The Next Big Thing: Contemporary/Realistic Fiction

YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.

There is no “next big thing” in contemporary YA fiction.

Contemporary YA fiction has always been around.

It has always been the next big thing because it is the always-constant, the always-there, the always. It is the bread and butter of YA fiction because it is the essence of what the teenage experience is. It’s happy. It’s dark. It’s tough. It’s romantic. It’s mysterious.

Contemporary YA fiction is teen life.

Looking through this year’s Best Fiction for Young Adults nominations showcases these highs and lows of adolescence. There are stories of cancer survival and endurance and even non-survival in Jesse Andrews’s Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Morgan Matson’s Second Chance Summer. There’s the experience of breaking free from a religious cult in Joelle Anthony’s The Right & The Real and one girl’s struggle with not only self-harm but also a taboo relationship with her teacher in Ilsa J. Bick’s Drowning Instinct.

There are stories about teens who are coming back from military service or are grappling with what serving in war means for themselves or their loved ones in Trish Doller’s Something Like Normal, Harry Mazer’s Somebody Please Tell Me Who I Am, and Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down. Teens wrestle with the meaning of life and death and grief in books such as Carol Lynch Williams’s Waiting, Jo Knowles’s See You At Harry’s, and Marcella Pixley’s Without Tess.

Siobhan Vivian’s The List gives us insight into the everyday experiences of eight girls figuring out what it means to be pretty or ugly — if it means anything at all — and Blythe Woolston’s Catch & Release explores whether a disease that leaves you physically marred changes the core of who you are. It touches on friendship, too, much like Matthew Quick’s Boy21 and M. Molly Backes’s The Princesses of Iowa.

What about that feeling of falling head-over-heels in love for the first time? Or about exploring one’s sexuality? Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door, Jennifer Smith’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, and Madeline George’s The Difference Between You and Me plunge in, and Jackson Pearce’s Purity looks at sex, at promises, and at what it means to take ownership of your own body and decisions about it. Martha Schabas’s Various Positions treads these themes, too, threading them together with a storyline about a young dancer pursuing her dreams.

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin cuts to what it means to have secrets that haunt you and whether or not you can overcome them. Both Survive by Alex Morel and Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard showcase teens who wanted to end it all and yet found some reason to keep pushing forward. Life-changing realizations happen with an unexpected pregnancy in Beth Kephart’s Small Damages, and they happen when all of the neatly-laid plans following high school graduation are thrown askew in Nina LaCour’s The Disenchantments. Jacqueline Woodson’s Beneath a Meth Moon and The Children and the Wolves by Adam Rapp feature teens feeling out of sorts with themselves when they are caught up in drug use.

This only scratches the surface of the titles on the BFYA nomination list. Elizabeth Eulberg tackles friendship and the competitive theater life in Take a Bow; The Silence of Murder by Dandi Mackall takes on a courtroom reality with an autistic boy on trial for murder he may not have committed; and Nora Price’s Zoe Letting Go shares a tale of not just an eating disorder but also of grief, of loss, and of mental illness. Paul Volponi’s The Final Four and Jordan Sonnenblick’s Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip infuse their stories with a passion for athletics, as does Sarah Ockler’s Bittersweet, when a chance opportunity to glide back into skating propels the story forward.

Outside of these titles are a host of other contemporary titles this year tackling topics such as gastric bypass in Donna Cooner’s Skinny; bullying and obesity and the relationship between the two in Erin Jade Lange’s Butter; what it means to have a diagnosis of leukemia and continue living as if you simply don’t in Tiffany Schmidt’s Send Me A Sign; how to adapt when your grief-stricken sister — who you have told people doesn’t exist — re-enters your life in Anna Jarzab’s The Opposite of Hallelujah; accepting yourself as Gabe when you were really born Elizabeth and what it means to be more than transsexual in Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children; finding yourself and your passions through international travel in Kirsten Hubbard’s Wanderlove; and choosing how to help your alcoholic mother — as well as yourself — in Lara Zeitlin’s The Waiting Sky (with bonus tornado chasing). Sexuality is at the center of Elissa Hoole’s Kiss the Morning Star, and grief and redemption sing through Jessi Kirby’s In Honor. Both of these titles also feature a road trip built into the storyline.

Colleen Clayton takes on date rape in What Happens Next, and Martine Leavitt offers a sparse but painful portrayal of life as a child prostitute in My Book of Life by Angel. K.M. Walton takes on the bully and the bullied in Cracked, while Cory Jackson explores what happens when a girl keeps it a secret that her former boyfriend is gay and in the military in If I Lie. Margie Gelbwasser’s Pieces of Us dives straight to what it means to be sexual and how sexual power can be wielded for all the wrong reasons. Amy Reed offers up a deft and honest portrayal of bipolar disorder in Crazy, and Jennifer Brown’s road trip novel Perfect Escape shows just how tough it can be to live with a sibling who struggles with OCD.

Nothing in contemporary YA fiction is sacred. There are no topics too light nor too dark to dig into, nor should there be. Even topics that emerge again and again — things like cancer or depression or first love or friendship — are still new and fresh upon each telling. Teens live a million different experiences, and even when faced with similar challenges, each individual tackles it in his or her own unique manner.

This is why there is and never will be a “next big thing” in contemporary fiction. The only trend and the only prediction that can be made for reality is that teens live it each and every day, and having a robust selection of stories about real experiences is crucial. But it’s not simply about having them that matters — reading them and knowing about them is just as critical.

Contemporary is the core of YA fiction. It is what grounds genre fiction because the lived experience allows for building and understanding those stories outside of the real world. Contemporary fiction will never be a fad nor a trend. It will, of course, take on the topics in our everyday — expect to read more books about post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in relation to post-military service, stories about surviving hostage situations in schools and in other public institutions, and tales of heart-wrenching lust and longing for that seemingly unreachable guy or girl — but none of these topics are a flash in the pan.

They endure.

As long as adolescence will be a time of turbulence, of learning and discovery, of pain and excitement, and a time of passionate experiencing of every single thing, contemporary fiction will be relevant, important, and “the next big thing.”

— Kelly Jensen, currently reading The Sharp Time by Mary O’Connell and Live Through This by Mindi Scott in preparation for presenting on a panel about contemporary fiction at YALSA’s YA Lit Symposium

9 thoughts on “The Next Big Thing: Contemporary/Realistic Fiction”

  1. This is SUCH a fantastic post. I really love how many incredible books you included here. I couldn’t just read the post; I had to go back and forth to look up some of the books I hadn’t heard of. There have been so many amazing new releases this year — full of fantastic contemps. I love hard hitting, “issue” books and found several more to add to my TBR list that you listed. Thanks for this! :)

  2. HEAR HEAR! This post is spot-on, Kelly. Contemporary is so important because it reflects the world teens live in and helps them explore situations and find characters who are going through what they’re going through. There’s definitely a place for fantasy, sci-fi, and other genres, but there is also ALWAYS a need for contemporary realistic fiction (no matter what the chain bookstores with whole SECTIONS for teen paranormal romance would have you believe….!).

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