Friday, July 08, 2011 No. And also, no. "YA Fiction" panel at ThrillerFest

I planned to take notes at the YA Thriller panel to write a blog post like I did for Mark Tavani's panel yesterday.  I settled in the back, shark pen and paper at the ready.  During the introductions, the first thing I noticed was that each of the authors on the panel is also published in adult trade categories.  All of them.  That turns out to have some bearing on what happened next.

Because what happened next was kind of frightening.

It was as if the panelists didn't know what they were talking about. Statements were made about the kind of events that would be cataclysmic in a teen's life--and "end of the world" was dismissed because teens were mostly concerned about themselves and their lives.

I about dropped my fangs.  The last two YA books I had my mitts on, both of which sold in nice juicy deals are about stakes MUCH larger than one teen's life.  And there are some other good examples: HUNGER GAMES for starters.

I kept shaking my head at what I was hearing. I think the guy sitting next to me thought I was jamming to my Ipod at one point.

"Sex has no place in a YA thriller" almost pushed me out of my chair.  That's absolutely wrong.  Teens are sexual beasts like the rest of us. Sex is part of their lives whether they are participating in overt sexual acts or just trying their damnedest to do so.  Leaving that out of YA is like leaving out the color blue.

One of the panelists kept chiming in with views that were closer to mine, but she's a nicer person than I am and didn't just bellow "you're kidding, right?"

There were a lot of other statements made that I profoundly disagreed with but by that time I'd stopped making notes and started steaming.  I was rather annoyed that a really diverse and engaging category was being given such short shrift.

I swear I was within seconds of standing on my chair, raising my arms like a football referee signaling a touchdown and screaming


then grabbing the microphone, when I realized the panelists knew only their own books (or at least those were the only books they referred to often.)  Aha! They just hadn't read enough in the genre. They could certainly comment on their own experiences, and their own interactions with readers, but anything past that was unknown territory. These panelists were YA tourists, not residents.

And I think the reason they're not well-read in YA is probably that they're simply writing a LOT of books.  It's hard enough to find time to read for pleasure writing one novel a year. It's probably impossible when writing more than that. And for most of these panelists, I got the sense YA was their secondary market. I'd wager they are a LOT better informed about adult thrillers cause they read them for fun.

I have no idea how a person attending the panel would know these guys were wrong about a lot of stuff.  If you're ever at a panel and you hear a choking sound from the back of the room, and I'm back there turning blue from holding my tongue...well, that's a clue.

It was an interesting and illuminating panel, but not for the reasons I thought it might be!


Jessica D. Stampe said...

It seems like they thought 'Young Adult' meant 'Middle Grade.' Otherwise, what they said doesn't really make sense.

Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

Fascinating! I wonder why they decided to write for a YA audience in the first place. Is it just because they wanted to write something for their own kid or because they thought it would be easy? I love your term "YA tourists." Have they talked to their YA audience recently?

YA readers need high stakes, if for no other reason than to make sense of their world as it is. Do they really think teens never think about end of the world stuff?


Anonymous said...

I like the YA Tourist thing as well. I wonder what their book sales are like since they appear to not understand their audience.

Melinda said...

Interesting. I heard some similar things at a conference I attended this year. I remember thinking..really? It just didn't sound right to me, but since I don't write YA I couldn't really argue.

K. L. Hallam said...

Thanks for the post about this. I've been hearing about some concern lately, with the sex & violence in YA. But have to wonder, as above commentor-- if those concerned are thinking middle grade as well. I will be observing. Funny, cause, while figuring which genre my MG would fall into; I had to think, well there's no sex or violence, so it must be MG. And the mc is twelve. Bird just pooped on my arm.

Christine Tyler said...

Bah. YA tourists trying to write a Travel Guide.

And I'd say, even if teens aren't having sex, and aren't even trying to have sex, sexuality still concerns them--possibly even more, because they're figuring out their limits and their feelings and their take on love without physical intimacy.

Having sex was way out of the picture when I was in high school, but it was certainly a hot topic that I got to deal with every day.

And I'm sure these authors will have really great "self-obsessed-teen" protagonists. *eye roll*

Brittany Melson said...

I've heard the same thing on panels--that teens are concerned with smaller issues and conflicts and that YA books need to not be sexy. That sounds like the perfect formula for a BORING book:)

Josin L. McQuein said...

I guess they did their pre-conference prep work by reading the WSJ.


Laura said...

Yeah, umm, if any of that is true, I better just highlight my entire MS and hit the delete button right now...

Unknown said...

That's unbelievable... It is shocking that they knew their audience so little. Talk to a teen--the "it's all about me" is just a cover, a shield, because most are sensitive people who DO care about a lot of things. Yes, they are still kids, and kids like attention, etc. But they are also growing up to be adults, and it is in this critical period of their lives that they actually have many of the more passionate ideas and ideals. Most are not as jaded as we adults get to be after a while. They can be idealists, at least more so than many adults, they see the world as a place with potential, a place that is fixable. I think a teen would be hurt if they heard that someone thought they were so shallow (and then of course, they would fall into the mould even more, because they would be on the defensive...). Teens need authors/people who believe in them, and they will in turn become people WE can believe in. As far as the sex goes, I think that while sex is not a prerequisite for a teen book, if it is ignored, you are ignoring a whole aspect of being a teenager. I think this all goes back to that rule of "know your audience." BUt, yes, Janet, I can't blame you for feeling the way you did there. Tanks for sharing.

Marsha Sigman said...

YA is so hot right now that a few authors are wandering from their own genre and having a nasty little affair with it on the side.

Just leave the money on the nightstand, please.

I think it should be a requirement that you at least know a teen or not be so old you can't remember when you were one.

Amy Parker said...

I hear your Dauntless, Divergent was a completely awesome book. Wow, can't wrap my head around the wrongness of these statements. I'm surprised that there wasn't an uprising.

Anita said...

Well, I think the key here is that it was a YA Thriller panel...emphasis on "Thriller." Certainly there are awesome YAs whose stakes aren't important outside the main character's life (and even those should be high personal stakes that readers can see having some bearing on their own lives), but if you're talking THRILLER, then the stakes better be high on a muuuch bigger scale.

jesse said...

I have to agree with the panel. I really enjoyed Twilight, the Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, but the sex, violence, and high stakes really took me out of those series. The interest in sex, violence, and non-trivial-matters only switches on at the age of 35, everybody knows that.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Oy vey.

BBC said...

Good post, and great points. As a YA librarian and author I admit that the amount of authors I see gravitating toward YA as a lark is somewhat disheartening.

There are those that do it well, with heart. And there are those that... don't.

Michele Shaw said...

Anyone who hasn't read YA, interviewed teens, hung out with teens, and made an effort to know their audience is going to struggle to hit the mark, in my opinion. If these authors are merely hopping on a hot trend, I can't see how they will prosper in YA. I suppose time will tell. I've sat at a few panels where the topics got wildly off course. It's frustrating, but never dull!

Candace said...

It seems to me that a lot of adult writers are starting to write YA, not because they love the genre, but because they think it'll make them a lot of money.

I actually find myself infuriated quite often by the offhand, thoughtless comments that such writers make. Teens are a lot deeper than most adults give them credit for, and it makes me sad to see them treated like self centered idiots who can't see past their own raging hormones and pimple-riddled reflection.

They deserve better from the authors who are writing books that might shape critical parts of their future identities.

The moral of my rant: if you can't respect your readers, get a different job!

Suzan Harden said...


Do these panelists even know what kids read?

Give the under-18's credit. My ten-year-old started reading the HALO series. (After the rough start he had is school, I was estatic he asked for a book!) We had a long discussion about the concept of love, whether an artificial intelligence like Cortana could really experience the emotion, and whether the Master Chief could love her in return even though the two of them could not have sex.

Kids? Self-involved? Please!

Laila Knight said...

Not all teens are concerned about themselves and their lives. It all depends how they were raised. Are you kidding me? Sex has no place in YA? Where was I when they passed around that memo? They must have missed the whole concept of puberty. LOL, I would have liked to have seen the whole standing on chair routine, but good for you that you controlled yourself. Have a great weekend!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Were these authors never teens? I'm pretty sure every teenager at least thinks about sex a lot, even if they're not having any. That applies whether they're not having any because of lack of opportunity, fear of pregnancy, religious or moral beliefs, whatever. With all the physical and emotional changes they're going through, it's almost impossible for them not to think about sex at least once in a while. Sure, there might be a few kids who have relatively little interest in it, but it's very much a part of most teen's mental world.

And I knew/know quite a few self-involved teenagers, and while it's often a front, I'm willing to wager that a lot of kids would drop the act if the world were ending around them. (In fact, doesn't that make for a good number of coming of age stories?) It would be a matter of concern for everyone. Teens aren't going to worry about going to the mall or trivial things like that if society is collapsing and people are dying everywhere. These authors clearly haven't thought critically about their own genre!

Unknown said...

You have a fantastic voice and a wonderful blog. I'm so grateful to Christine Tyler for directing me here.
Great post, I could see you in the back row restraining yourself.

Anonymous said...

Just got back from Thrillerfest where I met the amazing Janet Reid. She was everything I hoped for and more. Honest, direct and helpful. And she's right. I was pitching a dark paranormal thriller. Agents told me to sell it as YA. "Don't worry about the all the gore, the rape, the sex you have in yours. YA has all these elements," they said.

Michelle said...

Would it be uncouth of me to say I reallyreallyreally wish you had stood up and said something? For a room full of people leave the panel thinking they'd been given inaccurate information feels very much like recent WSJ articles being lauded for revealing the seedy underbelly of YA fiction. It can damage more than it furthers the conversation.

Not that it's your responsibility to correct them. I'm not saying that at all, especially with professional matters to consider. I just wish someone had chimed in to set things straight. Nothing boils my blood more than half-truths being declared as THE ONLY truth.

Now that I say that, it's probably best I didn't go. I don't usually sit quietly in those situations.

Just don't get me started on "experts" who earned that distinction by reading a YA book once 10 years ago and sort of liking it, but not really, and now writing their own so they can "do it better."

Okay, rant over.

Joanna said...


You rocketh, Ms. Reid.

Olga Walker said...

Interesting panel discussion...I did a subject at uni last year on young adult fantasy fiction and I have to say that I am very glad I did - we also had a lot of fun.

The subject was an eye opener in many ways and made me remember some of the things I was concerned about as a teen. Romance, sex, writing, painting, reading, world affairs, politics etc were just some of the things I thought about. NOTE though where sex is on the the term 'tourist'.

Now that I am into my own writing again its good to be reminded of these things...thank you for sharing.

Olga from

Unknown said...

Well I got your back! I know cpr...

Aaron Patterson said...

I am brave so i will jump in. I was on the panel and and I Love love writing YA and I write 2-3 books a year and am a bestseller, so not a "Tourist." I don't agree with everything that everyone said but that is the nature of a panel. The sex and other subjects brought up were all just people opinion and each author must decide what they want to do. Sex and gore are a lot of YA but I think the point was that you will not fail if it is not there. I hang out and am young enough to remember being a teen and have a lot of beta readers that hold me to what I am trying to do.

I got a lot of feedback that they got a lot from the panel but someone will always disagree and that is your right. I do write adult thrillers but write YA because I had so many teens reading my adult books and love to write YA. It is not a side job but my main gig, I am a full time writer and support a family of five from it, so I don't believe I am off base or out of touch.

I am open to chat as I did more after the panel was over as we all have many different ideas of what should and should not be in YA or what works or doesn't. All I know is i know what works for me and what I love to write. I am sorry you had a frustrating time and I do wish you would have said something, I feel the same way sometimes with authors like James Patterson who just write YA because it is hot right now.


suzie townsend said...


I wasn't at the panel, but as someone with several YA thrillers on my list coming out in 2012, I was disappointed to hear people on the panel dismiss high stakes as something teenagers don't understand or enjoy. I don't think that's true at all.

Steve Stubbs said...

Jetreid: ""Sex has no place in a YA thriller" almost pushed me out of my chair. That's absolutely wrong. Teens are sexual beasts like the rest of us. Sex is part of their lives whether they are participating in overt sexual acts or just trying their damnedest to do so. Leaving that out of YA is like leaving out the color blue."

You are certainly right about teens being interested in sex. I suspect what your panel was thinking was that if they were to include sex in a YA they would not be excluding the color blue but INCLUDING the color red - as in a red flag to every religious cult in the country. A lot of people genuinely believe teens don't think about sex at all unless adults write about it in YA novels, and if that happens, then of course the offending adults need to be hanged upside down with their throats cut. I agree with your statement and also the position of the panel. I think you are both right on this one.

Another issue is that most women are principally interested in other women, and this kind of politically correct sex would be religiously incorrect big time. I don't see how the author could touch this third rail without being fried in the process. They might take their publishers with them.

LupLun said...

Umm... forgive me if I'm missing something, but... if you were so pissed and the panelists obviously didn't have anything helpful to say, why not just leave the panel and find some more productive event to attend? Or get an early lunch?

Lupines and Lunatics

Jessica Bell said...

Eeek! That's pretty frightening, really. People attend these things to learn. Shame that what they learn isn't accurate ... :-/

Unknown said...

So the first time I only got to skim this and the ending cracked me up Janet so I had to let you know I know cpr.

Now that I've been able to sit down at a computer and really read the post and the comments. I wanted to address Aaron Patterson's comment.

Janet said that sex was said to be excluded by the panel and that teen's don't understand challenges beyond themselves. I'm curious Aaron if those were things you disagreed with? Because I've read your YA book Airel and it would suggest you do. While teens weren't going at it in the back of cars there was definitely attraction and tension with all the young adult characters. Realistic scenarios and thought processes.

In addition to the conflict of catastrophic world changing/ending events. There was also the personal conflict of the protagonist and how her choices would effect not only herself but the world.

Sheila JG said...

Anyone with a condescending attitude toward their audience is going to be in trouble, I think. Even picture book writers.

Bonnie said...

Maybe they needed someone from "Candor" on the panel!

Bonnie Ferrante

Jo-Ann said...

I've been to psychology conferences and listened to talks about brain development during the adolescent years, hoping to gain insights.

Hold the press: some exciting revelations follow. Not all adolescent brains are the same! (gasp) They actually develop at their own rates! (wow!) Some have poorly matured frontal lobes whch means the person is impulsive and reacts immediately from feelings of anger/ arousal. Some can see the "bigger picture" of the world more clearly while others stumble around and try to make sense of themselves. (holy cow!) And - the similarities between adult and adolescent brains far outweigh the differences. Who'd've thunk it?

Seems those on the YA panel hadn't, otherwise why would they make such broad generalisations about what adolescents "like" as if they were a completely different and homogenous species? Their comments might apply to some teens, but the entire YA audience?

Hope the conference food was nice!

Terri Coop said...

When I was in school as a teen (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), my fav teacher's idea of YA was Gone With the Wind and the Horatio Hornblower series.

No high concepts, violence or sexual tension there! I have reread both many times and love the scene where Hornblower wonders if his new bride would still want to cut the wedding cake with his saber if she knew where it had been.

Teens are sensitive and high concept by nature. Everything goes straight to the bone with them. When I was a teen I worried about extinction and water pollution in between wondering if Gary Q smiled at me in the cafeteria.

As for sex? Pffft . . . even if they aren't doing much, they are talking about it and thinking about it 24/7.

Yesterday I stopped in a minimart out in the middle of the prairie on the way home from a long weekend at the lake.

Sunburned, windblown, grungy, exhausted . . . and wearing shorts and a tank top.

A couple of the local teen too-cool-for-school cuties gave me the up-down-and-all-around even after they realized I was old enough to be their mom's older sister. Nope, sex has no place in a teen's life.

It's all in how you handle it in the books and this panel sounded like what they apparently are - tourists.

These attitudes are the same ones were said that Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner was "too violent" and "too disturbing" and changed children's TV into Care Bears and other pink fuzzy cwap.

Claire Dawn said...

IN general, I think presenters should be presenting in their main genre. I'm an aspiring YA writer, but I also hope to write Women's Fic one day. Would I sit on a Women's Fic panel? I doubt I'd feel confident enough.

Julie said...

Hey, just sayin, if I'm in that room and you're turning blue, is it OK to run over and shout, "Hey, Hey, Are You OKAY? ARE YOU OKAY? HELP! YOU! CALL 911!"

I mean, in a totally cool and unobtrusive sort of way.

Not that this was written three years ago or anything.