Young adult books are hot right now, and not just with actual young adults. A 2015 Nielsen study showed that while adult book sales are down, children’s and young adult book sales are actually up. Over 30,000 YA books are published each year, amounting to a nice chunk of change, with the American Association Of Book Publishers estimating that YA material accounted for $1.9 billion in revenue in 2014. Pushing things even further, Forbes estimates that, collectively, YA authors brought down about $83 million in 2015 with a staggering $51 million of that total going to just two authors: The Fault In Our Stars author John Green and Divergent series creator Veronica Roth.
But who’s reading YA books? While a good majority of YA books are actually purchased by adults, a lot of those credit card swipes are probably made by book-loving parents who are happy to fork over money to keep their kids reading. And, as this writer observed on a recent trip to BookCon, a lot of those readers are young women, thousands of whom swarmed the aisles of Chicago’s McCormick Place. A lot of that is probably due to the books’ content—in 2015, trade publication The Horn Book determined that about 65 percent of protagonists in books meant for 12-18 year olds were female—but it’s also due to their solid storylines, compelling readability, and the way the books generally present characters that both reflect the readers themselves and act as strong role models.
Creating characters that are both confident and occasionally insecure falls to YA authors, whose creations fuel both imaginations and a whole industry. The A.V. Club sat down with four of the most renowned female YA authors at BookExpo America earlier this spring to suss out how these adult women view their followers and what they think their responsibility is—if any—to the young readers of today.
On the panel:
Kendare Blake, creator of the dark and somewhat violent Anna series, which includes Anna Dressed In Blood, as well as the Goddess War series and the forthcoming Three Dark Crowns.
Eight-time bestselling author Alyson Noël has written over 23 novels, including The Immortals series, the Riley Bloom series, and the Soul Seekers series. Her books have been translated into 36 languages and sold in over 200 countries. Several of her projects have also been optioned by Hollywood, including stand-alone novel Saving Zoe. Her latest series, Beautiful Idols, just kicked off with Unrivaled this spring.
Ann M. Martin inspired a generation of readers and writers with The Baby-Sitters Club novels, which launched in 1986. Though the series, which ended in 2000, ultimately inspired over 150 novels, only the first 36 of those were actually written by Martin, though she oversaw the rest. Her books generally skew toward middle-readers, meaning kids who are still in elementary school. Martin’s also penned several other series for that age group, including Family Tree, The Doll People, Main Street, California Diaries, and The Kids In Ms. Colman’s Class.
Melissa De La Cruz, author of the Au Pair series, the Ashleys series, the Heart Of Dread series, and the Blue Bloods series, as well as a number of stand-alone novels. She also recently penned The Isle Of The Lost, a companion book to the Disney Channel original movie Descendants, a book that ultimately spent 37 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. (Note: De La Cruz comes in toward the end of the discussion.)
The A.V. Club: Who do you think your audience is?
Alyson Noël: I write with a general audience in mind. I don’t really have a particular reader in mind. When I first started writing YA, I didn’t even know I was writing YA. I was just writing a story that I had carried around in my head forever that just happened to have a teenage protagonist. And honestly, I didn’t know until I got my agent, who was like, “What we have here is a YA novel.” I just generally tell stories and I don’t really have a particular reader in mind when I’m doing that.
Ann M. Martin: I feel the same way. The majority of the readership for my books is women and young women, but I don’t feel, when I sit down to write a book, that I’m writing for women or young girls or even necessarily any particular age group, except that the protagonist is usually sort of what defines what the age group is going to be. That said, when I am writing about female characters, I do feel that I want to try to include certain ways that I hope young women are going to feel when they read the books, or give them certain things that they can take away, with The Baby-Sitters Club—like entrepreneurship, being strong, being independent, being creative. But when I started the series, I didn’t sit down to write a series that was specifically for young girls, I don’t think.
Kendare Blake: I agree. I try to let the story be the boss. I really try to avoid thinking about audience at all when I’m writing, because I’ll find I’ll start wondering what they want me to do, rather than what the character wants to do, and that’s never a good thing. I don’t think about audience until afterward, sometimes far afterward, and sometimes when it’s way too late to consider things I should have considered before. I guess in my mind, I’m aware that young women will read the book, hopefully. The characters that I write about and that interest me tend to be young women, but I have to let the characters do their thing. So if a character is weak or a character is wicked or if a character is flawed, I don’t really think about trying to limit that.
AVC: Do you ever think about lessons for young readers while you’re writing? Does the wicked character have to get hers or his in the end?
AN: I’m going to write the story I’m going to write, but then, as it happens the story usually has some sort of—I hate the word “lesson,” but let’s just go with it for the sake of searching thesauruses.
I’m supposedly a full-grown adult. They tell me that and my birth certificate would attest to it, but a lot of the stuff I’m writing about is stuff I’m still thinking about, too. I can’t say I feel fully formed or I have all the answers. My books tend to be about things I’m currently grappling with, but maybe on a more adult or mature level. But some of the ideas are things that we try to redefine throughout our lives.
The lesson is that sometimes it’s as much for me as it is for whoever reads the book and as it is for my character. It’s a lesson of the human journey and finding your place in the world and defining yourself and settling on what it is you might believe in after all.
AVC: That speaks to why so many YA readers aren’t necessarily actual young adults. Why do you think that is, and is that a recent trend?
AN: I noticed a trend. It’s very specific. I was a flight attendant before I was an author. I used to fly this D.C. to New York City route a lot, because I was based in New York City, and it was just a really easy flight, and I was a lazy flight attendant. It was generally businessmen on their way to doing whatever power meeting they had on either end of that trip, but they were reading Harry Potter. Instead of the usual spy novels I would see, they were all reading Harry Potter. It was like, “This is a huge moment. This book has transcended.” Then Twilight came along, and adults were reading that.
A good portion of my readers are definitely adults. I can tell by the correspondence, my followers, and who shows up at book signings. I think Harry Potter might have had something to do with that, but I’m curious to see what you guys think.
AM: Most of my books are middle-grade, so I don’t have quite the same experience. But I do know that there’s quite a bit of fantasy and science-fiction published now, and I’ve seen a huge surge in that over the last five or six years. I know that there’s a great crossover audience for science-fiction and fantasy, for both men and women.
KB: You bringing up Twilight just reminded me of something that kind of ties into the question.
AVC: Oh, please. This discussion can go wherever it needs to go. It doesn’t need to stick to my questions.
KB: So, Twilight came into my frame of consciousness through three different places at three different times. The first one was my dad. The second one was my then-boyfriend, now-husband. And the third was a group of inmates at a federal penitentiary. It was maximum security, and they had a Twilight book club that I was alerted to by my friend who was working as a guard there. She was like, “Man, these guys are all over this book.” And I still hadn’t read it. After three recommendations, I was like, “What is this guy book? What is this Twilight all about?” It really did transcend age groups and gender and stereotypes from dads to boyfriends to prison inmates.
AVC: That’s so interesting. How did your dad get into that book?
KB: He saw it on Good Morning America and thought, “That sounds good. I bet my daughter would really like this.”
AVC: The inmates make sense too, because Twilight is a book that they could probably get into and that would have been easy to obtain.
KB: The prison libraries had it, but they were crazy about it. They organized a club! They’d talk about it in the cafeteria and try to get the guards to read it.
AVC: Why do you think supernatural stories like that do well with young audiences?
KB: I’ve always been drawn to supernatural stories. Casper was my favorite cartoon as a kid. I was really into anything spooky or ghost-like. I remember reading The Omen in seventh grade. I faked sick so I could stay home and read the book, and I read the entire thing in a day, because I had the one sick day to do it.
I’ve always been super fascinated with that stuff. I don’t know why it took me eight books in to write one. I just wasn’t ready yet. I think when you read those you’re really exploring how to define your place in the world and what you believe and what’s possible, what might be out there, and what is it that you don’t see. There are so many unanswered questions. I think it’s just a really interesting way to explore the possibilities that are out there.
AM: I remember being furious at my mother when I was 13 because she refused to let me read Rosemary’s Baby, which I was just desperate to read.
KB: That was a good book.
AM: Yeah, I know! I eventually read it when I found it. But I’ve also long been a huge Stephen King fan. So yeah, there is that interest, and I think it grabs a lot of people. Now, with all of the books published that are fantasy as well, or sort of a melding of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural, I think it grabs an even wider audience.
AVC: Absolutely. You can have romance in there, you can have fairy tales, a school with a popularity hierarchy… you can have all sorts of things.
KB: It goes way back. Mary Shelley, Carmilla… People have always been fascinated with death and the macabre. I don’t know why that is. All of these things that are human, but more than human, and they’re still rooted in humanity. It’s just a nice way to explore.
AN: And it’s such an unknown territory. You’re going on pure faith, really. There’s no proof that this stuff does or doesn’t exist, or whatever the afterlife might look like, or if there is one. It’s a personal belief system, so it’s ripe for storytelling. There are so many things you can do with that, because it’s just so unknown.
KB: Fear and fascination is universal.
AVC: Ann, you mentioned that a lot of your books are for middle-grade. How do you deal with readers aging out of the books? How fast do kids go through the hierarchy of books?
AM: Well, it’s interesting. With The Baby-Sitters Club, the books were published for 15 years, so that wasn’t really an issue. Although we did have to discuss thoroughly what we were going to do about the characters themselves aging, which is why the books went on for 15 years, and the main characters only aged one year. Year after year, after the very beginning of the series, they re-entered eighth grade.
The Doll People books, for instance—those are not really considered a series, but there have been four of them now, and I write them with Laura Godwin, and when we write together, we’re very pokey. The first one came out in the late ’90s, and they’ve come out a minimum of five years apart. I think we’ve just lost some readers with that. There’s nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, I think there have been some 25-year-olds who were waiting with bated breath for the next one, and read it anyway.
You do have to think carefully about how you’re going to handle it. Although I know why we did it, I wasn’t really pleased with the way we had aged, or not aged, the characters in The Baby-Sitters Club, so when I wrote Main Street a few years later, we decided to limit the series so the characters could age as the books were coming out. That felt much more natural for me.
AN: It’s an interesting question. I took a year off of writing after writing 14 books in four years and touring on six continents. A lot of stuff happened, and I was crashing and burning pretty quickly. So I took a year off, and I didn’t write at all. In publishing math, that makes for three years between releases. So last week was my first release in three years.
There’s this huge shift in the audience. YA is constantly recycling. Not even recycling. New people are coming in and other ones are aging out. I sort of find myself in a position where I’m almost like a debut author again, but not. I’m trying to greet and meet this entire new group of readers that has aged in to reading YA, and I wasn’t there during those years, really.
It’s been kind of interesting to see how quickly that turnover happens. I have actually received goodbye letters from former readers who were like, “I grew up with your books, I love your books, but I’m in college now, so…”
AVC: “Keep reading them!”
AN: Yeah, it’s cute. It’s sweet that they do that. It’s closure.
KB: They’re like, “I need to write Alyson.”
AN: They have to explain, “I’m in college now.”
KB: You can’t just text her, it’s got to be a letter.
AVC: Not just a tweet.
KB: Yeah, it has to be personal.
AVC: How do you think the YA market has changed? How are kids finding out about the books now, versus how they were? Is it still that you go to the bookstore and browse the shelves? Or is it word of mouth?
AN: I think it’s always word of mouth to a certain degree. Kids trust their peers more than anyone. So there’s definitely a heavy word-of-mouth component.
When I first started out—my first book was published 10, 11 years ago—Twitter wasn’t a thing like it is now. So now, I think it’s a lot of social network stuff. It’s an immediacy between you and readers. But I think word of mouth is always the strongest.
AM: Yeah, I would say that word of mouth, and that social media component, absolutely. Kids know now to go to websites or watch for tweets. But there’s still nothing like going to the bookstore and poking around.
KB: Also, librarians have gotten a lot cooler. When I was a kid, librarians were just what you used to imagine, with the glasses and the shushing. We didn’t have YA librarians who had all their fingers in the scene, organizing all these cool events.
AN: That’s true. They’re a great source of knowing what teens and readers are interested in and being able to direct them.
KB: They go over and above. They organize their own little comic-cons and all these huge events, just through their libraries.
AN: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
AVC: That’s also a good way to get people into libraries and to make sure they’re still vital town centers.
AM: And they’re a safe space for teens, even underprivileged teens, who can’t afford to buy the books. They can just go after school and hang out at the library and it’s a cool place to hang out.
AVC: Have readers changed over time? Do readers now want something different from readers in 1996 or even readers in 2006?
AM: Gosh, I don’t know. I do see a huge increase and interest in what we’ve been talking about, fantasy and science-fiction and YA, as opposed to middle-grade. There’s been an explosion of series since the 1980s and 1990s. But beyond that, I think there are always the universal things that kids are looking for. Stories about family, about friends… they’re looking to find themselves in the characters that they’re reading about. So there are universal topics that are always appealing.
AVC: How do you find the arc of a series? Ann, you said you had limited one of your series because you didn’t want to have the characters in 8th grade for 15 years. How do you decide, with a series for instance, that something is going to be an eight-book series, or has run its course?
AN: With my first series, The Immortals, I just wrote the book Evermore in a fever dream. Honestly, I was going through so much stuff. I had just lost three people I loved and my husband was just diagnosed with leukemia. I wrote for myself and I wasn’t going to publish it. I was just trying to find answers and figure out why bad things happen. We’re all still wondering. It’s not like I found any answers.
It was only when I got to the end, that I went, “Oh, this is just the beginning. This isn’t even a closed story here.” Since I went through the trouble of writing a book, I’ll show it to my publisher, then we’ll see. They ended up buying it, and it took off from there. But I would guess I was about a third or halfway through the second book when I said, “Okay, I know really what this is about.” I finally felt like I had a handle on what it was really about, and how many books it would take to get there, and where I was going, and what the end was, because I was still searching and still trying to find all these answers.
I’m on my third series since then. Now I’m a little more organized about it. Now I have a plan, or at least I try to start out with plan, an idea, an arc, and figure out how long it will take to tell that particular story.
AVC: Why have series exploded?
AN: Readers love to stay in that world. Look at the huge lifespan of your books, Ann. They just love to stay in that world.
AM: Yeah, and as adults, I think the same thing holds true. I like reading series or even if they’re not strictly series, reading about the same characters from the same author. If you find something that speaks to you and you find characters you can identify with, it’s a little bit hard to let go of that, both as a reader and as a writer. There’s nothing like coming to an end of a book that you’ve loved and knowing there’s at least one more to go.
AN: I remember reading Anna Dressed In Blood and going, “I hope there’s more when I finish.” So even as a reader, I find myself sometimes going, “Please don’t let this be it. I really like being in this world, and I want to go back in this world.”
AVC: Do you feel pressure then when you end a series? Do you want the ending to be perfect?
AN: You do. You want everyone to be happy with the choices, and of course some won’t be. They just won’t be. So you just have to serve the story and your original idea, and know that a few people won’t be happy, and hope that the majority are.
AVC: You mentioned that you read Kendare’s series, Alyson. Do you all read a lot of other books and series and YA authors?
AN: I try to. The worst part of being a writer I’ve found is less time for reading. When I was a flight attendant, I was a lazy flight attendant, so I read all the time. I read so many books. I’d read on the jump seat, which you’re not supposed to do. So it was great for my reading career.
As a writer, it’s a little harder. You’re working on your own books, and you’ve got so many deadlines. Sometimes I don’t like to read in the genre I’m writing in, because I think, “I don’t want her voice to seep into this work, because I’m loving this voice so much over here.” So sometimes I try to distance myself and only read adult books during that time. But I try to keep up on what people are doing and what’s out there.
KB: It is a struggle. You meet so many great people, and you’re like, “Now I want to read all of your books.” And you get this huge stack. The stack that I’ve got going right now, I’m finally reading books from folks that I met two years ago. Man, I am behind.
AVC: This convention won’t help. You could go home with a whole suitcase full of books.
KB: It’s going to be rough. I’m going to build a fort.
AVC: How’s this for a shift? How do you three talk about relationships in your books, between men and women, men and men, etc.? Do you address sex in your books for young readers?
AM: My books are a little bit too young, though there certainly have been difficult relationships. In Rain Reign, which came out about a year-and-a-half ago, there was a really complex and difficult relationship between the main character, who’s 11, and her father. It was nothing sexual, but just a very complicated, dysfunctional relationship between the two of them. But in terms of the kinds of relationships that you’re talking about, that doesn’t really get addressed in my books.
AVC: You’ve had characters going on dates and having boyfriends, but it’s very tame.
AM: Yeah, but it’s all very G-rated.
KB: But intense! That first hand-hold.
AN: You never get that feeling quite again from holding a hand.
AVC: Kendare and Alyson, do you have any opinions about this?
KB: I mean, yes, I address it, certainly. My characters do have sex in the books, but I’m squeamish about writing it. I think because I’m like, “People are going to know that I wrote this.”
AN: Your mom’s going to read it.
KB: No, my mom doesn’t read it, actually.
AN: Do you tell her not to?
KB: No, no.
I don’t know. I don’t go that explicit, I guess. I’m more interested in the power dynamics between men and women. I love writing that stuff.
AN: I think that the relationships are a pretty big component of my books.
[Melissa De La Cruz enters the room.]
Melissa De La Cruz: I’m so sorry I’m late.
AVC: We are talking about sex and relationships in books.
MC: Ooh, all right.
AN: I think she timed this. This is suspicious timing.
I think the relationships are a really important part of my books. I think it’s the thing I hear about most from my readers, and it’s a thing that they’re looking for.
It was a big part of growing up for me, too, thinking about boys that I liked, what your future might look like, all of these things that are such a big part of growing up. I wasn’t the kind thinking about my wedding day—it wasn’t like that. In fact, I thought I would never get married, and so I’m surprised that ended up happening. But it’s just such a big part of your life, and so I think readers are kind of looking for that experience, too.
As far as the sex goes, it really depends on that particular book, and those particular characters. I did a signing once at Vroman’s in Pasadena, and this woman came up to me afterwards and she said, “I just want you to know that I am 78 years old. If Ever and Damen don’t do it soon, I’m going to die of a heart attack, and it’s going to be on you.” So when I was writing this final book, where they finally get together, I felt like saying, “This is for you, lady in Vroman’s!” But it’s not explicit on page stuff, because it’s still got to go to a certain place on the bookstore shelf, so it’s sort of implied, and off-page a bit.
MC: I like writing about sex in YA books. I think kids are really curious about it, and I think that’s a big part of what they’re thinking about. People are so worried that they’re going to read about it and then they’re going to do it, when really, they’re just curious, and they just want to read about it. And if they’re reading about it, they’re really not doing it.
AN: It’s a safe way to have that experience.
MC: Totally. And especially for girls, my feeling is there’s not enough about female pleasure in sex. This whole rape culture, this whole message that’s come about—that’s something that I think about in my books. It’s okay to feel desire. It’s okay to do these things. You’re young and you’re beautiful and you’re curious and you’re in love with somebody. Just do it.
It’s really funny, though. When I write those scenes, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to give him a condom on this page.” You feel responsibility, but you also want to entertain, and you want also want to be true to the experience of being a teenager. As a teenager, I was definitely one of the kids who read a lot of these racy books. And I did not do anything about it. I don’t know if books are getting racier, but when we were 13 we were reading adult books.
AN: We were reading Judith Krantz, and it was nuts.
MC: I remember reading Norma Klein. Did anyone read Norma Klein? I still have her books on my shelf. She had a book called Love Is One of The Choices. It was just spectacular, and the cover is so great. The teenager was having an affair with her teacher. Very Pretty Little Liars. But this is like back in the ’70s, this book, I think. And that was pretty racy, actually. That was a YA book. I read it over and over.
AVC: That’s interesting. Maybe YA authors now are people who, years ago, read those kinds of books. Now that you’re writing your own books, you might be thinking, “I read this book and it was really important to me, so that’s the kind of material I’m going to try and give my own readers.”
MC: I think we’re just kind of teenagers. People that write for YA, don’t you feel like we’re kind of stuck at that age? That’s what we remember. Other people grow up, and they become adults, and we’re still kind of kids.
I like kids. Somebody commented like, “Oh wow, Melissa and Soman [Chainani] were talking to the kids so respectfully, and treated them like adults,” and I was like, “I don’t see them as different.” We talk about this all the time when we do school visits, how the administrators are like, “Oh God, I’m so sorry you have to talk to teenagers.” It’s like, “I love talking to teenagers!”
AVC: Do you guys feel the same way? Ann, I know you like talking to kids.
AM: I do like talking to kids. But mostly my audience is much younger. It tends to be not above grade six. Usually more like grades three to five. But yeah, I love kids.
MC: So you’ve never faced down the stone-faced seniors?
AM: I have not.
MC: You know, it’s very satisfying to get them to listen and engage. I remember I did one talk and it was dead silence. Two hundred juniors and seniors, and at the end, they stood up and clapped because I had connected with them, and it was awesome.
AN: It’s a challenge.
MC: It is! It’s like, “You think you’re not going to be into me? Just wait.”
AN: You’ll love me by the end!
AVC: Do you guys think about body image when you’re writing? With The Baby-Sitters Club, you had the sporty one, the creative one—you had all sorts of different kinds of young women within those books. Is that a conscious thing?
MC: Yeah, it’s something that I think about now. Maybe earlier in my career it wasn’t something I thought about, but now, I’ve grown up too. I have a daughter, and I don’t want her to read those messages where this is the only kind of body that’s good, or even worrying about her weight. I struck it all out from my latest book. I was like, “Ugh, no.”
But then you also have to be realistic. In Something In Between, she’s a cheerleader. Her Filipino mom keeps saying, “You need to eat more,” and she’s like, “They’ve got to lift me in the air.” So it’s more like an athletic thing.
AN: I think too, even if you have the classically pretty character—whatever that means to whoever it means something to—it’s just to show that even that character doesn’t see herself the way other people see her. We look at people and we project all kinds of stuff on to them. But that’s a real person with their own struggles. Maybe she looks in the mirror and she doesn’t see what you’re seeing. She’s got her own insecurities and stuff to get over. Nobody really has it all together, despite the mask they’re putting on when they come outside. So I like to show that everybody is in the same sort of struggle together, to feel good about themselves and their place in the world.
AVC: Where do you guys see the market going in the next five, 10, or 20 years?
MC: It’s hard to say. We haven’t seen a shift yet since John Green. There was Twilight paranormal, and there was dystopia, but I’m hoping it goes back to lighter, funnier, contemporary books like Alyson’s.
KB: You’re telling Alyson, “Bring back chick lit, please!”
AN: We grew up on these big Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins novels, and I miss those big gorgeous worlds. To their credit though, the characters were really strong females. They were my role models growing up. I didn’t have a lot of good strong role models around me, and so I was looking to these characters that they created like, “I want to be like them when I grow up and rule the world!” There were some really positive messages in those books, as they had female characters that did what it took to go after their dreams. And they got to wear great shoes.
Sign me up. I love those sorts of books.
KB: It’s also just the fact that it was a female-centric story or that women’s stories were worth telling.
AVC: That’s a great lesson, especially for young readers.
MC: I think romance isn’t going away. I think maybe fantasy might be coming back?
AN: I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi deals listed lately in Publishers Marketplace. They’re buying a lot of sci-fi. Somebody else was speculating that it was going toward horror.
MC: They’ve been saying that for a while.
KB: The bottom line is, no matter what kind of reader you are, YA has got something for you.
AN: Yeah, and that’s the great thing. There’s literally something for every type of reader. Whatever it is you’re looking for, there’s a book for that.
AVC: There’s probably a whole series of books for that.
AN: It’s such a great time to be a teen reader.