I do see and hear a lot of that bugs me is people who haven’t read much YA dismissing the category as all “Twilight clones” or romance, and/or bemoaning the lack of Heinlein corollaries. So I wonder if part of what Cheryl (and many of us) find appealing is actually one of the issues we face in getting the rest of the SFF field to attend the party.

And, with that, I’ve rambled enough!

CT: Thanks Gwenda!

Maybe we can now move on to the points Cheryl mentioned and I think Gwenda touched upon some of those concerns. Anyone want to start from there?

TW: Oh yes, how could I forget Huntress?! I always find it amazing that people think women aren’t writing speculative fiction, because in Australia, the fantasy novel field is dominated, in the best possible sense of the word, by women. It’s not as obvious in SF, but SF itself is not as strong in Australia – yet we still have Karen Miller and Marianne de Pierres, to name just two, publishing excellent books in the adult SF field. However, it is definitely true that YA is a friendly place for female authors, and there is such a strong tradition of women writing excellent spec fic for this designation – I immediately think of Gillian Rubenstein (Lian Hearn), Tamora Pierce, Margo Lanagan (although I’d argue that publishers are pushing her as a round peg in a square hole by only marketing her work as YA), Madeleine L’Engle, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, and so many more! Add to this more recent “crop” of Justine Larbalestier, Holly Black, Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) and so many others, many of whom crossover into adult fiction either in different books or under different names, and there’s a HUGE number of women writing in the area. In my heart of hearts, I hold a secret hope that so many young women will become addicted to their books in YA and continue to read their adult work later in life, thus expanding the market for solid SF for women, by women. I’m ever an optimist!

ML: Thanks, Tehani and Gwenda, for the kind words about Huntress!

Regarding the broader issue of women publishing SFF in YA and not being seen by the adult SFF field, Gwenda wrote:

What I do see and hear a lot of that bugs me is people who haven’t read much YA dismissing the category as all “Twilight clones” or romance, and/or bemoaning the lack of Heinlein corollaries. So I wonder if part of what Cheryl (and many of us) find appealing is actually one of the issues we face in getting the rest of the SFF field to attend the party.

I totally agree with this. I wish, sincerely, that we as a genre could move on from Twilight without bashing it into the ground. While I agree there are problematic metaphors in the series, a lot of the time the Twilight bashing veers into plain old dismissal of girls’ interests in romance. Those kinds of complaints have nothing to do with YA or even the quality of the novels being discussed, but reveal a deep-seated and hard to uproot sexism. (Also reflected in the continuing nostalgia for the Heinlein juveniles.)

Cheryl mentioned the belief that girls don’t read science fiction, and I just wanted to note that while some publishers probably do believe that, I think that is changing. There is so much YA science fiction coming out in the next year or two, and I don’t think publishers are hesitating to call it science fiction so much as also calling it something else, be it “dystopian” or “thriller.”

YA in general is about blurring the boundaries between genres. Even romance in YA isn’t pure “romance” as it’s known to adult readers. It’s often combined with something else – e.g., paranormal romance. So it’s not necessarily a rejection of “science fiction” to label a YA book a dystopian romance. It think it’s partly that YA subgenres are often more flexible than adult ones, and you rarely get a straightforward “romance” or “mystery” or even “fantasy” anymore in YA. They’re all hybrids.

TS: Yes, yes, many readers and critics dismiss YA SFF as all Twilight clones and/or all romance – and these are many of the same people who dismiss children’s literature and young adult literature in general. Could this be because of marketing, book covers/book design, and jacket copy? A cursory glance at the YA shelves in bookstores show very similar covers. And as a reader it seems to me that many of the books being heavily marketed have similar plot lines: Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy but he isn’t quite human, or not human at all. (Or vice versa.) Or girl must fulfill her destiny, but there is a boy and he may help her with her quest, or ultimately destroy her. (Or vice versa.) Errr, all of this seems so familiar.

But Gwenda is absolutely right, this year has been very exciting for YA SFF all around.

CM: Gwenda said:

What I do see and hear a lot of that bugs me is people who haven’t read much YA dismissing the category as all “Twilight clones” or romance, and/or bemoaning the lack of Heinlein corollaries. So I wonder if part of what Cheryl (and many of us) find appealing is actually one of the issues we face in getting the rest of the SFF field to attend the party.

Actually I’m pretty allergic to the generic romance plot. I don’t mind a well-written relationship story, but I’m liable to stop reading if the book starts reading like a Mills & Boon. I suspect, however, that publishers obsessed with gender-specific marketing will tend to label any book by a woman that contains a relationship story as “romance”.

So one of my jobs is to read these books and tell people which ones really are generic romances and which ones have a lot more to them.

Malinda said:

Cheryl mentioned the belief that girls don’t read science fiction, and I just wanted to note that while some publishers probably do believe that, I think that is changing. There is so much YA science fiction coming out in the next year or two, and I don’t think publishers are hesitating to call it science fiction so much as also calling it something else, be it “dystopian” or “thriller.”

I offer as evidence this comment from Diana Peterfreund on my blog:

“The other thing you see happening in YA SF is that the YA publishers and booksellers will pretty much die before they say the word “science fiction” to teens. They think it drives away the female audience. The buzz word is “dystopian” which is why the ones on your list are ALL dystopians (even Across The Universe, which the author describes not as a “generation ship SF story” but as a “murder mystery set in space.”) That’s why [Robin] Wasserman’s series, which is set in a bleak futuristic world, is being repackaged to play down the “cyborg” and play UP the dreamy, dystopian elements that make things like “Matched” such a hit.”

Full text here.

YA in general is about blurring the boundaries between genres. Even romance in YA isn’t pure “romance” as it’s known to adult readers. It’s often combined with something else – e.g., paranormal romance. So it’s not necessarily a rejection of “science fiction” to label a YA book a dystopian romance. It think it’s partly that YA subgenres are often more flexible than adult ones, and you rarely get a straightforward “romance” or “mystery” or even “fantasy” anymore in YA. They’re all hybrids.

Exactly, but you have to persuade readers who think that don’t like “romance” that a book also contains “science fiction” in just the same way that you have to persuade readers who think that they don’t like “science fiction” that a book also contains “romance”.

ML: With all due respect to Diana Peterfreund, who is very smart and whose books I love, she is expressing her opinion, and I am expressing mine. We are each individuals who may see the same thing differently. I recently went through the major publishers’ catalogs for fall 2011 and winter/spring 2012 to see what publishers are packaging YA science fiction as these days. The results of that are in this post I wrote recently: This is what YA sci-fi looks like.

Despite the fact that Beth Revis’ Across The Universe was pitched as a murder mystery in space, the original hardcover cover had SPACE on it; it was very clearly sci-fi. And Diana’s own upcoming novel, despite being pitched as a Jane Austen dystopian retelling (which I think sounds fabulous!), also has space on the cover.

There’s just so much scifi coming out in the next year that even if publishers may be hesitant about the term science fiction, they are no longer nearly as hesitant about publishing it. Nor are they hesitant about making it look like science fiction, in my opinion – it just doesn’t look like old school science fiction (e.g. spaceships, planets, people with laser guns).

Regarding the romance thing … I admit the distaste often expressed for romance within YA is one of the things that pushes my buttons. I’ll have to think more about it before I respond. :)

CM: OK, cool. It is good to have different takes on this. And I love that covers post.

I’m also very fond of the cover for Tankborn. I’m delighted they got away with having the word “tank” in the title – that will confuse some boys – plus dark-skinned protagonist and clear biology elements.

GB: I have a major problem with dismissals of romance, generally speaking, both in the YA world and in the world of adult genre romance or (so-called) women’s fiction with heavy relationship elements. But I don’t want to turn this panel into a soapbox about how romance is so often dismissed and unfairly maligned, not a little because it’s a genre written and read primarily by women – and women who are some of the most self-aware, sharp and dedicated readers and writers out there. I’d submit – after having read a lot of genre romance last year to better educate myself on the topic – that just as with dismissals of much popular urban fantasy by the SFF field, most of the dismissers aren’t that familiar with the best of what it has to offer and are making judgments based on packaging or misguided conceptions of what it actually *is*. (On the romance side, I highly recommend Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels). Okay, /end soapbox.

But I do think all these issues are very interconnected. One of the most interesting things about the Twilight phenomenon to me is how thoroughly it was ignored by the mainstream press until the first movie came out and did gangbusters. You can go back and look at the articles, most of which had a tone of, “Who knew this existed? Apparently it’s really popular!”, which, considering the numbers that the series was already posting in terms of sales, made it very clear that this hadn’t been worth noticing before *because* it was fueled entirely by girls and women buying it. And the vast majority of YA does contain some sort of romantic element.

Malinda said:

YA in general is about blurring the boundaries between genres. Even romance in YA isn’t pure “romance” as it’s known to adult readers. It’s often combined with something else – e.g., paranormal romance. So it’s not necessarily a rejection of “science fiction” to label a YA book a dystopian romance. It think it’s partly that YA subgenres are often more flexible than adult ones, and you rarely get a straightforward “romance” or “mystery” or even “fantasy” anymore in YA. They’re all hybrids.

I couldn’t agree more (and with her other points, as well). We are seeing more science fiction in YA these days, and I suspect that is a trend that will have legs under it. Aside from the dystopians, much of it is “soft” science fiction, but I believe there’s a lot of room for growth of all kinds of SF. This makes perfect sense to me, as teens, like the rest of us, are living in a world flooded with technology moving so fast it’s impossible to keep up with the implications. And it is full of the perfect metaphors to explore YA issues – Beth Revis’s generation ship story resonates with the teen experience partly because she (so smartly) realizes the natural connection between how the boundaries of high school and the boundaries of the generation ship feel, the limits that teenagers push to be free of and often feel trapped within, and having to deal with rules not of their own making.

The lack of genre boundaries that Malinda describes is a big factor in why YA science fiction and fantasy is thriving. It’s inventive at the same time much of it is very accessible, which is a hard trick. This is possible, at least somewhat, because YA is not a genre, it’s all of them. This lack of hard boundaries, the fact that a book can be pitched and packaged as *and* actually *be* a hybrid of all sorts of different things gives authors a great deal of freedom to mix and match tropes and conventions and remix them in entirely fresh ways.

ML: I was all set to write some pithy response about romance and YA, but Gwenda did it instead! And now I really want to go get a copy of Beyond Heaving Bosoms.

So, Charles, I for one am ready for a new question, unless you want us to continue on this track.

CM: Gwenda said:

The lack of genre boundaries that Malinda describes is a big factor in why YA science fiction and fantasy is thriving. It’s inventive at the same time much of it is very accessible, which is a hard trick. This is possible, at least somewhat, because YA is not a genre, it’s all of them. This lack of hard boundaries, the fact that a book can be pitched and packaged as *and* actually *be* a hybrid of all sorts of different things gives authors a great deal of freedom to mix and match tropes and conventions and remix them in entirely fresh ways.

This is a really good point. We often talk about how SF is not a genre because there isn’t an expected plot, but there are expected tropes. YA has neither an expected plot nor expected tropes. I guess it does, at some point, need to address issues of interest to teenagers, but beyond that the writer is free to experiment. No wonder so many people are dipping into it.

By the way, I’m currently reading The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski. It is clearly marketable as YA as the central character is a teenage girl in her first year at college, but as you’d expect from Joan it has some pretty serious science in it too. And a lot of politics.

ML: I hadn’t heard of [The Highest Frontier] but the premise sounded fascinating, so I looked it up. I can see why it would seem to fit in as YA, but one of the oddest things about YA is that the YA category typically ends at age 18 and the end of high school. College novels usually don’t sell as YA, though some publishers have tried. In some of the reviews of The Highest Frontier I saw online, they note that some chapters are from the point of view of the college president, who I’m guessing is an (older) adult. This is also something that would typically take it out of YA.

(It’s useful as well to look at the publisher. The Highest Frontier is published by Tor, which also has a YA imprint, Tor Teen. The fact that Tor chose to publish this under their adult imprint rather than their YA imprint is revealing.)

I think that a lot of adult readers (SFF and beyond) have a hard time with the admittedly slippery concept of what YA is, at all. Yes, it’s not one genre but encompasses many, as Gwenda said. And yes, it has a teenage protagonist, as Gwenda said. But it’s also about voice and style, and usually has an intense emotional immediacy and pacing that is faster than most adult fiction. The more YA one reads, the easier it is to see when something fits as YA and when it doesn’t. But for readers who are new to YA, it can be difficult to grasp.

CM: Fascinating. Again I’m not an expert on YA, I’m just seeing what other people say about the book, and judging my own reaction. As an adult, I’d certainly pigeonhole it as a book aimed at younger readers, but most YA is written by adults and it is by no means certain that they’ll strike the right tone necessary to be accepted by their audience. It’s possible that Joan and/or Tor are trying to hit both markets here, but I guess it is just as easy to fall between two stools as to straddle them.

And FYI, it definitely fails your YA test on the pacing as well as having the occasional adult viewpoint chapter.

I’m learning a lot here. And hopefully when I finally get to Planesrunner I’ll be much better place to assess it.

CT: If anyone wants to still talk about romance and YA, feel free to do so, but the next topic I wanted to talk about was what Malinda touched upon, and what exactly classifies a work as YA. Is it possible to have a YA book where the protagonist isn’t a teenager? Personally, I also have trouble differentiating Middle Grade vs. YA, and in fact when I interviewed Ian McDonald, he considers Planesrunner Middle Grade rather than YA.

GB: One thing that drives lots of people in children’s literature and YA crazy is how SFF folks sometimes lump all books published for younger readers – middle grade and young adult books – into YA, in terms of terminology. I don’t mind it so much, because I realize it’s just an outsider’s shorthand, but there is a big difference between the two within the children’s/YA field itself; they each have their own concerns, audiences, awards, with a bit of traffic over the border each way, of course.

I think Malinda has already nailed the primary thing that makes a book YA – that sense of immediacy, especially emotional immediacy. The character(s) are very much *in* the action, with the intensity of experiencing something for the first time or, at least, without much experience or perspective to draw on. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t distant or slightly older narrators in YA, too, because there are some. Anything goes as long as it works. I also think that much of YA is, at its heart, about the teen protagonist(s) defining or finding their place in the world. And the romance interest is obviously linked to that too, part of separating and building an identity apart from the family. Even with the faster pace, a lot of the action and character arc will also be emotional, interior.

Middle grade tends to have younger protagonists, and is often more about those characters interacting with each other to solve a problem or have an adventure. There are still questions of identity, but it tends to be more about relationships with parents/family and peers, and probably has a lighter touch of romance, if there’s any at all.

I’m not sure I’m being clear at all, because, yes, to echo Malinda one more time, you tend to know each of these when you see it. Both middle grade and YA have an attitude, a voice, a style that becomes easy to suss out after awhile.

I haven’t read Planesrunner, but am really interested in it, especially after this discussion.

TH: I struggle with this all the time, and I think that publishers are shoving more and more books into the YA category because they know they have a captive audience in schools and libraries, as well as the adults who are happily willing to read in this area. Look too at the books that are marketed to different audiences in different countries. And I’ve heard of authors being asked to remove racier sex scenes from manuscripts so that publishers can market it to this audience. I find this so wrong!

Perhaps my favourite interpretation of “what is YA” is from Garth Nix – I often refer people to this quote:

To my mind, YA is a subset of adult fiction, not of children’s fiction, and should be considered as having an entry reading age rather than an age *range*. The entry level is probably 13 or 14, but there is no upper level because the books are also for adults. Saying YA is 13-21, or 13-18 or whatever misses the point, because it suggests that the books are not for older adults, whereas I would say that in fact the core audience of people reading YA (and YA SFF in particular) are in fact 16-35. But this is only the core and the readership extends more broadly upward in age and down as well. [Coode Street Episode 20, second comment]

I like this idea a lot – YA is a STARTING point, not an encapsulating age range. What do you think?

CM: I suspect that any attempt to define YA is as doomed to failure as any attempt to define science fiction. You can adopt the Damon Knight approach and say that YA is what people point to when they say YA, but it seems pretty clear that YA readers (as described by Gwenda and Malinda) can mean something different from publishers and authors, and non-YA readers can mean something different again. So you end up with one of those ridiculous Internet arguments where two sides are arguing over the definition of a “Boojum”, but one side is thinking of elephants and the other side is thinking of penguins and both insist that the other must obviously be wrong.

What’s of more interest to me is the question of what actual teenagers will buy and enjoy, not what a bunch of adults think they should buy, or what adult readers like to buy because it makes them feel less old.

That, of course, is complicated by the fact that some (many?) teenagers like (some) adult books. I think I was about 13 when I read Lord of the Rings, and that doesn’t match any of the descriptions of YA we’ve listed here. It took me a lot longer to gain an appreciation of M. John Harrison and Gene Wolfe.

GB: Yes, definitional arguments are problematic. Especially since YA is certainly also a marketing category (being all genres), and Garth Nix’s quote gets at that. I might argue – at least before coffee and too much thought – that what it does is combine elements of adult fiction with the pacing and story-focus of children’s literature/middle grade. I went back and looked up what I said about this on my grad school thesis (which was about omniscient POV in YA) and it seems relevant:

“The continual arguments over what young adult books are – legitimate literary form or marketing category – may be telling. In many ways, young adult literature is as close to literature for adults as it is to literature for children. YA is situated on the interstices between the two fields, just like its intended readers themselves. Young adult literature mirrors the tendency of its audience to strive toward the grown-up end of the spectrum. Like its readers, it wants to be taken seriously.”

I once heard Sharyn November refer to it as “books teenagers read,” which I really like. And, as Cheryl says, that can be just about anything. I read almost no actual YA when I was a teen (Christopher Pike, forever!), and tons of books for adults. So, yes, this is probably a fool’s game. But I do think we can safely say that YA is *rarely* about a narrator looking back from adulthood, and is *almost* always centered on a teenager. That may be about it.

ML: Perhaps I’m the odd one out, but I guess I don’t think the definition of YA is that hard to pin down. I feel that publishers and the YA community have a pretty clear idea of what it is, and it’s folks who are new to YA who don’t understand and often make assumptions about what it is and who reads it. So I’m glad to have this chance to talk about it with newcomers to YA.

Sure, there probably are adult readers who read YA because it brings them back to their youth (to paraphrase Cheryl’s suggestion, which is a common belief about YA readers). I’d just like to submit that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with reading science fiction because it allows you to imagine the future. There are also adult readers who read YA because they like the storytelling and the pacing and the voice. There are teen readers who read it for those same reasons, and because they enjoy reading books about people their age. When I’ve asked teens if they read YA, the ones who say yes tell me they like YA because of that – because the protagonists are their age and the stories are about them, rather than older adults.

And of course, teens also read adult novels. The fact that a book was read by a young adult doesn’t automatically make it a young adult novel. And I’ve come full circle to the definition question, so I’ll stop now.

GB: I mainly agree with this, but there are a lot of discussions and assertions made *within* the YA community about whether it’s a genre of its own or just a marketing category or something else. So I don’t think it’s just from outsiders.

There are always outlier books that people question as truly YA or not; I tend to fall down on the side that, in those cases, it’s usually a reductive definition being used. (I’m thinking of books like Tobin Anderson’s Octavian Nothing or Megan Whalen Turner’s books. Tehani mentioned Margo Lanagan earlier as an example.)

And it does seem like there may be some conversation to be had about books that are truly YA, written for teens, and books for adults that many teens seem to like especially well (many cult classics fall into this category). I bet if we did an analysis, we’d find some characteristics in common between them. But, Malinda is right, that is not this conversation. :)

TS: To add to the great points and issues already raised about the definition of YA literature… YA literature is very often about teens negotiating their places in the power structures of their community/society/etc.

CT: To get things back on track, I want to ask how was this year in YA in terms of representation (whether that means male/female readers, queer folk, people of color, authors outside of the US/UK, etc.)?

TS: How was this year in YA SFF in terms of representation?

*cringes*

Please allow me to begin the discussion by sharing the short list of YA SFF written by people of color and published in the US in 2011:

Black

  • Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves (Simon & Schuster)
  • Mystify (Mystyx #2) by Artist Arthur (Kimani TRU)
  • Drama High: The Meltdown by L. Divine (Kensington)
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Penguin)
  • Mayhem (Mystyx #3) by Artist Arthur (Kimani TRU)
  • American Indian/Native American
  • Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick)
  • Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac (Tu Books)

Asian

  • Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda (Hyperion)
  • Rocket Girls by Housuke Nojiri (Viz Media)
  • Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon (Greenwillow)
  • Huntress by Malinda Lo (Little Brown)
  • Level Up by Gene Luen Yang (First Second)
  • Island’s End by Padma Venkatraman (Putnam Juvenile)
  • Tall Story by Candy Gourlay (David Fickling)
  • Dragon of Silk by Laurence Yep (Harpercollins)
  • Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow by Daniel Nayeri (Candlewick)
  • Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (Harpercollins)
  • Legend by Marie Lu (Putnam Juvenile)

Spanish

  • The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Little Brown)

Mixed heritage

  • The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout (Bloosmbury)

Take note that a couple of these books are bordering on middle grade fiction and a couple may not be “strictly” SFF, but contain elements of SFF. Also, the protagonists in these books are not necessarily people of color.

Thank you to Zetta Elliott (2011 African American YA & MG Novels) and Doret (MG & YA Authors of Color Published in 2011) for these stats!!

ML: Also, I thought of two more writers of color who published SFF YA in 2011: Melissa de la Cruz, who is Filipino-American, published Lost in Time; and Kendare Blake, who is also of Asian descent, published Anna Dressed in Blood.

Anyway, I will now attempt to answer Charles’s original question:

How was this year in YA in terms of representation (whether that means male/female readers, queer folk, people of color, authors outside of the US/UK, etc.)?

Although I’ve spent the year chasing diversity for Diversity in YA, I admit I haven’t focused much on SFF YA, so my knowledge of that is kind of off the top of my head. As Tarie’s list shows, there weren’t many writers of color publishing SFF YA. In terms of the characters depicted, I’m not sure if the numbers are that much higher. There are often secondary characters of color, but that’s not the same as the lead.

As for queer characters in SFF, there were three books that I know of: mine (lesbians), Brent Hartinger’s Shadow Walkers, and Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes (both feature gay boys). I’m reasonably sure that there weren’t many others. There are more books being published with secondary queer characters (again not the same as the lead, but I think it paves the way for more leads), such as Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels and her recently published Clockwork Prince.

I’d like to note, though, that there have been a couple of major lead titles heavily promoted this year that are either written by a person of color (Marie Lu’s Legend) or feature a person of color lead character (Clockwork Prince, which has one of the sexiest Asian boys on a cover I’ve seen, maybe ever, which I find really encouraging). These lead titles have a disproportionate effect on the YA readership, so I’m very glad to have them, even if they’re only a couple of titles.

I think that after the cover controversies of the last couple of years, publishers are paying attention, and the discussion about diversity within YA publishing is ongoing. I am hopeful that diversity will continue to increase in YA.

TW: I’m afraid I can’t comment significantly on some aspects of this, as I primarily read Australian YA, plus highly recommended international books. However, in Australia, there is certainly a significant percentage of YA being published by women. I’ve also been very pleased to come across books specifically dealing with gender and sexuality issues, both as a main theme and presented as “norm”. However, it’s been interesting to see that most of these are mainstream book, the “reality” novel rather than genre. Not sure what that says!

ML: Maybe one way to think about your question is to consider what we’d like to see more of, in the SFF YA published in the market we’re most familiar with?

CT: Sure, I think that’s a better re-statement. :)

CM: I’d like to toss an industry issue in here. I would certainly like to see more diversity in the UK market, but I’m kind of resigned to having to mostly look to North America for it. As a small press publisher I’m all too aware that if you want to sell something that may be a minority interest then it helps to have a very big market to sell into. Companies like Aqueduct and Lethe would be much more of a challenge to run in a smaller market.

I should note that Gollancz has done some excellent work picking up European writers, but they are not YA. I’ll be very interested to see what Angry Robot’s new Strange Chemistry imprint does, given that they do have good access to the US market.

GB:

As for queer characters in SFF, there were three books that I know of: mine (lesbians), Brent Hartinger’s Shadow Walkers, and Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes (both feature gay boys).

Will try to jump in a bit more later, but just wanted to add Karen Healey’s The Shattering to this list. One of her main characters is a lesbian, and she also very much explore issues of race and class in this fabulous thriller.

ML: Yes, how could I forget The Shattering? I loved that book!

TS: To use Malinda’s restatement of the prompt, I would like to see more “minority writers” and their stories in YA SFF. I didn’t want to use that term for the list I sent because “minority” has such negative connotations, but “minority” may be a more inclusive term, as it includes LGBT authors, authors of different religions, etc.

I also want to see more protagonists of color in YA SFF, and more YA SFF inspired by “non-Western” lore and mythologies.

GB: In the meantime, if you haven’t seen Malinda’s marvelous post from yesterday, check it out: A Year of Thinking About Diversity.

ML: Thanks for reading my post!

I don’t know if I’ve really answered the question as I rephrased it… I’d like to see more scifi and fantasy with queer main characters, especially girls. That’s entirely out of my own self-interest. For whatever reason, queer characters in YA are predominantly male.

And I’d like to see more scifi that is not dystopian. I totally want space opera, new frontiers, exploration, first contact, etc. Fingers crossed that the dystopian market pushes things in that direction!

GB: Better late than never, I hope, and I’m sure we’re just about ready to move on from this topic… Malinda said:

Maybe one way to think about your question is to consider what we’d like to see more of, in the SFF YA published in the market we’re most familiar with?

Diversity is definitely a major concern for me, be it as a writer, a reader, an editor, blogger, etcetera – as a person, basically. And there are all sorts of reasons why having better representation is important, which is part of what makes this such a moving target to discuss, as Malinda’s post captures so brilliantly. One of the things I’m happiest about in the past few years in the YA community is that I feel like we really are finally engaging in an ongoing conversation about diversity (due to some prominent examples of cover whitewashing and Malinda and Cindy Pon’s own Diversity in YA effort, among other things), and keeping that discussion going can only lead to positive change in the long run.

SFF has often been among the worst offenders when it comes to lack of diverse casts or non-cliched and stereotyped characters of color or including gay and lesbian characters as anything besides the occasional sidekick. Perhaps some of it is because there has been a perception that stories much be *about* related issues if such characters are included. But with books like The Shattering and Huntress we’re seeing again and again that this is simply not the case. What it comes down to for me on a selfish level is wanting to read – and to tell – richer stories. And I don’t see how we can do that without doing a better job of inclusion.

I want SFF YA about all sorts of different characters and I want those characters to be as specific as possible. What I really would like to ban in YA is characters that feel generic, as if TV monoculture is the only culture they’ve ever been exposed to and no more personal influences exist alongside it. I want characters as messy and rich as life allows. Rich, poor, straight, gay, religious, atheist, and so on. And I want them in all different types of stories.

8 thoughts on “Panel: Young Adult Speculative Fiction”

  1. Thank so much to Malinda for the shout out to the Intergalactic Academy! We’re only a few months old, but it’s really a passion project of mine. As a YA sci-fi author debuting with Simon and Schuster in 2013 (as well as a rabid fan of the genre), I’m really interested in conversations about YA SF’s place in the wider genre. I think dialogues like these are a great first step to greater awareness.

  2. A lively and varied discussion. As a YA sci fi writer I’m interested in trends within the industry. I also liked hearing about some new authors and books I didn’t know were out there, as well as the Intergalactic Academy. Thanks for the links! Definitely bookmarked that one. Hope SF Signal will host more blogs like this one.

  3. I agree with Phoebe that discussions like these really are the first step in greater awareness. The YA Speculative Fiction world is pretty big, and sometimes readers who don’t see anything for themselves in YA avoid the label on the basis of being not in the marketed age group. There’s really so much more to it than age! I was happy to see TANKBORN and THE SHATTERING, and GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS and many others highlighted – and I’ve got a few new ones for my TBR pile! Thanks, Charles! Please do something like this again!

  4. And I agree with both Tanita and Phoebe! Thanks for the great discussion, all of you, and thanks, Malinda, for mentioning my blog.

    I had lots of the books mentioned in my piles and on my list, but I’ve added more!

  5. This is great! So glad I found it (through Malinda’s blog). I think you covered a lot of important stuff, and now I have to make my to-read list SO much longer (though thankfully next fall I’ll be taking a class on sci fi and fantasy for my children’s and YA lit master’s, so I’ll be able to catch up then). One thing I thought, though, when I saw the title of the panel, was that you might be talking a little about the nature of speculative fiction itself–what I’m writing is, I think, best described as speculative fiction, in that it takes elements commonly associated with SF but doesn’t science-ify them too, too much, and the focus is still more on the “literary” plot of character and emotional growth and development. I think that magic realism, you could say, is the fantasy version of speculative fiction, where as “straight” SF and F revel in those aspects much more.

    You all talk a lot about how boundaries are blurring in YA, and that’s true. But if you had to define it, I’m curious as to how you each would separate the categories of SF, F, spec fic, and magic realism.

    1. For me, speculative fiction is a catch-all descriptor that includes all types of fantastic fiction, including science fiction and even horror. It sounds like what you’re writing might be what’s sometimes called “soft” or “social” science fiction, but I think sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in terms. I like spec fic because it’s inclusive, but also use SFF a lot.

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