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Blurred Genres: Collapsing Boundaries and the Changing Landscape of Young Adult Literature

Helen Frost, Scott Westerfeld, and A.S. King in glowing glasses at the 2012 YA Literature Symposium

While there’s some debate about the actual number (1? 3? 7? 36?), most people agree: there are only so many kinds of stories, just different ways of telling them. Same with genres: there’s a finite number. That is, until you start mixing them up. Then the possibilities are endless.

At YALSA’s 2012 Young Adult Literature Symposium, Teri Lesesne and Rosemary Chance shared some recent young adult novels that transcend traditional genres. Then three young adult authors whose books don’t neatly fit into any one genre discussed their writing process and why they write outside and across traditional categories of literature.

When biographies meet graphic novels, readers get books like My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf, the story of the famed serial killer written by a childhood acquaintance and Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, the intertwined coming-of-age stories of the daughters of James Joyce and the his biographer. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shephard by Lesléa Newman is a book in poetry that tells the story of the horrific hate crime and introduces Matthew Shepard’s legacy to a new generation. These nonfiction titles will appeal to teen readers because of their unique formats.

Re-tellings and re-envisionings provide fertile ground for genres to cross-pollinate. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, while ostensibly about magic and dragons, also makes fun of corporate greed. Fairy tales are ripe for re-mixing, and Cinder by Marissa Meyer, a sci-fi story with Cinderella as a cyborg, is a perfect example of how these traditional tales can be reinvented by the addition of elements from unexpected genres.

Storytelling is also taking on new forms that are more than just text in books like Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony. This novel reads like a scrapbook, with newspaper clippings and photographs moving the plot along.

After sharing these eclectic and imaginative titles, the presenters opened the floor to the authors. Helen Frost writes novels in poetry (not verse). She discussed how poetry demands a different kind of attention than prose, that it forces us to “think soft, not hard.” Her use of language invites us to examine the history of words and grammatical structure. She read examples of her work from The Braid, a story of two sisters, Sarah and Jeannie. One leaves their home in Scotland for Canada, but takes a piece of her sister’s braid with her. She explained how her structure is actually based on the patterns of celtic knots. The end word of lines of Sarah’s poet becomes the first line of Jeannie’s poem, a literal braid. The structure, as much as the words, mirrors each sister’s experience and connects them across the ocean, which both binds and separates them. Frost’s next novel is Salt, an untangling of the history of the removal of Indians in 1812, and is due out in 2013.

A.S. King spoke on her writing experience. She said that 15 years of writing before being published left her with no pressure to think about trends or genres. She “believe[s] anything is possible” and thinks that’s a problem, but fans of her work will argue that it’s her strength. King blends together elements of magic into her realistic stories. “Freedom” is the only genre she’s ever wanted. Though King’s latest novel, Ask the Passengers, seems like a contemporary coming-of-age story about a young girl who sends love to the passengers of the planes flying overhead, readers can expect hints of the fantastical.

Scott Westerfeld writes for young people because they are still open to blurred genres. They are “promiscuous” readers who will dabble in a bit of anything so long as it captures their interest. Unlike adults (except librarians … we don’t count), who will say “I only read historical romance” or “I only read crime fiction” or “I only read John Grisham novels,” teens haven’t firmly entrenched themselves in one genre. Westerfeld used The Hunger Games as an example: it’s not just a dystopian. It’s also a novel of elimination, a survival story, a romance with a love triangle; it’s science fiction; it’s a gladiator story. Genres are comforting because we have expectations about how the plot will go. Breaking down the boundaries between them can be exciting because there is the capacity for surprise, and as a writer, is an excuse to break the rules. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, an alternate history of WWI with steampunk technology and genetically modified beasts that is accompanied by illustrations, certainly blurs the distinction between science fiction and historical works.

The theme of the 2012 Young Adult Literature Symposium was “the next big thing” in YA. If the work of Helen Frost, A.S. King, and Scott Westerfeld, as well as the other books discussed by the presenters are any indication, we can expect to see more titles for young adult literature to defy categorization and inventive new ways of telling stories.

— Molly Wetta, currently reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell