Realistic Young Adult Fiction as a Genre

Last night, I headed with my friend to Greenpoint in Brooklyn for an event at Word bookstore as part of Brooklyn Book Festival. On the agenda: a discussion with authors Gayle Forman (If I Stay), Michael Northrop (Trapped), Matt de la Pena (Ball Don't Lie), and E. Lockhart (Real Live Boyfriends) about writing realistic YA fiction. The event came complete with brownies and brews from Brooklyn Brewery, and helped raised money for First Book-Brooklyn, which provides new books to kids in need through local literacy programs.

It was a fun panel--a good mix of laughter, beer, and insight--and also very inspiring for us up-and-coming writer types working on contemporary YA for shelves dominated by paranormal and dystopian series. It was an especially good exploration of what makes a book contemporary or realistic, and whether "realistic" can even be considered a genre. I think E. Lockhart put it best--the only thing all four of the panelists' books have in common is that they don't have vampires. I tend to agree that "realistic" shouldn't be considered a genre. It's what people have been writing and reading for hundreds of years and it's what they'll continue to read and remember and return to years from now. In a way, shouldn't everything be based in emotional reality? Aren't those the best books? Sure, none of us are actually going to wizarding school, but we all know that feeling of being somewhere new, making friends, trying to create a space for yourself in a world of cheaters and mean kids and evil lords (apart from the lord bit, that just about sums up high school).

What's more, many of the books that are being called realistic aren't even wholly based in reality--for example, Gayle Forman's If I Stay is literally an out-of-body experience, from cover to cover. Gayle does it beautifully, and so the reader doesn't feel like it's fantasy at all--instead it's just this stunnig tale of a girl's life and a chronicle of what really matters, when it gets right down to it--it just happens to be told from the perspective of someone who may very well soon be dead.

I think all the mish-mashing of genre just further proves that the best books are genre-less--they're impossible to define. They're mysteries with heart, and with characters as pensive and deeply developed as in contemporary (In the Woods), or they're dystopian that make you not only see the horror of war and poverty, but remind you why, in the end, it's better to fall for the good guy, the calm and kind-hearted person who balances you out (The Hunger Games, Team Peeta all the way). Or a 19th century novel written with a GRE-prep-book vocabulary and filled with subtle drawing room discussion that manages to be more desperately romantic than almost anything written since (Pride and Prejudice).

Those are the books that, in the end, I think we all want to write, even if we joke about coming up with the next paranormal or dystopian hit and cashing in. They're the books that I want to read not just because they are page-turners, but because I come away understanding something that I didn't quite get before--or understanding it in a new way, at least.

Both Gayle and Matt noted it on the panel: there's an undefined takeaway that you can't push onto a book (or else it's propaganda--or just bad), but it's something that, in the best books, comes naturally, leaving you thinking about them long after you've turned the last page. Gayle said that if she'd set out to write a book that convinces you to love and appreciate your family, it would have been horrible, and yet most readers come out of If I Stay feeling that way. Without being overt or obvious, or trying to make you feel that way, she's created a story that just does--it's something I think we all strive for every time we sit down to write--otherwise, what's the point?

(It's also worth nothing that at the meet-and-greet after the panel, I nervously introduced myself to Gayle and explained to her how I finished If I Stay on the subway and immediately started crying. Her response: "It should have a warning sticker!")