Saturday, June 14, 2014

YAY for YA

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Raise your hand if you read YA. Yes, right? Everyone. (Almost, okay, maybe not everyone, but you get my point.) Okay, now, authors. Raise your hand if you’ve thought about writing a YA? Yes, right?  (I am trying to type and raise my hand at the same time.)

We know good YA when we read it, of course—does Edward Eager count? My FAVE--but what is it that makes it special?

Okay, read this:
A solar powered girl. A ballerina vigilante. A boy with an alien living inside his brain. A werewolf with confidence issues. A girl with a black hole for a heart. Five teenagers, each with their own unique abilities, are gathered by veteran hero Doc Silence to become their generation’s super-team.

Well, I’m sold. Instantly. This is from the debut novel of Matthew Phillion. (Who I’d certainly get to sit by if  life was alphabetical.) (And, who, see bio below, is pretty darn fabulous).

What does the author of THE INDESTRUCTIBLES  think is the key to YA? It’s—well, let him tell us.

YA and Crossover Appeal

I’ve been asked a few times to describe the thought process of writing a YA book. The word I keep coming back to is “sophisticated.”

I don’t know if younger readers are more sophisticated now than they were twenty years ago. But they feel more worldly, and they feel more aware, and I knew the one thing I had to do was make sure I didn’t insult their intelligence with this story.

So I set rules for myself. Don’t insult their intelligence. Don’t play into gender stereotypes. Try not to swear. (I used that one a lot. I have a tendency toward blue language in my daily life, and it was a struggle to not let my young characters drop a curse word once in a while. Had a yellow Post-It over my desk to remind me.)

 YA fiction has always been, or the best of it has been, unafraid to dig into hard issues. Love and loss, political allegory, the sense of being a pawn in the bigger picture. They all share the same sense of wonder and the need to find one’s self, but the older I get, the more I think that finding one’s self isn’t just the purview of YA readers.

And that brings me to my other struggle as a YA writer—we no longer write for just that younger audience. Again, I can’t tell if it’s a sign of the times and that YA literature has needed to become more sophisticated and thus it’s become more attractive to older readers, or if some other factor is at play. I was chatting with another writer a few weeks back, a fellow occasional filmmaker, and he was pleading with the universe for pop culture to get off its superhero kick.

“This can’t go on forever, can it?” he asked.

Selfishly, I wouldn’t mind if it did go on forever. I’m a superhero writer, after all. But even before I put words on the page for The Indestructibles, I’d had a theory about this—the prevalence of adult audiences gravitating to YA novels like Harry Potter and Hunger Games, grown men and women lining up to see the X-Men and Captain America save the world.

I think our YA readers are more sophisticated, and our adult readers are drawn to the relative simplicity of YA fiction, in both cases due to the fact that we are living in such challenging times. I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up. But it is hard out there, and people are frustrated and scared and lonely. And for the young, these stories give them escapism and hope. For older readers, they are a window, if not into an easier time, then into a world where the challenges are still great but the solutions can be found in heroism and courage.

We face love and loss, we face political reality, we face villains on the evening news, and there are steps we can take to make things better… but in those quiet moments curled up with a good book, isn’t it more comforting to think these things could be fixed with a magic spell, or the power of flight, or simply having the courage to take up arms against a sea of trouble and make the world a better place?

I can see a time when YA fiction may not be so prevalent, or where adults might not seek solace so much in stories of adventure. I hope when we get there, it means we live in a place where we don’t need quite so many ways to escape.

Until then, well, up, up and away.

Is YA fiction on your radar as a reader? Do you find it has a different feel now than it did when you were a young reader?

HANK: And what are your favorite YA books? (What's the age of YA, anyway?) 

A solar powered girl. A ballerina vigilante. A boy with an alien living inside his brain. A werewolf with confidence issues. A girl with a black hole for a heart. Five teenagers, each with their own unique abilities, are gathered by veteran hero Doc Silence to become their generation’s super-team.

But when they find out someone else is building their own monsters to change the world, will the Indestructibles be ready in time? Or will their inexperience be their downfall?

Matthew Phillion is a writer, actor, and film director based in Salem, Massachusetts.  He has also appeared in feature films including the sci-fi romance Harvest Moon and the independent horror flick Livestock, and his screenwriting and directing debut, the romantic comedy Certainly Never, premiered in 2013 at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival, where it was nominated for five awards including best screenplay and best New England film. An active freelance writer, Phillion continues to write about both local issues and the medical industry. The Indestructibles is his first novel  (Ed. note: And he has a dog named Watson.)


  1. Ok, so here's my confession. I've never been a big YA reader. I kept reading middle grade books, I entered high school and only read the assigned books (that was all I had time for) and suddenly I found myself reading adult novels. Go figure.

    I still enjoy reading Middle Grade, and I think it is for the same reasons mentioned in your post. The books are escapist and fun. Additionally, the lines between good and evil and clear. That's a nice change from the world we see around us much of the time.

    And Hank, I think that Middle Grade is roughly 4th through 7th or 8th and the YA is then 9th and up. I'm even hearing of a new genre - New Adult - for those in college and their early 20's.

  2. Yes, I enjoy reading YA fiction, and although I am not a fan of the “vampire-witch-magic” titles of the genre, I’m definitely adding “The Indestructibles” to my teetering to-be-read pile . . . .

    Perhaps because I have always loved science fiction, my reading preference in this genre tends to lean toward the dystopian titles, and one of my favorites is a series written by Susan Beth Pfeffer. “Life As We Know It” is a four-volume brutal . . . and yet hopeful . . . look at surviving the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. Before the end of Chapter Two, an asteroid has collided with Earth’s moon and pushed it closer to the planet with the resulting climactic changes throwing humanity into unimaginable repercussions . . . .

  3. Matthew, very nice post and I agree with your thoughts about YA. I love the genre, have read it for decades, and continue to do so. What's so great about YA is that it's the cool kids table but it's also the outcasts eating by themselves.

    I mentored a high school reading group for three years. YA readers love what they love with all their hearts. They spent money on books. They breathe, eat, and sleep the characters they read, and they identify with and feel the pain of what they read. They are also BRUTAL critics. BRUTAL. I learned more about writing from those book club meetings than I did from any workshop.

    I think the genre, and its changes, simply reflects teens themselves. Youth of today are markedly different from decades ago.

    Good luck with The Indestructibles!

  4. Welcome Matthew--such an interesting post. I actually think the same reasoning applies to the question of why people like cozy mysteries so well. It's a world where evil doesn't win!

    To Ramona's point, I heard a radio interview last week about the upcoming movie THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Teens are wild for this book--they could quote all the dialog (and did so!)

    And finally, I chaired the YA Edgar novel committee a few years ago--there were some wonderful books! The winner, CODE NAME VERITY, was a stunner. But also if you have a teen girl, try EMILY'S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS.

  5. OH, okay, YA is 9th grade and up? Hmm. So Edward Eager (have you read him?) is middle grade. Got it.

    And yes, Ramona, when I was a geeky outcast kid, books were all I had. But huh, thinking about his, I'm not sure the cool kids read. This was 1964 or so..any cool kids remember what you read?

  6. Hank, I think that's the definition of YA age group wise. I think that YA also has more sexual tension than a middle grade book (which is very light on romance if there is any at all).

    Key words there? I THINK. I really don't know, so someone correct me if I'm wrong.

  7. Hi, my name is Susan and I love (lots of) YA novels....

    Just rereading the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my son — yes, there are hobbits and elves and dwarfs, but what a look at the horrors of war... Tolkein is a genius and his book resonates or different ages, for different reasons.

  8. So interesting, Matthew, and I agree with your analysis. And yours, Lucy, although it think it applies to almost all crime fiction and not just cozies. The world is so scary and complicated, and we feel helpless to do anything to fix it. So we want to read books where justice is served, and where courage (and maybe a little special power) can make things better.

    From grade school I switched back and forth between all levels, including adult fiction, and never really had a preference. So I think not underestimating the reader is GREAT advice. (I still have a bunch of my Andre Norton books, but I think the paper is crumbling. Sigh. Were those YA or fantasy/sci-fi?

    Can't wait to read The Indestructibles!

  9. Thanks for all the feedback, everyone. I had a bunch of discussions the past week about YA following that pot-stirrer article that made some waves for saying adults should be ashamed of reading YA. My first thought was nobody should be ashamed of reading anything, and my second thought was "what the heck is the real definition of YA?"

    It's really a hard category to pin down. I'm not quite sure of the line between YA and adult fiction. And books like Catcher in the Rye probably would have been slotted as YA if they were written today. But I keep coming back to that C.S. Lewis quote about how a book only children could enjoy isn't much of a story at all... every story should have a chance of resonating with all ages, right? Although I did steal a copy of Stephen King's IT when I was nine... maybe that as a bad idea. That was probably a bad idea.

  10. I love YA, and it was my focus area when earning my library science Masters. However, trying to define YA is an illusive exercise in limitation. As Matthew so wisely analyzed the appeal of YA with the word sophistication, I think we have to realize that middle school age kids are exactly that, too, and much of that age targeted lit is considered YA. I usually say that there is YA and there is Teen, which gets into more physical relations.

    I have so many YA authors that I enjoy, and I know I'll forget someone. A sampling includes John Green, Maggie Stiefvater, Gabrielle Zevin, and many more that I will add when I get home tonight and read my book shelves. I'm a bit brain dead today after a late night of plating Small World with my son, his fiance, and my granddaughter.

    Matthew, your book sounds fantastic, and I'll add it to my list.

  11. I love the YA novels: Kelley Armstrong is a fave. . .I also read Joseph Delaney and Rick Yancey. . Ransom Riggs, R. J. Palacio, Kat Carlton, Aleane Ferguson and, of course, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd one of the best books about issues of death from a child's point of view. The adults allow him to be the 13 year old that he is. These are my favorite YA authors. The first one by far is excellent and she has a lot of books out there. I have written one but put it away when 9-1-1 happened, I was ahead of the times it appears. Blessings, Janet

  12. Hi Matthew,
    What a timely post. I too have been following the YA controversy this week over the Slate magazine article that attacked adult readers of YA. One of my favorite rebuttals was Lindsay Faye's wonderful tongue-in-cheek piece at Criminal Element, which also addresses the attitude many have toward mystery novels:

    I, too, am like Susan:
    My name is Kim Fay and I adore YA AND mysteries!!

    Wishing you great success with your books!!

  13. Kim, what a fantastic response to the Slate piece. I found myself not wanting to address the original article at all because it was so clearly (I might even say cleverly) designed to get people riled up and upset, but it really did inspire some wonderful retorts. I'd missed that Lyndsay Faye piece before now. Thanks for posting it.

    Another response I adored was this absurdly poignant piece by Kathleen Hale (both clever and at times laugh out loud funny):

  14. I, too, followed the recent YA controversy and took part in Lyndsay's discussuon on her FB page. She did a great rebuttal indeed.

  15. Matthew, I agree with your thoughts about YA. Thank you for introducing your books to us.

    YA novels are my guilty pleasure. I devoured these novels in high school and college. Little Women and the Nancy Drew novels were among my favorites.

    Though there was one YA series that I loved until they killed off a character very similar to myself. I felt like the Will Ferrell character in the movie, Stranger than Fiction. It was too bizarre. Looking back, I learned that this particular author (no longer writing novels, I think) never met me and did not know me.

    ~Regina Morrow

  16. Matthew, so glad you liked Lindsay's piece. As for the response from Kathleen Hale - truly brilliant! I laughed out loud. Thank you for sharing it.

    I am loving how many people are coming out in defense of YA. And honestly, can any woman who ever read Judy Blume as a teen deny that her books are some of the most profound ever written!

  17. I'm really impressed with the range and quality of the pieces we've seen in defense of YA, as well. I particularly liked Lyndsay's piece because while I wasn't a YA reader when I actually was technically a young adult, I did worship the ground Robert B. Parker walked on. Detective literature turned me into a reader, which turned me into a writer as well. All stories are connected somehow.

  18. I love YA. I love Matthew. He is the best. And he's from Salem, too? How could a girl from Salem not love him? I didn't love Parker Blais... oh he was from Marblehead... nevermind.

    Great post and comments—but now I have to read that Slate article!

  19. Running in like mad--grr. I had to work on Channel 7 stuff today--and would u in a place with ridiculous internet.

    ANYWAY. I totally missed the Slate article and am off to find it. ANd LYndsay's too.

    The GOlden Compass i a must-read, correct?. And the Narnia books.

    And does anyone know--there was a novel (or maybe a short story) many years ago--and I thought it was by Arthur Clarke but I could be wrong. It was about four kids who did not have superpowers unless they were together. I have searched for this for years...does it sound familiar to anyone?

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  21. Hank, could that be the Charmed series of books—where three sisters, Prue, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell, the world's most powerful good witches are the Charmed Ones? Each was born with a magical power that they must collectively use to defend the San Francisco "innocents" from demons and other evil beings. Maybe???

  22. AH, I wish..but it seems to me it was two boys and two girls. And they might have lived in the woods. (of course.)
    I know I didn't make this up..

  23. I'd say the Golden Compass is a must-read even as a cultural touchstone. Ender's Game, too. I've been cursed out for never having read John Connolly's The Gates, also. I have to sit down and make the time to read that one.