Welcome to a week of posts on contemporary ya here at STACKED. After a passionate post by Lisa Schroeder about getting the word out about contemporary ya, we decided to put together some posts highlighting groundbreaking ya, as well as personal favorites. We’ve got two guest posts this week, as well: one from one of those groundbreaking ya authors and one from a friend of mine who’ll highlight a handful of contemporary titles that you need to read. And as a bonus, we’ve got a post about contemporary middle grade titles you should be aware of, too.
First, let’s define contemporary ya lit. It sounds simple, really, but it’s quite complex in my mind. Contemporary is a setting — the now — but it’s also a grounding in reality. Contemporary ya lit transcends just being a story set in today’s world; it’s lit that has something to it that’s actually timeless. Good contemporary stories get to the heart of any challenge, any story, and that heart is something that reads honestly whether the story itself was published yesterday or ten years ago. It’s more than being an “issue” driven lit, and it always has been (despite the fact that it was “issue”-driven lit that began the growth of contemporary lit in the first place). Contemporary lit is truth driven. Some of the best contemporary ya lit out there actually delves little into “issues,” but instead, it delves into a slice of life and shares that story, that moment, the things that happen then. As you’ll see this week, there are books that were published many years ago and prior to the huge rise in ya lit over the last 5-7 years, that still resonate as important today because these slices of life speak to readers today.
To the meat of why this matters: contemporary ya is some of the most important stuff being published, as well as the most overlooked. These are the books, as Schroeder mentions, that need to be purchased and need to be talked about. These are the books that don’t score 6-figure publicity campaigns and are often the ones denigrated by big-named newspapers as smut, as harmful, and as the stuff that ruins teenagers. These are the books that publishers suggest are hard sells, and that those who don’t read it completely misunderstand.
Here’s the thing — in my experience as a librarian who serves young adults — contemporary fiction is what my teens want to read. These are the books they seek out. Sometimes, they’re reading them to relate; sometimes they’re going through tough stuff at home or at school and they want to relate to someone else. Sometimes, they’re reading them to better understand the world around them: they want to fall into a world unfamiliar to them and experience the challenges others experience for a few hours. For many, this is a first experience engaging in places utterly unfamiliar to them. My kids are always asking me for recommendations, especially for contemporary books, because they love these stories that make them think. Books that make them question things, reevaluate things, and consider their own answers to the challenges. These are the books they’re eager to talk about, too. While big-buck books certainly conjure discussion and consideration of the what ifs, it’s those books that are grounded in real life that stay with them forever.
The sad reality is that not enough librarians, educators, or other gatekeepers (a label I loathe but one that is utterly honest to what adults who work with teens are) keep up to date on what’s being published in the contemporary market. It’s important to stay ahead of trends and be familiar with what those big books are so you can make sure you have it/know it/can engage in conversation with kids about it. But part of why contemporary ya is overlooked is because it doesn’t get that sort of marketing or publicity, and adults can become lazy about keeping on top of those books. I said it: lazy.
True advocates for their kids read as much as they can, as widely as they can. Sometimes this means foregoing the biggest, shiniest titles for the midlist titles (those publicity dollars mean your kids already know about the latest, greatest, biggest new thing). Sometimes it means reading a book you hate, disagree with, or find difficult to read. It might be that book that impacts a kid in a tremendous way. Staying on top of everything is impossible, but building familiarity with new things is not. True advocates of teens know spend their non-salaries hours reading, engaging, and building awareness of what’s out there, and it’s my hope that our week of posts helps just a little.
For me, this work is worth it. Putting the word out there about the books authors bleed over to write and connecting it with the right readers is why I got into the profession and it is what gives me incredible joy in my job. Walking a teen around the teen section, listening to him/her tell me what she likes to read or what authors she’s liked in the past, and being able to offer up 7-10 titles they may have missed otherwise is what makes my job worthwhile.
Back to the point: it’s the contemporary ya lit that matters. That’s the stuff kids come back to talk to me about, and it’s the stuff that they’re thrilled I know and want to talk to them about. They relate to this stuff (whether they want to or not sometimes). There are very dark stories of loss, self-injury, sexuality, and there are light tales of romance, of friendship, of discovery. Reading these stories is important; it can be life changing, even. It begs teens to think critically, to engage, to emote.
Isn’t that what books are about?
The only people afraid of these books are the adults who don’t read them or who aren’t familiar with what life as a teenager today is like. Our teens are living stories every day that we won’t let them read about (I know this is a quote someone much smarter than me once said, so if you have an attribute, let me know). Teens are smarter than we give them credit for, and they will self-censor like crazy. If a story isn’t for them, if it’s too dark or scary or uncomfortable, they will stop. But those same stories that are dark, scary, uncomfortable, sickening? Those are the stories that speak to some readers on levels we as adults can never understand. And we need them to have these stories.
I beg you to jump in this week, offering up other titles that might fit a theme, and I hope you are able to tell us about some of the books that make an impact. This week, we’re advocating the underdog of teen lit, contemporary, and we’re going to do our best to advocate those titles that are overlooked much more than they should be.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).