The Big Read Blog (Archive)

"A Renaissance in Teenage Fiction": A Conversation with YA Author Lauren Bjorkman

Young adult author Lauren Bjorkman. Photo by Marjorie Olsen

The growing audience for young adult literature has been one of the hot topics for discussion in recent years, with articles in major newspapers from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal dissecting the current state of this art form and its influence on readers. As part of The Big Read in Taos, New Mexico, they decided to tackle this subject head on with the event titled YA Lit: What's All The Fuss About?

Led by Lauren Bjorkman, author of the young adult novel My Invented Life, this Big Read event was designed to explore "the vast diversity within the genre, the current trends, and the hot controversies." I spoke with Bjorkman by email about what defines a young adult novel, what is driving the growing popularity of the young adult [YA] novel, and what her take is on some of the controversies surrounding the genre. Make sure you read to the end for Bjorkman's favorite YA titles to add to your reading list.

NEA: Sales of young adult literature have been on the rise in recent years. Why do you think this is?

LAUREN BJORKMAN: The simple answer---better books create more readers, leading to even better books, resulting in even more readers.

The long answer---complex and wonderful forces are driving this renaissance in teen fiction. My hero, Judy Blume, broke ground in the '70s with her funny, honest, and painful novels about teen life. I devoured them all during my treacherous middle school years. They were my best friends sometimes. Skipping past the '80s with its preachier problem novels, the trend got stronger, bringing us authors with amazing voices like Paula Danziger, Bruce Coville, and Francesca Lia Block. Then along came Harry Potter in 1997---an epic story---funny, magical, and inventive, set in a dark world filled with harrowing adventures and evil characters. Harry Potter spawned a new generation of book enthusiasts. These gazillion readers, coupled with editors and publishers that support authors who write stories with depth for teens, led to the current perfect storm in teen lit.

NEA: As an author, why are you drawn to writing for a teenage audience?

BJORKMAN: The media sometimes portrays teens as hormone-crazed and rebellious annoyances in baggy pants that should be sent away until they reach maturity. I don't agree. Teens are energetic, open-minded, profound, caring, risk-taking, and generous. I want to be part of their journey---figuring out who they are and what they believe in---as they stand on the brink of accomplishing huge things. Teens make the world a better place.

NEA: In a New York Times Book Review article last May, Lisa Belkin wrote, "The purpose of young adult literature is often twofold: to tell a story, and to send a message, usually in the form of a much-needed lesson." Would you agree with this statement? Did this come into consideration when you wrote My Invented Life?

BJORKMAN: Sirens are wailing in my head! Seriously.

The first rule of YA---never talk down to your audience. The books fueling the current perfect storm in YA lit deal with issues relevant to teens, but are as imaginative, layered, and complex as any novel for adults. They show readers the possible consequences of their actions and raise more questions than they answer. Let me use Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as an example. In the book, an Indian boy named Junior decides to attend school off the Spokane Reservation to give himself a chance at a better life. There is no moral to the story. Junior makes huge sacrifices, betrays his best friend, and deals with intense challenges at his new school, while dealing with tragedies at home. The novel sheds light into dark corners, and leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of a world that isn't black or white.

When I wrote My Invented Life---a story about a secret that drives a wedge between two sisters---I rejected the idea of message. True, I believe that keeping secrets from those you love does more harm than good. But I also believe that nothing about people is simple, and had no desire to teach a lesson in my novel. Instead, I show what it might be like to hide one's sexuality, and also the consequences of being "out" in a sometimes hostile world. I even include a likable semi-homophobic character. No paper-thin villains in my book! I want the reader to make up his or her own mind.

I wrote my novel with a light-hearted, funny, and hopeful (verging on gaytopian) tone. If my readers come away with the message that LGBT teens are just like anybody else, it's only because that's the truth, not because I clubbed them over the head with it.

NEA: As a teen, what were your favorite young adult books? Did any of them inspire you to become a writer?

BJORKMAN: Judy Blume. Most of her books are categorized as middle grade novels (for audiences 9-12), though. I adore Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy and anything by Roald Dahl. Again, not really young adult. Except for S. E. Hinton's Outsiders and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (I somehow missed both), young adult lit as we know it now didn't exist back then.

Lauren Bjorkman and participants in The Big Read Taos's discussion YA Lit: What's All The Fuss About?

NEA: As part of Taos's Big Read, you led a discussion about young adult literature, exploring ?the vast diversity within the genre, the current trends, and hot controversies." Can you give us some highlights from this discussion?

BJORKMAN: I came prepared to talk, but the event turned into a dynamic conversation. The authors who wrote for adults wanted to know what defines YA. In my opinion---besides the obvious teen protagonist---it's the first person point of view, gripping plots, and a degree of hopefulness missing in some adult lit. I read passages from a few of my favorite books (see below) to show the importance of voice---the humor in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, for example, even though the story concerns the aftermath of a rape.

We also discussed Meghan Cox Gurdon's article in The Wall Street Journal, Darkness Too Visible. Ms. Gurdon argues that teen lit has crossed the line into what she calls depravity. The group came to a different conclusion. Teen books serve as entertainment and escape, but also as therapy, providing a haven for those who cope with difficult situations---loss of a loved one, substance abuse, suicide. They give troubled readers a safe place to think and feel. The audience felt passionate about books, writing them, reading them, and getting them into as many hands as possible.

NEA: Are there any questions you wished I'd asked? If so, what are they and what would be your response?

BJORKMAN: Given the unprecedented freedom to address any topic in young adult literature, has censorship become a thing of the past?

Absolutely not. My book contains no actual sex, no violence, and no swearing. I explore sexual orientation in a playful, funny, and thoughtful way. One blogger, Shelf Elf, said about My Invented Life, "funny+depth=my idea of pure reading bliss."

And yet.

And yet, after acquiring the novel, my editor at Henry Holt mentioned that the gay content would keep it out of half the schools and libraries across the country. Though my book has never been banned, this sort of exclusion has an insidious effect---self-censorship. Many authors avoid including gay characters in their novels and will continue to do so because they fear the loss of sales.

Bullying remains persistent in our culture. I believe we need to do more than tolerate diversity. We need to do more than accept it. We need to embrace it, celebrate our differences. I hope that by including diverse characters in my stories, I will help us all take a tiny step in that direction.

An after-note on some of my favorite YA titles:

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
King Dork by Frank Portman
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have by Allen Zadoff
King of the Screw Ups by K.L. Going
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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