Young Adult Literature at AWP 2012

“How Far is Too Far? Facing Self-Censors and Publishing Censors When Writing about Coming-of-Age for Young Adults”

Laura Otto (Moderator), Ann Angel, Daniel Kraus, Penny Blubaugh, Ricki Thompson
When writers work to capture the emerging adult at the end of the young adult journey to independence, they find their characters exploring the forbidden adult world. These stories often depict experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sexuality. How do writers, compelled to tell the truth of the adolescent’s journey respond to the interior voice that warns, “You can’t write that”?

This was one of the best panels that I attended at AWP. It was also held in the smallest room, and had only about fifty people in attendance. There were quite a few YA panels during AWP, and I lucked out that this is the one that worked into my schedule.

The Art of Reading Aloud and One Good Reason to Self-Censor
Ricki Thompson, author of City of Cannibals, spoke first.

The thing about AWP is that a lot of panelists come with typed up essays to read. I can understand the compulsion to do this. If I were going to be speaking in front of a room full of writers, I would want to be prepared, too. But at so many of the panels I attended, the speakers had written their essays as if they were going to be printed, instead of read aloud. This distinction has an enormous impact on the take away for the audience members. Long, elliptical sentences and badly set-up quotes can send the audience into zone-out mode.

But the panelists at the YA Censorship discussion were all extremely adept at delivering a prepared essay in an engaging way.

Ricki Thompson gave the best talk at AWP that I attended. Her speech had a clear, tight focus, and it was easy to follow. She referenced YA novels and gave short summaries that helped me understand their context to the panel and made me excited to read them. In short, her skill as a panelist made me want very much to seek out her books.

I hope that Ricki publishes her essay on the internet or in a journal, because it is wonderful.

Here are some of my notes from her speech:

  • Writers have a responsibility to help young readers navigate the truth, not to protect them from the truth. 
  • Art has the capacity to change the world order. 
  • Our culturally-shaped subconscious can do the censoring for us. 
  • “Play and the Theory of Duende” by Lorca
    • mysterious power in art
    • the shiver that runs through us
  • Ricki censors herself when her stories are losing all hope. Teenagers need hope. 
  •  80 year old dancer – won contest – Duende
    • Death isn’t the whole truth. 
    • There is a balance of light and dark in life. 
  • Books mentioned:
    • In Trouble by Ellen LevineYA about abortion. Very hard to find a publisher. 
    • Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis – YA about anticipating a party with BJs. 
    • Living Dead Girl – Despair overshadows hope at end. 

Where Lives Happen
Next to speak was Ann Angel, the author of Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. Ann spoke about her personal relationship growing up loving Janis Joplin, and her journey to write a teen biography about her. Ann also had some great points about censorship and writing YA:

  • Teens need to know they can be okay. 
  • This is where lives happen (in the scary parts of the world). 
  • Books mentioned:
    • Shine by Lauren Myracle
Fantasy Stories and Unfinished Business
Penny Blubaugh writes fantasy YA (squee!). I’m very excited to read her collection of YA fantasy short stories, Serendipity Market. She told us that one of the stories, “Love and Flowers”, is about puppets and Fae. Could a short story collection get any cooler? 
Penny made one of the most interesting comments during the panel. She said that she feels like all YA authors are stuck at one age, somewhere between 14 and 17. Another panelist (I think it was Ann, but I was far in the back and couldn’t see very well), responded that she agrees. And that the age a YA writer is stuck at is the age where they have unfinished business. 
Visible Darkness
The last author to speak at this panel was Daniel Kraus. He was sick and had had travel emergencies that kept him from arriving until just before the panel, but he still gave a really engaging talk on violence in YA literature. 
He began by explaining that he doesn’t have that part of the brain that says “You can’t write about that.” 
Kraus described some of the scenes from his book. I think one had a young boy’s intestines spilling through the hole where his arm had been. They were pretty intense scenarios. But what was really interesting was that Kraus said he had read all of the reviews of his book Rotters, and none of the teens were offended by the violence. He said that from an editor’s POV, it is harder for a book to talk about sex than violence. 
He also referenced Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article “Darkness Too Visible” that was published in The Wall Street Journal
Kraus said that his job is to unsettle young minds, and he doesn’t worry about telling kids scary stuff. Teen readers, unlike adult ones, seem most able to see both sides of the story. The gruesome and the good. 
The Audience Takes the Stage
After the panelists had presented their ideas on censorship in YA literature, Laura Otto opened the panel up to questions from the audience. 
Two guys in front of me were a bit huffy at the end of the panel. They referenced Living Dead Girl, and said they had misgivings about a YA novel based on abduction. Wouldn’t that unnecessarily scare young girls? Isn’t it too much violence to put in the hands of a young teen?
And something really cool happened. The women in the audience, writers and readers of YA lit themselves, began to speak up. Politely, after they’d raised their hands and been acknowledged by the panel moderator. But with passion. 
Their answers? 
  • All relationships are a form of abduction, in some sense. You get caught up in love, you get carried away. 
  • Many people feel the threat of abduction every day. Books allow young people to explore and understand that fear from a safe distance. 
Another guy sitting in front of me asked about life imitating art. He cited that “studies have shown” that children replicate the violence they see in movies and play in video games. 
One of the panelists responded that characters in stories who do bad things experience natural consequences that arise from their own choices. For example, a girl who smokes pot may discover that the boy she has a crush on doesn’t like the smell of pot on her breath. Another panelist said that her daughter told her, “Mom, I read these books because I don’t want to do these things in real life.” 
Hunger Mountain: YA Short Story Market
The panelists mentioned that Hunger Mountain, the literary journal through the Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently publishing YA short stories. They have two issues out that contain YA short stories, and one even has a middle-grade short story. I swung by their table at the bookfair, and picked up a copy of the most recent issue. 
Issue #16 of Hunger Mountain
It’s a lovely journal. I like that it is a bit larger than most university-run literary journals. It has a great heft and clean, readable formatting. 
Two more resources for those of you interested in writing YA fiction:
  1. Hunger Mountain holds four annual contests. One of them is geared towards YA writers: the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Fiction Writing is open for submissions until June 30th, 2012.
  2. The Vermont College of Fine Arts has an MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults

The Discussion Continues
The discussion surrounding Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article began in the summer of 2011, but I think it may be revived when the first of the Hunger Games movies is released later this month. If you haven’t read the trilogy yet, I would highly recommend it. Set aside a few days and start reading. Warning: you’ll get sucked in. There’s no way not to.

By the third book, I felt overhwelmed with the death and violence. But I appreciated and respected Suzanne Collins for not pulling her punches. And if I were a teen reading these books, I think I’d appreciate her honesty even more.

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