The Current Young Adult Market and the GHBy Trish Milburn
The main thing I want to share if you’re considering entering or judging the Young Adult category of the Golden Heart is that today’s YA is not yesterday’s YA. By that, I mean we can’t go into the current YA field with the Sweet Valley High mindset. Today’s YA offers a tremendous variety of stories from paranormal to chick lit to urban and edgy. It bushes boundaries and boldly goes where YA novels typically never went before.
One of the things it’s hard to get past as a YA judge and sometimes even as a current YA author is the feeling that a book targeted toward teens needs to only portray teens with a solid moral code, that we as authors have a moral obligation to only portray good and safe conduct. Society pressures us into thinking that our fictional teens can’t drink or have sex, or we’re putting our stamp of approval on such behavior. Um, has anyone read the Gossip Girl books or seen the CW television program based on the Gossip Girl series? They are wildly successful, and the teens in them are not pure as the driven snow. But that doesn’t make them totally without scruples. It just makes them teenagers fumbling their way through what is probably the most tumultuous, hormones-on-overload years of their lives. Today’s teenage readers are sophisticated readers. If you give them a story that’s a poorly veiled morality play, they’ll stop reading. But if you give them a story that they feel is authentic, they’ll stick with it – and perhaps learn some smidgen of goodness without even realizing it. Even within banned teen novels it’s not evil incarnate. Plus, my question is what good is an unbanned book deemed proper for teens if no one reads it?
I’m not saying that all YA has to be filled to the brim with vice. There’s plenty of room in the marketplace for lots of types of YA novels. Our own Stephie Davis has done well with sweet teen stories where they get nowhere near intercourse. As a reader, I was still just as engaged and rooting for the heroines of her stories. And based on the comments of teenage girls who read her “Boys” series, these stories rang true for them even though they were of the sweet variety. I mean, what girl hasn’t pined for a guy and worried that she didn’t have a chance with him? Stephenie Meyer’s fantastic series starting with Twilight has plenty of sexual tension, and that’s part of what makes them unputdownable. Bella and Edward have a fantastic love story, but it’s not yet been consummated because of their main difference – Edward is a vampire and Bella is still very much human.
To me, the best YA stories devote at least some portion of the books to teenage love. Yes, you can categorize them as romances, but know that this is not the same as the romance in the rest of the categories in the Golden Heart – even if there’s sex involved. How many people find the love of their life when they’re 16? But at the time, it sure feels like you have. You, as an author, have to convey that. The characters can believe with every fiber of their being that they have found their soulmate, their one and only. And for the purposes of fiction, maybe they have. Stephenie Meyer certainly makes me believe that Bella and Edward are destined to be together. I’m not sure how she’ll finally accomplish this, but for now I believe it and wish for it.
Also, it’s important to note that while YA can have (and should have for the purposes of the Golden Heart) a love story in it, it doesn’t have to take up as much of the story as it would in an adult romance. YA novels not only tackle love, but they deal with other day-to-day things teens face – homework, teachers they don’t like, what they want to do with their lives, cliques and other social structure issues, peer pressure, problems at home, and a whole host of other things that seem tremendously important when viewed from the teenager’s point of view. You remember how everything was life and death in high school, right?
If you’re not entering YA but think you might like to judge it, I’d suggest picking up and reading several different types of YA novels between now and when judging packets go out. Read Stephie Davis, Stephenie Meyer, Libba Bray, Meg Cabot, Niki Burnham, Simone Elkeles, Lynda Sandoval, Gillian Summers. Spend an hour in the YA section of your local bookstore reading the back cover copy. If nothing else, I bet you find some new authors and stories you simply can’t put down.
If you have a YA story that can be completed by the GH entry deadline, I highly encourage you to enter. YA is often one of the smaller categories, so it’s very important to make sure the category reaches the minimum number of entries – 25. I can tell you from experience that it’s a huge thrill to win the Golden Heart for Young Adult. I wish all of you the best of luck.