The state of MG vs YA when YA is so much older now

Let’s talk about middle grade books, young adult books, and that liminal space between, that magic spot of readers ages 10-14 who read up. 

There’s a certain kind of voice you expect from a YA book that tells you “this is about a teenage experience.” It’s different from the exploring/discovery of the world voice we generally hear in MG—it’s more mature, sometimes more cynical. It’s not an adult voice, but it is no longer the voice of a child.

YA has been aging up for about 15-18 years now. In the early 2000s, we called books like Holly Black’s “edgy,” but that sensibility is now par for the course in YA, and generally the books you see shelved in the YA section of a bookstore star protagonists who are 15, 16, 17, 18—very few YA novels star 12-14-year-olds anymore.

This coincided with the vast numbers of YA readers becoming adults, as well—last we heard, more than 80% of YA readers are over 18, purchasing books for their own reading, not that of an actual teenager in their life.

Which for me, as someone who publishes books for children and teens BECAUSE I want to serve the population of children these books are intended for, is VERY frustrating. When books I publish in the YA market for 12-year-olds get dinged for actually sounding like a real 15-year-old is talking (“this book sounds middle grade” to paraphrase one review of one of my books because it didn’t contain romance), I feel like we have fundamentally lost our way if we aren’t serving our target market (or when reviewers don’t remember or don’t care about the books’ target market).

But these are the realities of our current system, so what’s emerging out of it is that MG seems to be picking up the slack for that forgotten, now-underserved tween audience who used to be the core readership for YA books.

Where does that leave the publisher of MG and YA books, though? Do I publish what I’ve always published as YA now as a MG? That doesn’t make sense, either, because the voice doesn’t sound MG–the voice is that of an emerging teenager, not an 8- or 10-year-old.

Yes, 12-18 is a very large developmental gap. We do need to allow space for the older YA—I’m glad it’s finally finding a home. But to then define YA as just what’s happened in the last 10-15 years is to ignore the huge body of work that has been YA for decades before that.I’ve seen more bookstores have tiers (8-11, 10-14, 14 and up, etc.), which is great, but publishing only has the two categories, and B&N only has the “children’s” section (with various subsections) and the “YA” section (now also broken down by genre, but not age), so it’s a challenge to communicate to accounts exactly where to shelve the books, and confusion can arise.

So: if you are a writer for that 10-14 age range, where do your books get shelved? Editors: what solutions have you come across? Readers/teachers/parents, where do you look for books for that age group? Librarians, how do you figure out where to shelve books for that age range?

Highlights of 2016 reading

Thanks to audiobooks, I read 144 books in 2016. (If you look at that list, some are still in progress—the problem with relying on the library; when I can’t finish an audiobook in the rental period, I have to wait months on hold for it to come back to me again. I’ve been waiting for The Passion of Dolssa to come back for something like 3 months.)

OBVIOUSLY, this list doesn’t include the books I’ve edited. OBVIOUSLY, you should read all my books! Check out the sidebar under Books I Edited, or go here for more info on Tu Books.

In more than a year of my outside-of-work reading being mostly on audio, I’ve found that audiobooks have an even worse diversity problem than print books. I’m not surprised by this; most of the books I publish haven’t gotten audio versions made, and that’s likely similar to the audiobook market as a whole. So my outside-of-work reading isn’t as diverse as I’d like it to be, but I’ve been able to read a lot more than I would have otherwise, given my aversion to reading finished books outside of work lately. (I work such long hours that I need a change-up when I’m off—I was reading maybe five books outside of work before picking up audiobooks.)

Here are some highlights, in no particular order, of my reading in 2016:

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

Adventure, magic, and traveling to alternate worlds and timelines. So much fun. Looking forward to the sequel this year.

 

The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde

Clever, funny, and just what I needed to escape in November…

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

The last volume in the Tiffany Aching series, and Pratchett’s last book. It moved me. Pratchett had an ability to make you laugh at human foibles and poignantly appreciate the death of a character—and the author!—in such a unique way. This is a series I’ll return to again and again in the future, I think.

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

Historical fiction, set in San Francisco, 1906. If you don’t know why that’s significant, you need to read the book even more. Beautiful.

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Listening to this hybrid book on audio made me not even realize what I was missing in the print version–a comic-with-the-book! But Mary Robinette Kowal’s narration created an audio experience of the comic parts that translated well from the page—I knew from the change in narration that it was was a story-within-a-story, and it all came together perfectly.

Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle

One of the few audiobooks in which the narration by the author enhances the book rather than detracts from it. Few authors have a good reading voice, I’m sorry to say. (Few audiobook narrators are good in general, honestly.) So this excellent story was made even better via Tim Federle’s voice.

 

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

Speaking of excellent narrators, this narrator sounded like she was a Latina from Queens. That made this fascinating story about a teen girl in Queens just trying to make ends meet while worried about the Son of Sam murders even more fascinating. And man, I felt for Nora in her worries about her brother.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I didn’t realize till MONTHS later that this was narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda. And it didn’t stand out to me because his voice was seamlessly Aristotle’s. A beautiful book with top-notch narration.

 

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

This book is HILARIOUS, especially if you know the real history of Lady Jane Grey. And the audiobook’s narrator REALLY gets this book. She’s great at all the accents, and growls and emotes and simpers and everything perfectly.

Starflight by Melissa Landers

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen some good space SF in YA. This was an enjoyable read.

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Where do I even start?

I often discuss diverse books with people, especially white people, who need the “101”—parents and other people who love children who want to give them good diverse books but don’t know where to start. And that’s GREAT! Saying, “I don’t know what I don’t know” is the perfect place to start when you’re looking to bring diverse books into your home or classroom, because that means you’re ready to learn.

This is a general post collecting some of the things I’ve been telling people lately, so I can point them to it, especially as you start shopping for holiday gift-giving.

First of all: buy my books! Because that’s what I do: publish diverse middle grade and YA books.

And next, be aware of older, problematic books that perpetuate racist stereotypes. (For example, did you know that The Education of Little Tree was written by a member of the KKK? Stop sharing that book with kids! Study it if you must with the real history behind it, but too few people actually know the true history behind it and think it’s a “sweet story.”) Some resources from children’s literature scholars and reviewers to help you evaluate texts:

These resources also review books that have quality representation and are a great source to find new books.

Looking for book lists broken down by age group, topic, genre, and more? Check out the Lee & Low Pinterest board–we’ve got more than 100 boards dedicated to all sorts of topics, including anti-racism, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, teachers and educators, getting published, and book lists galore.

Lee & Low Pinterest board

But most importantly, what I want my friends to remember when they’re thinking about buying diverse books for their kids this holiday season: remember that authors of color are the least represented, and often get the least amount of publicity for their books. You have to look for them, but they’re well worth looking for. If you want to introduce your children to authentic voices from communities different from your own, look at the authors of the books you’re buying. Are they writing from their own experience? (Inasmuch as that experience pertains to racism, sexism, ablism, Islamophobia, etc., not to whether or not they’ve lived in space or used magic…) Look for ways to support authors of color.

This is not to say to shun white authors, who often do a very good job at writing about characters of color, but just asking people who are often in white-centric communities to thoughtfully evaluate the voices getting the most time and attention in their home or classroom, and look for ways to be more inclusive. Often for white people that means actively seeking out authors of color, because we’re rarely going to be running into them naturally in our often-segregated circles.

This post is a work in progress and I’ll add resources to it as I have time or discover new resources.

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General update

I always swore I wouldn’t be one of those people who let my blog languish while I moved on to other things, but here I am, blogging after more than a year, realizing once again that I’m paying for hosting and everything and not even updating once since I paid so much for hosting the last time!

I am very active on Twitter, somewhat active on Tumblr, very active on Facebook, but as we’ve learned again and again, without being active on your own site, it’s easy to lose the content you work so hard to create. (Links to social media on the sidebar, if you’re not already following me there.)

I do blog about once a month at the Lee & Low blog, so I encourage you to look for my posts there. But mostly my writing here has languished just as my writing in my journal and for creative purposes have languished, because social media is so much better at the social part, and because I work so much on other people’s books that sometimes I forget to write for myself.

It’s been a tough year so far, with the election and so many other things. But it’s a great time right now, too, with the Olympics—so many stories of hope coming out of the Olympics right now. I can only hope that we’ll see the same kind of hope in other facets of life.

 

Case Cracked: Editing Mystery Novels

This post was originally posted on the Lee & Low blog.

 

http://i0.wp.com/blog.leeandlow.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/192e8a7c5b856f76b5331623d80cf7cf.jpgI’ve long been a fan of mysteries. Trixie Belden was my BFF as a third and fourth grader. Nancy Drew was another favorite. Veronica Mars updated the teen sleuth idea, bringing the storytelling form to a new generation.

When I got the chance to work on Valynne Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, our new YA mystery which comes out in June, all of those mysteries and more were going through my mind. Claire, the main character, has the spunk and curiosity of Veronica Mars and all of her predecessors, but she’s also a little different. And to honor those differences in the editing process, I needed to refresh myself on what’s out there right now in the teen mystery/suspense genre, and the mystery genre in general.

As I was editing Ink and Ashes over the course of about a year and a half (which spans two developmental edits and a line edit), between edits I was reading mystery after mystery. I stocked up on Agatha Christie, I rewatched Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and read the first book of the series it’s based on (Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood), I read multiple YA suspense, spy, and murder mysteries.

Miss Fisher ABC
Miss Fisher from the TV show “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”

That reading reminded me that a great mystery read requires the same elements as any good read: well-paced plotting, characters the reader cares about enough to want to know what happens next; even world-building, though that’s a term we generally associate with speculative fiction, is tremendously important in setting the stage in a mystery. But my rereading of classic and contemporary mysteries also showed me that more than in any other genre, a sense of suspense and danger must permeate the mystery book, must drive the reader to breathlessly wonder what will happen next.

Ask probing questions

One of the biggest challenges in this edit—with any edit, really, especially with an author you’ve never worked with before—was discovering how to bring the author’s vision of the characters fully to life. An editor’s job is often to just ask questions: Why is this happening right now? Why would that character decide to do this? What is the goal here?

In that way, figuring out the goal allows the editor to ask further probing questions on what the solution might be—figuring out how current plot points and character decisions hamper the desired effect.

“The plot thickens” turns out to be trueink and ashes cover

The biggest thing I learned while editing Ink and Ashes and reading all these mysteries is the importance of plot escalation. In the original draft, clues did of course build up into a frenzied final few pages of conflict that were very enjoyable—that’s one of the reasons the book won our New Visions Award. But comparing the early manuscript to mysteries I enjoyed the most, I realized that there were so many ways that the narrative could be complicated. (Valynne was on the same page. As she waited for the results of the contest, she was also already thinking of ways to improve the manuscript. That kind of editor-writer synergy makes a huge difference in any book project like this.)

We looked at the end goal, and discussed the plot points that got Claire and her friends to that point. In particular, we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing.

In other words, escalation. If the reader didn’t feel the suspense at every page turn, we had work to do.

Valynne worked very hard on making that happen, and I’m very happy with the results! In answer to all my probing questions, Valynne improved on an already-well written manuscript to bring what was an interesting read to the level of an exciting page-turner that’s getting readers hooked. That’s the end goal for any editor and author: Creating a final book that readers can’t put down. I’m happy to say, we succeeded with Ink and Ashes.

Submit your manuscript to the New Visions Award

NVAL_WinnerLogoIn case you missed it, I’m open again for submissions to the New Visions Award. Details can be found on this blog post.

This is the first year we’re taking only electronic submissions. You can submit via our Submittable site. There is no charge for any of our submissions, including the New Visions Award.

Please note that the New Visions Award is open only to authors of color resident of the United States (including non-citizens, but you must be a resident). This includes Asian Americans and other people of Asian descent, African Americans and other people of African descent, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, Middle Easterners, Latino/as, and mixed race people.

If you are a white American, or any author who does not reside in the United States, you are welcome to submit to our regular submissions, guidelines for which can be found here.

Where I’ve been lately

Ink and Ashes updated cover JLGAs you can tell, I haven’t really blogged much in the past couple of years. I even forget to blog when I have a new book, though I’m sharing that news *everywhere* else. This blog isn’t quite dead, but I would encourage you to follow the links on the side of the page to my Twitter and Tumblr and to the Tu Books Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook pages for the most up-to-date information. Also, I’ve been blogging at least once a month on the Lee & Low blog, which I recommend you subscribe to.

Most recently, we’ve been talking about the New Visions Award finalists, which were just announced (winner to be announced in April), my talk at SCBWI NY about writing for a diverse audience, and revealing the cover of our upcoming spring book, Ink and Ashes by Valynne Maetani, whose book won our first New Visions Award in 2013 (and is a spring Junior Library Guild selection!). It’s our first mystery title, and I’m very proud of it.

Speaking of, I need to get back to editing that book. We’re in the final proofreading rounds, before the book gets sent off to the printer. More later—mostly in all those other places. 🙂

TV math

Inspired by my recent marathoning of season 1 of Hawaii Five-O, in which the characters handed over a medium-sized backpack supposedly full of $10 million, I had to wonder if that was physically possible. Ten million dollars seemed a bit far-fetched to fit into just one backpack, even if it is in $100 bills. So I googled.

If Google’s right, a dollar bill is 6.14″ long, 2.61″ wide, and .0043″ thick. So, if a $100 bill is roughly the same dimensions (Wikipedia says that I’m right at least as far as length and width go), that would mean that a stack of $100 bills would be 35.8′ tall, or 430″. The volume of that stack would be 6890.922 in3, and weigh about 100kg, or 220 lbs.

Why does this matter?

Either he's pretty strong or he's not holding 220 lbs
Either he’s pretty strong or he’s not holding 220 lbs

Because they were handling that backpack as if it were full of a few books, not 220 lbs of money. Even the buffest Navy Seal (which, of course, Our Hero is!) probably wouldn’t be tossing around 220 lbs as if it were a sack of groceries.

And would that much money fit in a medium-sized backpack? Even a relatively thick one like the one that James Marsters is holding right here? The volume of a backpack that size, according to REI, is probably in the neighborhood of 50-80 liters. 50 liters is roughly 3051 in3. If we’re saying the pack has the high end of volume, it’s more like 4882 in3. And that’s assuming that you could fit the bills in without extra awkward space left over.

So, let’s break it down:

 

Capacity of pack that size Actual dimensions of $10 million
50-80 liters or 3051-4882 in3 6891 in3 (about 113 liters)
As much weight as the volume allows plus about 2.5 to 5 lbs for the weight of the pack 220 lbs plus weight of pack

You’d need another pack to fit that much money–not to mention to be able to lift that much money.

So if your characters are pulling off a heist, perhaps you might have to factor in the complication of how much that money actually weighs. Even paper can only fit so much in one pack.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks kicks off today!!

I’m sure you’ve seen me talking about this EVERYWHERE else, but I’m posting this here too just to be sure. If you don’t know what #WeNeedDiverseBooks is, check out the original post on Tumblr. Then share YOUR picture that completes this prompt: “We need diverse books because ___________.”

Simple, right? But it’s not all talk. There’s another step: recommend great diverse books, then go out and #DiversifyYourShelves (more at the link above). This weekend we’re heading out en masse to buy diverse books at our local bookstores and online. If the book you’re looking for isn’t in the store, ask for it! Booksellers pay attention to books they’re not carrying get requested a lot over time. If you don’t have the money to buy a book right now, ask for more diversity (request specific titles) in your local library.

Follow all the discussion—and there’s a LOT, as it’s trending right now!—on Twitter, and check out the pictures that have been submitted to the Tumblr starting at 1pm EDT.

Then today at 2, join us for a #diverselit chat on Twitter with Shannon Hale, discussing diversity, specifically writing “specific” vs. “neutral” characters.

#diversityinSFF is not superficial

Over the weekend, a discussion of diversity in SFF magazines has been brewing in SFF circles. I don’t read many SFF magazines, so I hadn’t been aware of the discussions until Janni Lee Simner pointed someone in the discussion to Tu as an answer for finding diversity in genre. So I won’t address the specifics of a need for diversity in SFF magazines, except to say, yes, it’s important.

Rather, I feel I need to address an article, and a tweet from the author of that article, who takes the position that diversity is “superficial” and therefore unnecessary.

Summer of the MariposasI couldn’t disagree more that diversity in SFF is superficial. In fact, it is at the root of some of the deepest, well-told stories I’ve read. Take Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Andre Norton–nominated Summer of the Mariposas. It would be an entirely different story if it were set in a Midwestern town starring white girls of European descent, or set in Vancouver or Maine and crossed the U.S.-Canadian border. The entire weave of the worldbuilding is centered around the girls’ identities as both Mexican and American, and the multiple identities that “Mexican” entails—that of both Aztec ancestry and Spanish-influenced Catholicism. The magical people and goddesses the girls meet are straight out of Mexican folklore. There is nothing superficial about anything regarding the Mexican influences within the book.

Simply changing the color of a character to “blackwash” them for diversity’s sake is far from what anyone who truly advocates for “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” is looking for when we seek more characters of color, LGBT characters, etc. We’re looking for the heart-deep diversity of experiences that so seldom are reflected in science fiction and fantasy. We’re asking for the genre to deepen its idea of “what it means to be human”—a question that SFF excels at asking. Yes, we’re all human and we have common experiences, but how we answer the deepest questions of humanity’s existence vary with culture, ethnicity, religion, country, community. (Are we communal or do we seek individuality? To whom are people loyal? Who is in control? How do we judge goodness?) It has to do with power dynamics and experiences of privilege and the lack thereof, and how privilege is intersectional. And the genre is richer when we explore that full breadth, even when we have dragons and aliens as part of the mix.

Diversity in SFF is about human protagonists that not only welcome readers who might not feel welcome in the genre, but about opening up the world of the reader who isn’t familiar with the culture or personality of a protagonist from a community that hasn’t been as well represented in the past. It’s about awesome worldbuilding, excellent storytelling, and finding inspiration in places that aren’t the same old Western European tropes—tropes we love, sure, but they’ve been overplayed. There are fresh ideas and characters to be found from authors with different perspectives, in places and cultures that haven’t been as well represented.

What those of us advocating for diversity want is simply to see the world as it is reflected in our literature.

So for anyone who thinks that diversity is superficial—that the only thing it has to do with is the color of one’s skin—you’re the one missing the point.

Diversity is one of the most important things this genre needs right now, for the sake of great storytelling.