Monday, November 21, 2016

Trends in YA Fiction: Changes afoot...?

"What's trending?" someone asked a panel of publishers, agents and editors at the Packaging Your Imagination (PYI) conference this past weekend in Toronto. Sitting at the front of the room were Red Deer publisher and editor, Peter Carver (moderating), editor Christine Harken of Clockwise Press, agent Barbara Berson of Helen Heller Agency, editor Suzanne Sutherland of Harper Collins, and Art Director Michael Solomon of Groundwood Books.

It was my last session of the day - and the fifth, including the morning keynote - in the same room. Lunch was a distant memory, and the drive home down the dark, rainy 401 was looming (after the upcoming final keynote, of course - yes, in the same room).

I admit it: I was fading.

We'd already heard about promoting your published book and how helpful agents can be when negotiating terms for your published book. Which is all great if you have a published book.

(I don't. Well, actually I do. Two of them. But it was so long ago, so I'm classified as "starting out" again. Agents, book promotion? I wish!)

But the question about trends made me sit up, and here's why:

Trends interest me. As a writer, I've done my research, checked out the lists of award-winning YA books and their publishers. I know what teens are reading and buying and taking out from the library and maybe even studying in school. Books like Eleanor and Park, or The Hunger Games, or We Are All Made of Molecules, or anything by John Green.

But, but... that's just not the kind of story I write. I'm constantly asking myself: Should I write for the market, or should I write for myself? My stories are different from those best-sellers. Less edgy and angsty, more - gentle.

So, back to the conference and the panel at the front of the (now very familiar) room:

"What's trending?"

The short answer was "Diversity". Not just cultural, ethnic diversity among authors and the stories they tell, but gender diversity as well. This comes as no surprise, of course, if we're in touch with the world around us. Kids reading about diversity is a good thing, even if the current YA lens is pretty darn dark...

But what did make me sit up even straighter was the comment by editor Suzanne Sutherland of Harper Collins - which drew nods from the others - that (I'm paraphrasing) given the length of time it takes to acquire, produce and release a book into the market, today's trend may not be around in a couple of years. Dinosaurs were mentioned at this point. Also wizards. And, of course, vampires.

The panel's observation gives me hope. Why? Because maybe change is in the air...

Maybe that manuscript I'm sending out to publishers RIGHT NOW is on the crest of a new wave. - a wave of gentler, subtler stories for thoughtful teens. Stories the reader has to work for, but is just as deeply engaging as the dark, edgy books showing up on many of the lists today.

Come on - there have to be readers out there who would prefer a string quartet to a heavy metal rock band. (Yes, my novel is about a musician. And a hockey player.) (Ok, a violent hockey player...)

That's the thing about trends. They do change. And they change because this is what readers want to read. In publisher-speak: this is what sells.

If the recent U.S. election showed us anything (oh, well, it showed us way too much, actually, but that's another story), it confirmed that young people are smart, aware and educating themselves about the world around them. (This wonderful piece by The Globe's Mark Kingwell, a philosophy professor, expresses how wrong it is to underestimate millennials, who were, of course, teenagers just a few years ago.)

As a writer, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that we are about to see the next trend in YA fiction creeping its way through the current manuscript submission process and making its presence known to all those acquisitions editors out there: gentler, well-written stories for engaged and thoughtful teens.

And not a dysfunctional family - or vampire - in sight.