I had the pleasure of attending the Young Adult panel at last month’s Crime Bake in the Boston area. And what a pleasure it was. The panel members were in top form, and the discussion was both thoughtful and original. I don’t think the question of “What is YA?” even came up (!). The topics discussed will be of particular interest to anyone submitting to the Pencil.

The panel comprised four well-known YA authors:

Kim Harrington

Kate Burak

Peter Abrahams

Beth Kanell

Moderator Julie Henrikus’s questions were focused and edgy, which drew forth a series of pointed observations and personal stories from the authors.

Honesty, Fairness, and Justice

 Kim Herrington spoke on the subject of teen bullying, sharing her own experiences as a child as well as her personal satisfaction in creating characters who, when bullied, eventually get back at the bullies.

 Kim also raised the subject of honesty in writing for YA. The panel heartily agreed with this sentiment, which led to an interesting discussion about the concept of fairness in relationship with teens in general, and YA fiction in particular. The panel agreed that the absence of fairness arouses strong emotions in teens, and that the need for fairness is something all teens desire—which of course is a perfect fit for YA mysteries.

Beth Kanell doubled down on the question of fairness and stated her belief that what teens desire is justice (another great fit for mystery, of course). She also brought up the fascinating topic of the teen as the unreliable narrator—a discussion that seemed to crop up frequently over the weekend. I did a little research on this after the weekend, as I am a student of narrative modes and point of view, especially in mystery fiction, where there are well-established conventions about what information had better be accurate and what can be suspect. In terms of YA, our panelists pointed out, the protagonist (plus friends) has, by definition, an unfinished or narrow concept of how the world operates, a fact that can be used to good effect in mystery. Used carefully, I should add. Plausibility remains the guard rail.

The open-ending

Another off-shoot of the topic of honesty came from Kate Burak, who stated that her editor stresses that open-ended books are a major no-no in YA fiction. To me this is a fascinating idea, because it appears to conflict rather strikingly with the concept of honesty. Start with romance. I once asked on the Pencil facebook page what people thought about the issue of happy endings, i.e., where teen lovers end up together without any hint that it won’t be forever. The consensus, particularly from the parents, was that teens want the happy ending.

Now I don’t know about you, but I actually can’t recall a single teen romance that lasted more than a year, let alone forever. There wasn’t time to explore this during the panel, but I had the chance to talk with Kim about it later on. She agreed that there was a contradiction in the happy ending and the need for honesty–one that she has been well aware of. She served both gods by having her couple together and happy at the end of the book—but hinted that the appearance of foreverness was not necessarily the end of the story.


During the audience Q&A toward the end of the session, Peter Abrahams (who also writes MG) was asked why he wrote from the point of view of an eleven year old girl, and if anybody thought that he wasn’t qualified to do so. He replied in the serious vein that characterized the session, saying that he trusted in the human imagination. “People have written from the point of view of robots. Why not the opposite sex, or a child, or anything else?

 This led to a rapid-fire series of comments on diversity in YA fiction, which I listened to eagerly, since this issue is something rather dear to me. The panel seemed to be in agreement that diversity is an integral part of the teen world and therefore YA fiction. They noted the prevalence of African American, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic, or gay sidekicks (best friends, boyfriends/girlfriend) but not protagonists.

 The session ended with Moderator Julie Hennrikus summing up the comments by pointing out the need for “radical diversity,” which could have been the beginning of another, equally interesting YA session, as far as I was concerned. Julie and I talked after the session about this issue, and I hope to get her to blog on the topic in the future.

 Other comments of interest

I believe it was Kate who stated that the best thing about writing YA is that anything goes in terms of sub-genre. You don’t have to worry about not finding a market for teen Catholic Ninja supernatural, if that’s what you write, because it all goes onto one shelf: YA.

 I think it was Peter who spoke on the growing numbers of adults who are reading YA.  He pointed out that the stigma of such a reading habit was eliminated by the ebook revolution, where there is no cover for people to look at and thus give away your reading habits.

 Several of the panel members spoke of the very severe critiques they get from teen readers. I didn’t take notes on this, but someone should collect them into a book, as they were hilarious in the audacity.