Advocating for Contemporary YA Lit

We’ve covered a ton of ground this week, from talking about favorite contemporary titles to offering up lists of resources for getting started and/or recommending titles for readers. In reading comments, it’s been exciting to see people say some of these titles are completely new to them. Moreover, it’s been exciting to be excited about contemporary ya. But we need to do more than get excited about it in the blogosphere; we need to act upon it.

As I talked about in my first post this week, contemporary ya lit doesn’t get the marketing or publicity bucks behind it that so many other genres do. Pay attention to the advertisements you see around for books — do many of them look familiar? Do they target the same few books over and over? What about the standing displays at book stores, the promotional events, and even the books that are reviewed multiple times throughout the blogosphere? So few, if any, are contemporary books — most of these titles end up as mid-listers, as the books that require the author and readers to do much of the leg work in promotion.

Just this week, Kirsten Hubbard shared an incredibly brave post about her publishing experience post-book deal. Tara Kelly posted something of a similar tone last year. For most readers, the book they read is the entire story. Rarely do they get this sort of insight into the process, though, and I think that through posts like this, more consumers can understand why book promotion is such an important thing.

These sorts of posts should be a wake up call for librarians, educators, and other gatekeepers to teens and teen readers. Knowing the books is important, but advocating for them is the second part of the story. As strange as it may sound, us adults have huge power in helping make these books get out there. As April Henry points out in her passionate post about her love for librarians, librarians have the power to publicize a book in ways that publishers don’t. They get the word out on the ground level, to their kids, and they can purchase the books for their collections. The same, of course, can be said for teachers (who, too, can nominate books for book awards) and they can get the word out about books to their kids, as well.

While you’re probably thinking that purchasing one copy for the library or one copy for a classroom collection is a drop in the bucket, it’s actually much more than that. You’re putting a name out there, a book out there, and you’re helping expose readers to new voices. Those readers — teens — are devoted and devour the things that matter to them. And often, they themselves will go buy the book and they’ll spread the word about those good books. The more books you know as a gatekeeper, the more you can talk about books, the more knowledge you can spread to your readers, and the more you’re supporting both those titles and those authors. You’re playing a part in the system on the ground level, and even if it feels like you’re doing little with your actual purchasing, you’re doing a lot in spreading the word to those who do play a part in the growth and development of those undermarketed midlist books (which, as we’ve established, tends to be where contemporary ya lit ends up). Of course, you can do your part by also purchasing books for your personal collection. Although I’m a huge library user and advocate, I still purchase my favorite books. And most of the books we give away here at STACKED are books I purchase to give away — I consider it my little way to give.

One of the things we do as bloggers and we would love to see more of in our own blog reading is seeing more contemporary ya spotlighted. We’d love to see more mid-list titles reviewed; it seems that there are weeks where every book reviewed in the blogosphere is the same title. Often, it’s the same title that’s already receiving large publicity pushes. The other thing that we’d like to see more of — and something that is okay despite what many people believe is not — is backlist reviews of worthy contemporary titles. There are so many books published each year that many are overlooked, but that’s the point of why we’re here talking about contemporary ya lit this week. We want to see more of these reviews of older titles. They’re often still relevant and important, and they’re just as worthy of attention as the books coming out down the road. In short, bloggers can play just as valuable a role in drawing attention for contemporary ya titles by reviewing them and by perhaps passing on reviewing the shiniest, newest, 6-figure marketing budget titles. Spotlighting the array of titles out there spreads the word and develops a richer, more valuable blog world.

Moreover, we can play a role in getting attention to these titles through reading and nominating worthy titles to the various award lists. Anyone can suggest titles for the Morris Award for debut authors, for the Best Fiction for Young Adults list, for the Quick Picks list, and other award consideration through the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association division. You can also nominate for smaller, more niche awards like the Stonewall Awards for LGBTQ titles, an award for which I’ve nominated a title already this year. When you read something that’s even half worth having a committee read and consider, then nominate it. It’s easy and it’s one simple way to advocate for the books that need that push.

Anyone can also nominate books for consideration for the yearly Cybils award. The nominations open October 1 and run through October 15. The books nominated can be an excellent resource — plenty of titles are nominated that don’t get a lot of attention, so it’s a nice exposure for readers. Not only that, but the short list titles (and winners) are getting attention that might have bypassed them through the year. And since these books are judged both on literary merit and kid appeal, your short list titles are must reads in staying ahead.

Perhaps one of the easiest things you can do is continue staying ahead of the game. Know what books are coming out, know what authors are out there writing about the contemporary issues you know matter to your readers, and read. Read both the books and browse some of the incredible blogs that are out there aimed to inform you as a gatekeeper and aimed to reach teen readers — you have the power to point these fantastic resources out to your readers. As much as everyone says it’s an issue of time, and perhaps it is, I reiterate something I’ve said over and over: you always have time for the things you’re passionate about. If you don’t make time for your passion, your priorities are out of line. As gatekeepers, our passion should be meeting the needs of our teens, and as much as it can be daunting, keeping tabs on, reading, and fiercely advocating for contemporary ya make you an authority and a partner in the growth and development of your teens.

To wrap up Contemporary YA week at STACKED, I’m offering up a few invaluable resources you should book mark, add to your blog reader, and become familiar with. Again, if you know of other resources, plug them in the comments. It’s my hope that these things become go-to sources for both new contemporary readers and for those who advocate for these books already.

Blogs and Websites to know

  • The Contemps: 21 authors who write contemporary ya came together to develop this incredible resource for contemporary ya lit. Their blog is one you want to book mark/subscribe to and read, as they talk about not only their own books, but books of fellow contemp authors. They feature posts on issues teens face and much more. This is the kind of resource to keep you ahead of the game on books, and it’s also one you’ll want your teens to know about.
  • Class 2k11 and The Elevensies: Both of these websites are devoted to getting the word out about debut ya authors in 2011. Although they aren’t focused exclusively on contemporary titles, they do feature contemp authors. But I link these two because they’re excellent resources for gatekeepers in staying on top of new releases. The bulk of these authors are not getting huge publicity campaigns, and for a debut author, their first book is pretty huge. Kirsten Hubbard’s earlier linked post can stand as reason alone that knowing and advocating for debut titles is important. And if you’re thinking farther ahead, you can also check out Class 2k12 and The Apocalypsies sites for 2012 debuts.
  • Reading in Color: This blog is so valuable in exposing readers to books featuring people of color. A lot of these titles don’t get the attention they deserve, either, and this blog does a great job exposing those books to a wider audience.
  • Publisher’s Catalogs: This website gives you links to all the major publisher’s catalogs. Why is this important, you ask? It helps you get ahead. If you peruse the catalogs, you can see everything and get an idea of where titles are positioned in any publisher’s list that season. Pay attention to this — look where your contemporary ya is. Read those books. Advocate for those books. Buy those books for your collection, even if you don’t see a million reviews for it or a million ads for it. Reviewing the catalogs for the upcoming season (meaning, you’re reviewing fall catalogs now) helps you get the knowledge early. Familiarity is the first step; once you have your hands on the books, you begin the real advocacy in purchasing, reading, recommending, and exercising your power in nominating worthy titles for award consideration.
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  1. says

    Awesome post, Kelly. My line of work is well past younger than YA (most of them are pre-reading, in fact) but many of our students have older siblings and we have a large number of teachers in our parent population who teach upper and middle grades. This is a post I'll be passing along for sure.

  2. says

    Super great post, Kelly! I had no idea teachers could nominate books for some awards–I'm definitely looking into that and spreading the word (posting this link to Facebook ASAP).

    I used to wonder if my classroom library really made an impact, but this year I learned how much it really has. My kids are certainly talking about the books they're getting from me because I have new kids coming to me asking for specific books they heard about from their friend(s) who had one of my books. Some contemps in my class library that have become popular via word of mouth are Hold Still by Nina LaCour, all of Courtney Summers' books, The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner, Trapped by Michael Northrop (I have 3 copies!), The DUFF by Kody Keplinger, Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler and so on. It's a wonderful thing!

  3. says

    @Sarah: You got it spot on. YOU put the work in to read and to put those books into the hands of your kids, and your kids do the real talking, promoting, spreading of the word. And look — CONTEMPS are your biggest hitters. This is why I get so frustrated when I see articles and stories about contemporary not selling/not being the "in" thing. That's what the kids are reading that I know!

  4. says

    I have quite a few kids who devour the paranormal and fantasy stuff, but my kids are mostly looking for great contemporary YA. That was the biggest section in my summer recommendations list! I already posted this on Facebook, so hopefully my teaching friends will read your post.

  5. says

    I'm one of Sarah's teaching friends – and I love your post, Kelly – I'm so glad Sarah tweeted about it! I have found with my 8th graders that the biggest impacts on their reading interests are what they see each other reading, and what I'm reading and talking about. It is so important for teachers to be knowledgeable gatekeepers for YA.

    I love the contemps – in fact, I was the grand prize winner of The Contemps Challenge so I'm getting a copy of each of their books as they come out. I need to get back to reading them so I can spread the word when I blog about them. One of my favorites was The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney. In fact, a bunch of my students read it after I told them about it, and then Daisy did a skype visit with my students. It was a great opportunity for them, and shows how nice these authors can be for teachers too.

  6. says

    Thank you SO much for this blog post. I love all of your suggestions – tweeting this now and hoping others see it and spread it around.

    Co-founder of The Contemps

  7. says

    Amen! Thank you so much for advocating for contemporary YA authors, especially us debuts. Thanks also for the shout out to the Elevensies and Contemps.

  8. says

    LOVE THIS! I write contemp YA – just signed my contract this week and am feeling….lost! I don't know how to help my little non-splashy, creature-less book stand out so this post helped me start moving!

  9. says

    I love contemps. I don't understand why people are hesitant to try it. It's not like is non fiction. :) But yeah, everyone has a different taste.

  10. says

    Hi there –

    Thanks for the great resources for finding great books. I know I will be pointing my students towards these as they search for books they might enjoy.

    Also, do you know of any social networking site centered around books specifically for tweens and/or teens? Social networking is something we need to teach in school, now, so I hope to kill a number of birds with one stone: writing book reviews, finding books they like, social networking, perhaps more.

    Any advice you have would be great. Many thanks,


  11. says

    You are such an amazing advocate for contemporary YA. I've not met anyone who is as passionate about spreading the word as you are. I hope that your efforts are rewarded!

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