Monthly Archives: January 2016

Genre Lessons: Street Lit

Man leaning on graffiti wall.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading street lit. Because this is a genre I have little experience with, I read three books — two YA novels and one written for adults. Here’s what a close study of street lit has taught me:

1. Worldbuilding is best done subtly and throughout a novel. And yes, worldbuilding is just as important for stories that take place in the real world as it is for those set in fictional worlds. All three of the novels I read started out with a fair amount of backstory, as if they were trying to explain the world and the characters’ situation to the reader. One had so much backstory I almost stopped reading because, while I was interested in the character’s background, I wanted to get to the actual story. I don’t think the story really began until about chapter four. And I certainly didn’t need all that information up front. When writing your own stories, make sure to ground your reader in the world, and explain things when necessary, but don’t give the entire history of the neighborhood on page one. Weave worldbuilding details and characters’ backstory into your tale as you go along

2. Give your character flaws. If you’re not familiar with the Mary Sue/Marty Stu character, it’s basically someone who is perfect: flawless looks, everyone loves them, and they’re good at everything, even things they’ve never done it before. One of the books I read was narrated by a Marty Stu, and all of the conflict in the story came from others. Every time there was trouble, it was someone else’s fault, and he was able to get out of that trouble with little difficulty. For me, this made the story not only unbelievable but also boring. I wanted the protagonist to be more relatable, and to struggle more. I wanted him to lose his temper when things he couldn’t control got in his way. In your own writing, make sure you pay attention to character development as much as the plot. You don’t want your characters to start out perfect (or even end up perfect). You do want them to grow over the course of the novel or series. Give them flaws. Have those flaws stop them from reaching their goal, so the thing they want most is depending on their growth as a person. This can be facing a fear, learning more patience, learning to trust others, letting go of strict beliefs … the possibilities are endless. But if your characters start out perfect, they have no room to go, and no internal obstacles standing in their way.

3. Keep the voice consistent in first-person narration. Two of the books I read were first-person. In one, the narration and dialog were consistent — the protagonist described the world through his own eyes, in his own voice. When he spoke with other characters, he sounded the same. In the other first-person novel, the protagonist’s dialog was inconsistent. Sometimes he would use abbreviations and slang, but at other times he avoided them, and I couldn’t find any pattern or reason for him to do this. It didn’t change based on whom he was talking to or the situation he was in. Just, sometimes he said “Imma do this, aight?” and sometimes he said “I’m going to do this.” Both are acceptable. Both say a lot about the character. If he uses both depending on the situation, that says a lot about him, too. But inconsistency just made it harder for me to understand who he was or know what to expect from him. So, if you want to use dialects or slang in your writing, go for it. Just do it with purpose. And if a character changes the way they talk, make sure there’s a reason for it.

Those are my main takeaways from reading street lit as a writer. Have you read any street lit you’d recommend?


Language, maturity, and awards

Michael L. Printz Award.At Midwest Writers Workshop last year, I got into a conversation with several authors about language and awards lists in YA fiction. One author shared her story of how she decided to remove the eight swear words she’d included in her book after a discussion with her editor, because she worried those words would make her ineligible for some awards lists. This got me thinking a lot about language, maturity, and awards in YA.

As a librarian, I’m very familiar with requests for “clean” reads, a term I strongly dislike, because everyone defines “clean” differently. For some it means no sex, but swearing is okay. For others, “clean” means anything beyond a couple holding hands is out. But no matter what “clean” means to the reader (or more often, the reader’s parent/guardian), it’s clear that there’s a demand for tamer books without strong language. But does having a few f-bombs or a sex scene that doesn’t fade to black mean a book isn’t well-written or worthy of recognition? In my opinion, no. Different books are right for different readers, but being more mature doesn’t detract from a book’s quality — or it’s “rightness” for a set of readers, albeit a different set than those asking for “clean” reads.

I haven’t studied local or state-level lists, but looking at the 2016 Printz Award and the BFYA (Best Fiction for Young Adults), both issued by YALSA, I’m pleased to see that mature content hasn’t kept great books from being recognized. Interestingly, I don’t recall any swearing in Printz Honor book Out of Darkness, though I would never give it to a reader looking for something “clean.” This is a brilliant book, but very mature — without giving too much away, I’ll just say that there’s racism, violence, and sexual assault. And other dark reads like Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not made the BFYA list. I read this book a while ago, and I don’t remember if it has any swearing, but there is other language that some readers could find offensive (such as the characters’ constant disclaimer, “No homo.”)

As a writer, I set out to tell my story as best I can, regardless of language or maturity. I don’t write things for the sake of writing them, but if a situation warrants a swear word, and my character is the kind of person who would swear in that situation, then I’ll have that character swear. I imagine this means I’ll have some tough conversations and soul searching when I start working with an editor. But seeing more mature content in some of the big award winners gives me hope that I can find a way to stay true to my story and still have a shot at those awards.

What are your thoughts on content and awards? Do you censor yourself in hopes that you’ll reach a wider audience?

Youth Media Awards 2016

yma-logo-white-467In my head, I was going to post a poignant reflection on the Youth Media Awards​, announced yesterday morning. But hours later, I’m still struggling to come up with something. Do I celebrate one of my favorite books winning the Morris Award? Brag that back in June, when I first read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, I said it should get the Morris? Do I lament that despite all the attention it received before yesterday, I kept pushing Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap down on my to-read list? (That and Out of Darkness are up next now, because the Printz is the award I would most want to win as a writer, and I like to study the masters.) Do I share the story about the one time I met Margaret E. Edwards Award winner David Levithan and could not form a coherent sentence? (Normally I’m more composed. I blame high blood sugar — it was Pi Day. And of course as soon as I walked away I thought of all the questions I wanted to ask him about Two Boys Kissing.)

I don’t have any earth-shattering thoughts or conclusions this year. All I have is a lineup of new reads and listens, a host of authors, illustrators, and voice artists to congratulate, and a slight buzz from watching the webcast of a room full of youth librarians celebrating great stories.

If you want to learn more about the YMAs, or see a list of this year’s winners, check out the press release.

How I keep up with the latest YA books

Browsing for books.

Photo by flickr user MarLeah Cole

My careers as both a librarian and a YA writer require me to keep up with the latest books coming out. I need to be able to recommend books to readers with varying tastes, and I need to know what’s being published both within and outside my genre so I can identify comp titles and make sure what I’m writing is selling. (This is not me telling you to write to trends, but if you’re writing a contemporary YA your characters need to look, act, and talk like today’s teens. Reading the books they’re reading is just one way to make sure you’re on track.)

I use a number of sources to develop collections, improve my reader’s advisory skills, and cultivate my to-read list. Here are my favorites. If I’ve missed a source you like, please share it in the comments!

YALSA’s The Hub — contributors regularly post book lists related to a range of genres and topics, including read alikes for popular movies, TV shows, and video games. Recommendations also include graphic novels and audiobooks. And for those trying to stay up on tween and teen pop culture, they’ve started posting about things of interest to teens beyond the books.

Teen Librarian Toolbox — this is hands-down my favorite librarian blog. There is so much useful information here related to teen programs and technology, but the contributors also regularly discuss MG and YA books. Karen shares her teenaged daughter’s reactions to books (many of them pre-pub ARCs), and Amanda shares the reviews she writes for School Library Journal. Their book lists on tough topics are fantastic, and their reviews are consistently insightful and honest. If I’m thinking of reading a book and see it recommended here, it immediately jumps to the top of my to-read list. And if a review on TLT points out something problematic in a book, I’ll try to find a similar book that doesn’t have those issues to recommend when teens come looking for that type of story.

Reading While White — examines diversity in children’s and teen books, with the authors admitting up front that they are reviewing these works from a position of privilege. This is another place where, if a book gets a good review, it jumps up my to-read list.

Professional journals — my library subscribes to Library JournalSchool Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly (among others). The reviews in these journals, as well as the genre spotlights, are useful when trying to decide whether to purchase or read a new book.

Publications by Baker & Taylor — these technically fall under professional journals as well, but they include a wider selection than the publications mentioned above. My library (and many other libraries) orders new materials through Baker & Taylor, and the company publishes lists of all the items they’ll be selling in various genres/categories. Common Core and Growing Minds are a good source of MG and YA titles, and CATS Series helps me stay up-to-date on new books in a series.

Adventures in YA Publishing — this blog highlights new books published every week, in addition to author interviews, and writing tips and contests for those who write as well as read YA. I used to follow this more closely, but I’ve found that most of the books mentioned on AYAP are already on my radar.

Other sources:

Twitter — I follow a lot of publishers, librarians, and authors, and if everybody’s talking about a book, I make note of it.

Word of mouth — if any of my writer or librarian colleagues recommend a book, I try to keep the title in the back of my head even if it sounds like something that wouldn’t interest me, because every book has its reader.

Shelf Awareness — this company publishes daily newsletters both for readers and for industry professionals (librarians, booksellers, and publishers). Both newsletters cover all genres and categories, with the focus more on adult titles, but they do review some children’s and YA books.

Early Word — if there’s any big news in the reading world — a famous author passes away or announces a new book, a book gets picked up for adaptation to a film or TV series, a debut author is predicted to be a big name — Early Word will have it.

Those are my main sources for finding new books. What are yours?