Why YA? An Interview with Kristen-Paige Madonia

A slew of articles came out this summer both for and against Young Adult literature. We talked with YA author, Kristen-Paige Madonia about her perspective on YA, and why, ultimately, it can (and certainly does) hold value for readers of all ages. And the timing couldn’t be better. Yesterday the National Book Foundation announced the longlist for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. And throughout the week we will hear the longlists for poetry, nonfiction, and fiction as well. Here is to a week of celebrating good writing!

Blue Mesa Review: In the Slate article that infamously came out against YA this summer, the author writes: “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” And she, of course, says that she is not even talking about the famously badly written YA books, like Twilight or Divergent, but the well-written books that some call “Young Adult Literary Fiction” (what the publishing industry is calling “Realistic YA.”) What is your response to this kind of outcry against YA?

Kristen-Paige Madonia: That article was so deflating, wasn’t it? For the whole industry. It was such a negative perspective, and I can’t help but wonder if the author was not quite as savvy about the genre as she should have been to make such a statement. In my opinion, the first goal, above all, is to encourage people of all ages to read more books, to expand their world view and expose themselves to new ideas through literature. If that process of engaging with the world through literature happens for you when reading dystopian or memoirs or crime fiction or Civil War biographies, who are we do judge? I believe there is nothing embarrassing about reading any kind of literature. You have to find the books that make you excited, that speak to you, that challenge you and teach you something, and it doesn’t matter what label they fall under. YA novels are books with young adult protagonists. That’s all. And when you visit the YA shelves in your indie store or your library or your favorite online shopping site, you’re going to encounter a HUGE array of story-lines, settings, and styles. And that is a beautiful thing. It’s one of the main reasons I write YA — because there is so much diversity lumped under the YA umbrella; I find that to be incredibly freeing and exciting as an author and a reader.

BMR: Why should adults, or people of all ages, read YA books?

KPM: In general, YA books tend to focus on young people coming-of-age — a character facing some kind of challenging circumstance, and, typically, finding a way to process that experience and overcome it in some way. There is so much appeal in those kinds of stories. The struggle and hope and growth. There are many elements of YA Lit that appeal to me, but the strongest is the voice — that honest and vulnerable voice of an adolescent wading through an experience after which their world will never look the same. It’s the sound of the characters that draw me to the work, the way they unpack their emotions on the page. My favorite YA books are hinged by a strong narrative voice, typically a first person point of view. Of course the story and setting matter a great deal as well, the structure and subplots and sidekicks, but it always comes back to a strong authentic voice. There is also a specific kind of energy in YA, a sense of urgency — that feeling that you want and need to read further. It comes from the voice, but it’s also an issue of pacing, something that I tend to focus on quite a bit in revision. There’s something to be said for that, for a well-paced novel with fully developed characters. I find a wonderful balance between character and story or plot in YA, and that’s not always the case in fiction labeled for adults.

BMR: Do you think, as the author of the Slate article does, that YA is replacing literary fiction in the lives of adult readers?

KPM: In an ideal world, the interest in YA will expand the lives of adult readers, not replace other kinds of books. Of course our time is limited, but I’m a firm believer that you need different kinds of books at different times in your life. We bring so much to the page as readers, and often what is happening in our own lives dictates what kinds of books we will connect with. So, no, I don’t think it’s replacing literary fiction. Much of YA is literary fiction. And my hope is that it is adding to a reader’s list, not bumping other books off the queue.

BMR: The genre distinction is relatively new. What, in your mind, makes a book YA? Why does the genre distinction even exist?

It’s simply a marketing issue. Yes, there are elements you will typically find in YA — a strong immediate voice, a sense of urgency, a cast of characters of a certain age, shorter chapters perhaps, short descriptive passages of setting versus long ones, less internal reflection… but when it comes down to it, it’s an issue of the business side of things, not the artistic side.

BMR: The writer Jen Doll has said, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.” Do you agree? If not, what do you think YA aims to do?

KPM: I like that, “aims to be pleasurable.” Though I do wonder about the wide range of ways to define pleasurable. For some readers, it may be defined as simple entertainment, but, in my own work at least, I’m always aiming for it to do more than just entertain. The best YA books introduce the reader to something new, to a new way of seeing the world, of engaging with our surroundings. I also think it provides a place for young readers to see themselves on the page and to recognize that they are not alone in their struggles. It fosters empathy and compassion for people that are different than you and that may be experiencing hardships you are not aware of, and it provides a safe place for young readers to be introduced to adult issues. YA novels provide a glimpse into the realities of impending adulthood, however dark that may be sometimes, and it helps equip teen readers for dealing with those realities.

BMR: You’ve written a lot of what could be termed “adult” or “literary” fiction as well. In fact, your debut novel, Fingerprints of You, was a crossover. Is your intent different when you knowingly are writing YA?

KPM: Yes and no. For a first draft, I do everything I can to wait as long as possible before thinking about who the audience may be. My goal is to write as freely and honestly as I can, and to keep the business side out of the work when drafting new material. That being said, I have published in both genres, and now, when I begin, it does become clear fairly early on where the work will fall. It’s an issue of point of view and distance, narrative voice and the age of the characters, so it’s often obvious which way it will go. But I hold my YA work to the same standard as my non-YA work, particularly at the sentence level. Character development, pacing, sensory descriptions, dialogue and theme — it should all be as strong as I can make it regardless of the audience. I fear we highly underestimate teen readers in general. They deserve difficult books, novels that challenge them in terms of content, theme, and language (and by that I mean style and vocabulary level, not profanity). They can and do think critically and are capable of understanding and processing so much more than we give them credit for. So I always aim to challenge the reader and to craft a beautiful sentence, a beautiful story, regardless of the intended audience.

Kristen-Paige Madonia is the author of INVISIBLE FAULT LINES (forthcoming Spring 2016 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) and FINGERPRINTS OF YOU (S&S BFYR, 2012). She was the 2012 D. H. Lawrence Fellow, and her short fiction has appeared in such publications as the Greensboro Review, Five Chapters, New Orleans Review, and American Fiction. She has received awards or fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the Key West Literary Seminar, Hambidge Center, Vermont Studio Center, Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, Millay Colony for the Arts, and the Studios of Key West. She holds an MFA from California State University, Long Beach and teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia, James Madison University, and the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.