Advice to Writers: What We’re Looking for at AW Teen

We’re looking for books for teens. What makes YA different from middle-grade fiction—or, for that matter, adult stuff? It’s not just in the age of the character—there’s difference between a coming-of-age novel that’s written for an adult audience and YA novel. YA is about being a teenager, not about looking back on the experience. YA is about the moments when teens decide what kind of adults they’re going to become.

We’re looking for stories that are fresh. Who isn’t, right? But with such a small list—only 2 to 3 titles a season—we’re not looking to chase trends. A paranormal romance novel may feel “of the moment” right now, but it probably won’t be the case in Spring 2014 (and yes, we’re planning at least that far in advance). All the same, YA is such an exciting category these days, with plenty genre-bending and innovation, and often it’s these original approaches that lead the trends.  Instead of worrying about which subgenres in vogue, think about how those “hot” approaches serve the reader. For instance, what are kids getting out of reading dystopian novels? How might teens relate to paranormal romance as a metaphor for their own relationships? Once you start thinking in these terms, the possibilities for new approaches are endless.

We’re not looking for books about “issues.” Whitman is known for picture books about the tough things that kids deal with, and we’re bringing that commitment to the teen line as well. As Michelle, our marketing director, put it: “Our picture books provide answers; our YA books ask questions.”  Here’s another way to look at the difference: while many of our “issues” picture books fill specific topical needs for kids and their families, our YA books are for teen readers who first and foremost need strong, memorable stories. When I read a story about a fifteen-year-old girl who is struggling with homelessness or a mood disorder, I need to know her for who she is, not her predicament.

If you’re of a certain generation, you may remember those “after-school specials“—movies for kids about Important Topics, like drug addiction, suicide, and eating disorders. Does anyone remember the characters in those movies? (Aside from their 80s hair and sweaters, I mean.) Not really—we just remember the topic. The sad irony is that some of those after-school specials were adapted from great teen and middle-grade novels and turned into Movies About Drug Addiction, Suicide, and Eating Disorders. But I don’t want to read novel about Drug Addiction Kid for the sake of a message any more than I want to read a novel about Vampire Kid for the sake of a trend.

What about “edgy” stuff? If I’m reading a great story, I don’t care how edgy it is, or isn’t. It’s as simple as that. If you truly feel like your novel needs to “go there” (there being anything from language to sexuality), then by all means go there. Otherwise, don’t worry: what I just said about Drug Addiction Kid and Vampire Kid goes for Edgy Kid too.

We’re looking for great stories. Period.

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Advice to Writers: What We’re Looking for at AW Teen