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Arrested Development?

Young-at-heart Austin is home to a booming Young Adult literature scene

By Melanie Haupt, Fri., Dec. 24, 2010

Forever Young Adult's Sarah Pitre (l) and Jenny Bragdon
Forever Young Adult's Sarah Pitre (l) and Jenny Bragdon
Photo by John Anderson

Read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize series, and you may never look at those Con­gress Avenue bats the same way again. In 2007, the series' first book followed the exploits of 17-year-old Quincie, a riff on the strapping Texan dude in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The story is densely populated by werewolves, vampires (Quincie helps her uncle run a vampire-themed restaurant in Austin, complete with a vampire head chef who specializes in blood sausage), evil undead queens, fallen angels, and wereopossums. The third book, Blessed, sees recently vamped Quincie and the angel Zachary on a mission to defeat the power-hungry chef as he assumes the position of Dracula Prime.

It's fitting that this story takes place in Austin, Leitich Smith's home and, as she puts it, "a brilliant juxtaposition of ex- and next-gen hippies, good-time Bubbas, urban cowboys, hikers, bikers, college students, ... casual techies, world-class academics, the old guard, dot-com money, and just enough button-down types to keep the 'Dillos running on time."

In many ways, the wedding of Victorian gothic to Austin's buzzing eclecticism within the context of Young Adult literature – itself a crazy amalgam of genres – is the perfect metaphor for the town itself. And it just so happens that Austin is a literary hotbed for the production and consumption of YA fiction. Austin and YA lit offer something for everyone, from dark, paranormal romances featuring werearmadillos to powerfully realistic portrayals of Southern racism during the Civil Rights movement.

After Anne of Green Gables

Forget about plucky babysitters, globe-trotting blue jeans, and toothsome blond twins. Forget about butterbeer-swilling wizard youth and those damn sparkly vampires. Hell, forget about the Greasers and Socs or learning how to navigate the uniquely terrifying world of sanitary napkins that you read about when you were a kid. These days, teen lit is all about vampires, zombies, angels, and unicorns, but it's also about hate crimes, homosexuality, rape, and dystopian nightmares.

And yet, despite the weightiness of the issues, YA lit is currently enjoying a heyday it hasn't seen since the 1970s, when S.E. Hin­ton, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier (author of The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese) dominated the teen literature landscape with their narrative ponderings on class, identity, violence, and sexual awakening. The difference is that back then, it was mostly just young people reading those books. Today, teens and grownups alike devour YA titles like a kid goes through candy on Halloween night.

Some pinpoint the Harry Potter phenomenon as the defining moment in which middle-school readers, teens, and their parents started reading the same thing. Others point to Twilight as the bellwether of the YA surge among both kids and adults; those who don't want to credit Stephenie Meyer's bloated, poorly edited epic series for the explosion point out other titles in the contemporary YA canon. "I'd say 2006, the year Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party came out, was a watershed year," says Vicky Smith, children's editor at Kirkus Reviews. "Suddenly the world seemed to realize what YA-literature specialists have known for a long time: There's some amazing, mind-bending writing going on for teens."

In the past decade, YA literature has seen a blossoming of subgenres, from steampunk, of which Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan is the exemplar, to gothic historical romance (Jane Eagland's Wildthorn); meanwhile, manga, imported from Japan, has exploded on the heels of the mid-Nineties popularity of Sailor Moon.

Says John Sellers, Children's Reviews editor at Publishers Weekly: "Paranormal books, in every permutation imaginable – from vampires to zombies to werewolves to angels to demons – continue to dominate the YA section, as they have for the last few years. The dystopian genre, which got a big boost from the success of The Hunger Games, is also very strong, again with writers trying to carve out niches, whether it's environmental cataclysms, totalitarian governments, or seemingly utopian futuristic societies."

In other words, we've come a long way since Little Women, baby.

ATX Export Goods

The Young Adult @ Heart book club convenes at Cherrywood Coffeehouse.
The Young Adult @ Heart book club convenes at Cherrywood Coffeehouse.
Photo by John Anderson

In the late 1990s, a number of ascendant young writers founded the Austin chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which now serves as the hub of the small, close-knit community of children's and YA authors populating this literary hot spot. Leitich Smith, an original member of this scene, recalls those nascent days when the local YA scene began to coalesce: "While there were already working authors in Austin, this centralized the scene.

"As a Native author, I often joke that it's the tribe of my heart. But I'm not really kidding, and it's really not just my heart. These are the people I turn to when I want to talk about a story snag. But they also offer career and daily life support. I do my best to return in kind. Everyone is welcome in the conversation, valued as a colleague, and appreciated as a friend."

Among this tribe are the Delacorte Dames and Dude, who learned via a SCBWI meeting that they were all published by Delacorte Press, a division of Random House. These six writers, including Bethany Hegedus, who recently relocated to Austin from New York in order to be a part of this vibrant scene, meet regularly to focus on the professionalization aspects of their writing careers. The DDDs often appear at book-release events as a package deal.

"Austin is teeming with talent!" gushes Kirkus Reviews' Vicky Smith. "And it's not just writers. One of the coolest things I did as part of the [Texas Book Festival] was live Twitter coverage of the Zombies vs. Unicorns event, and the place was packed with engaged, excited readers. It was really heartening to see so many teen readers turn out for it."

Curated by Kimberly Whitmer, a graduate student in information studies at the University of Texas, Zombies vs. Unicorns pitted 17 popular YA authors, including Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Scott Westerfeld, and Justine Larbalestier (Liar), against one another on either Team Unicorn or Team Zombie in support of the recently released short-story anthology, Zombies vs. Unicorns. Authors had to argue the virtues of their given teams extemporaneously ("Unicorns sparkle like Edward Cullen!" "Zombies love you for your brains!") in the first round, then design mascots for their teams in the second. Team Unicorn won the audience's heart and loyalty, not to mention rabid interest in future events of its kind at the Texas Book Festival.

The event's success was not lost on the festival's literary director, Clay Smith. "YA events for us are always harder to do than adult events. Even the YA panels are harder because you don't really know who's going to come in. We ultimately hope that teens are going to our YA events, because ultimately that's whom those events are meant for. We don't really care, as long as the room is full, but you just don't know whom you're planning it for. You're programming in the dark. Teenagers won't come to events with the word 'teen' in the title."

Don't tell that to the Austin Teen Book Festival, a one-day event held at Westlake High School; the inaugural festival was just last fall, but there was presumably enough interest to inspire a second, which took place on Oct. 2 of this year. The purpose of the festival is to connect teens with YA authors, most notably this year's keynote speaker, Ellen Hopkins, whose Crank series was inspired by her daughter's addiction to crystal meth. Hopkins was at the center of a firestorm this summer when she was disinvited from participating in the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas, due to the controversial nature and content of her novels. After the invitation was revoked, all the other participating authors (a number of whom attended the Austin festival) pulled out, and the event had to be canceled. Meanwhile, young readers and their grownups traveled from all over the state to attend Austin's fledgling event.

The success of events like Zombies vs. Unicorns and the Teen Book Festival only serves to underscore what people in the publishing industry already know: Austin's YA literature community is becoming too important to overlook.

BookPeople and Book People

Of course, no conversation about Austin's literary scene is complete without mention of our formidable independent bookstore. "For authors doing major national book tours, it's almost a given that they'll be stopping in Austin, especially since BookPeople is such a major player," says John Sellers of Publishers Weekly. "I think the store's influence is pretty clear, having launched the latest Wimpy Kid book recently, not to mention its hugely successful literary day camps based on the Percy Jackson and Ranger's Apprentice series."

In addition to being the primary resource for nearly all of the major YA and children's book-release events in town, BookPeople also plays host to one of the small-but-growing number of book clubs dedicated to YA literature. The Not Just Another Teen Book Club, facilitated by Madeline Smoot, is only a few months old but has already evolved into a tiny community of avid readers, girls ages 14-16, two of whom travel from Waco for the monthly meetings. The girls' interests are surprising: "The fantasies and non-issue realistic novels are the ones they all want. I can't even get them to take free historicals," says Smoot. "Between school, activities, and their studies, they don't have a lot of time to read, so for now they prefer more escapist literature."

Two branches of the Austin Public Library also host teen book clubs (www.connectedyouth.org/teen_bookclub.cfm). Children Services librarian Elizabeth Murphy facilitates the four-year-old Yarborough Branch Library group, which is 10-15 members strong and meets monthly; Murphy draws the club's selections from a complicated matrix of what's hot, best-of lists, classics like The Outsiders, and the Texas Library Association's Lone Star Reading List, among others. The group, comprising youth from Central Austin and homeschoolers from bedroom communities like Lago Vista and Buda, also skews heavily female but boasts three boys who attend regularly. Murphy observes that while the older girls have moved on to adult novels and classics, their tastes do still incorporate the darker, romantic titles, such as Shiver, a Twilight knock­off about a poetry-reading werewolf-boy in love with a curious girl. "The younger girls and guys say, 'Too depressing!' They like fantasy," says Murphy. "The fact that teen literature is so intertwined with popular culture now makes it much easier to keep teens coming to a library book club. I thank Twilight and its sequels for giving the Yarborough book club a good start."

Michelle Beebower, Teen Services librarian at the University Hills Branch Library, leads a very different teen book group on the Eastside. Her core group of five or six teens is mostly male and all Hispanic. Beebower initially had to use free pizza to entice potential attendees to the book group meetings, but her core group has come consistently for two years running, free chow notwithstanding. "What has been very heartwarming for me is that I have had kids move away, but they still come back for programs even if it means riding the bus!" she says. "So I also have kids from Del Valle and Central East Austin as well."

The University Hills teens tend to prefer darker themes. "My teens definitely gravitate towards death and violence, being trapped by society and the end of the world," Beebower explains. "The kids really like the dark stuff. But we've had some amazing and sometimes scary philosophical discussions about how all of these things translate into the real world."

This collection of teen-lit book groups and the titles and themes they are attracted to raises a sticky question, the answer to which might rely heavily on gender, race, and class stereotypes: What do readers look for in YA literature? What is behind its staggering popularity? The easy answer is that literature – and here I mean all literature – is a place in which an author, and by extension a culture, negotiates the zeitgeist. More locally, it is a site in which a reader can negotiate his or her own zeitgeist, which is cause for reflection in any city that cares about its youth.

Arrested Development?

That said, the common denominator among most YA lit titles is the story of growing up, whether you're a smart girl's brain in a supermodel's body (see Meg Cabot's Airhead series) or a preacher's son in Virginia in love with a bad girl who resists being reformed (see Varian Johnson's Saving Maddie). And it's a trope so readily identifiable that its appeal is ageless in more ways than one. Johnson, the sole Dude among the Delacorte Dames, agrees: "I do think the themes prevalent in most YA novels transcend age. The protagonists in YA novels struggle with so many issues – their beliefs, their place in the world, themselves – that resonate with both teens and adults. Personally, I love the classic 'coming of age' feel of a YA novel, where the main character is discovering who he is and who he wants to be, and I'd guess that a lot of adult readers like the same type of books."

Varian Johnson
Varian Johnson

Says Vicky Smith: "Being a teenager is largely about becoming an adult, isn't it? [If] teens and adults are on a spectrum, it's not really surprising that both teens and adults find themselves fulfilled by the same books, regardless of the audience publishers apply to them. People who have passed that developmental stage don't lose their fascination with what it was like to move from childhood through young adulthood to adulthood, which, I think, is another reason books for teens are crossing over to adult audiences."

Take, for example, the Young Adult @ Heart book club (www.yaatheart.com), founded by Becky Kapes Osmon, who found her previous book club struggling with the slog of capital-"L" literature. An English major and lifelong reader, Osmon realized that she was drawn to YA literature and that she and her friends found themselves reading and recommending titles from within the field again and again. So Osmon and her husband made it official about a year ago; the group, which has grown by word of mouth, now boasts a membership of about 30 people, about half of whom attend the monthly meetings at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. The group draws its selections from both contemporary works (the discussion of Mockingjay, trilogy capper of The Hunger Games, published in August, drew record numbers) and classics like The Chocolate War. Osmon, who has a YouTube channel devoted to her video reviews of Nancy Drew mysteries (www.youtube.com/nancydrewreviews), thinks that YA lit offers adults the opportunity to hash out tricky topics. "As an adult, I really appreciate the way that YA handles what I would consider more adult issues like sexuality, consumerism, war; the take on them is different from the way adult fiction would cover it. It's more plot-driven, but it also really shows that even within the scope of these huge issues, people can still be hopeful and transform on a personal level."

Clay Smith agrees. "I don't think there's a lot of other portals for that. Even for adults, because our media has become so sort of slapdash but also antipodal. It's either this way or that way, not a lot of gray areas. YA literature really wrestles with that stuff in a topical, emotional way, that someone who is an adult literary fiction writer may not do."

Or, as a lay reader might put it, sometimes you just want a narrative without all the postmodern navel-gazing, and sometimes you want to indulge your inner OMG! – which is where Forever Young Adult comes in.

Never Grow Up

In the summer of 2009, local blogger Sarah Pitre decided to launch a blog solely dedicated to her love of YA literature, namely out of a desire to find other consenting adults with whom to discuss her latest reads rather than foisting discussions onto her friends and loved ones. Realizing that she couldn't take on this project by herself, she recruited her friend Jenny Bragdon, a fellow lover of YA lit, to contribute. Thus, www.foreveryoungadult.com was born.

"We like talking about YA, and while I think that intellectual discussion of it is awesome, that's not how we talk about it at a bar," explains Pitre. "So I wanted to replicate what the conversation feels like when Jenny and I are hanging out, having cocktails, and talking about The Hunger Games."

Forever Young Adult, written by Pitre, Bragdon, and two others, is peppered with breezy breakdowns of YA titles old and new, from Flowers in the Attic to hot-off-the-presses titles like Rosebush by Michele Jaffe (released Dec. 7). Reviews take the form of "book reports" and rate novels on the following rubric: "bff charm" (is the character likable and worthy of sitting with at lunch?), "swoonworthy scale" (Edward is totes a 10), "talky talk" (does the author successfully capture the authentic teenage voice? If so, he or she is "2 legit 2 quit"), with bonus points for cool best friends or art nerds. Each book report wraps up with a declaration of relationship status ("Secret Boyfriend," "Going Steady"); successful, deeply affecting books might rate an "ILU4LIFE," while others merely rate "booty call."

The playful, irreverent tone of Forever Young Adult is emblematic of the balancing act the adult consumer of YA literature performs, enjoying teenage angst from the safe remove of adulthood while taking genuine pleasure in the cultural product. "I wanted it to be a place where we could be frank about enjoying the sex in a book or enjoying anything that might get a book banned," says Pitre. "We hope we earn people's trust, because there is a lot of YA out there and we see it as our role to guide readers toward books that are really worth reading."

"That's our biggest mission," adds Bragdon, "to promote well-written books that happen to be in the YA genre."

What better place to explore YA lit, both as a YA and a regular A than in Austin, which itself could be read as a YA genre? Here, you never have to grow up, even if only within the pages of a book.

Further Reading

Sarah Pitre and Jenny Bragdon (Forever Young Adult) recommend:

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr. Says Bragdon: "It is so beautifully melancholy. Just such an amazingly well-written story that makes you want to go back and re-read the passage you just read because it was just so beautiful."

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Says Pitre: "Probably one of the most feminist YA books out there right now."

Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. Says Pitre: "A dystopian trilogy that is an allegory for the overload of information in our society, terrorism, and war. Succeeds where The Hunger Games failed."

Becky Kapes Osmon (Young Adult @ Heart) recommends:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. "A story about a little girl in Nazi Germany told from the point of view of Death, this is the book I recommend for people who say YA is frivolous."

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. "Two great authors tell intersecting stories about teenage boys with the same name, which sounds gimmicky, but the result is beyond charming and surprisingly moving."

Arrested Development?

The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld. "Set in a futuristic high tech world where everyone becomes stunningly pretty at 16, this series is action-packed and whip-smart, with one of my favorite YA protagonists of all time."

Liar by Justine Larbalestier. "The book we come back to discussing at almost every meeting – not only suspenseful and completely engrossing, but it's a crash course in reading critically."

My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson. "An authentic, funny, and heartfelt story about teenage pregnancy that never gets preachy, narrated by one of the most realistic teenage voices I've ever seen in print."

Locavore Lit

Check out some of Austin's YA authors and their most recent (or upcoming) titles:

Shana Burg, A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte Press, 2008)

Christine Rose, Rowan of the Wood (Dalton Publishing, 2008)

Jacqueline Kelly, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Henry Holt, 2009)

John Gosselink, The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter (Amulet Books, 2010)

Bethany Hegedus, Truth With a Capital T (Delacorte Press, 2010)

Varian Johnson, Saving Maddie (Delacorte Press, 2010)

April Lurie, The Less-Dead (Delacorte Press, 2010)

Chris Barton, Can I See Your ID?: True Stories of False Identities (Dial Press, 2011)

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Blessed (Candlewick, 2011)

Margo Rabb, Mad, Mad Love (Delacorte Press, 2011)

Jennifer Ziegler, Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte Press, 2011)

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