YA Lit Symposium: YA Realness – What Makes Contemporary Realism Feel True to Readers?

YALSA_LitSymposium2014I began the first full day at the 2014 Young Adult Literature Symposium with a session that perfectly suited this year’s “Keeping It Real” theme.  Titled “YA Realness: What Makes ‘Contemporary Realism’ Feel True To Readers?” this Saturday morning session featured a self-moderated panel of established authors discussing a range of topics related to contemporary realistic fiction for young adults, including the genre’s authenticity, controversial topics, writing craft, and continued appeal to teens.

In many cases, a panel without a formal moderator could go horribly wrong, but the excellent crew of authors in this particular session instead created a casual and very thoughtful conversation about many aspects of contemporary realism. Matt de la Pena, Coe Booth, Sara Zarr, Sara Ryan, and Jo Knowles are all authors well-known for their varied, popular, and critically acclaimed works of contemporary realistic fiction written for and about young adults.

ya realness panel 2014
My sadly grainy shot of the excellent author panel in action!

lucy_variationsSara Zarr started the session off  by getting right to the most basic but unavoidable question: “How do you define ‘contemporary realism?”  She broke the ice by offering her own, excellent definition of the genre as a story that takes place more or less in the present in which nothing happens that could not feasibly happen in our world and nothing occurs that might violate the space-time continuum.  The other panelists chimed in, mentioning their emphases on honesty, emotional truth, and grittiness.  Matt de la Pena shared his usual response to questions concerning his preference for realistic fiction over fantasy: “I am so infatuated with the real world that I don’t go there [to supernatural creatures, etc.] creatively….you all have great stories in your lives, you just think they’re normal.”

From there the conversation continued to flow, touching on the definition of literature and shifting to a discussion of writers’ individual viewpoints affecting their work.  Coe Booth stated that she is interested in “what my book is saying about this time and place” while Matt de la Pena expressed his belief that “writers are at their best when they have a point of view,” going on to explain that he views novels as having both a plot (what the story is about) and a deeper meaning (what the story is really about).  The other authors discussed the idea that writers often have specific issues, life experiences, topics, and themes that reoccur throughout their bodies of work; they all felt that their particular points of view bleed through the varjumping off swingsied stories they choose to tell.

This conversation naturally moved to the fact that contemporary realistic young adult fiction is often considered controversial and frequently faces challenges or other censorship-related issues.  As Jo Knowles queried, why is reality so controversial in young adult and children’s fiction? 

Responses offered included:

  • Sara Zarr returned to an early discussion about the panel’s interest in writing realistic (rather than fantasy or speculative fiction) and mentioned the frequent use of monsters (such as vampires) as a way to externalize the real monsters–she cited Joss Whedon and Buffy The Vampire Slayer as an example.  In realistic fiction the monsters are human–and that can be much more frightening & disturbing.
  • Sara Ryan mentioned the continued popular (but generally false) perception that the role of  books for youth is to teach morals and noted that those who object to some realistic fiction books might be wishing for a “suspension of disbelief about reality.”
  • Jo Knowles answered her own question by stating that she notices a clear gap “between what teens want to read and what their parents want them to read.

Sara Ryan then posed a question about authenticity in contemporary realism, leading to an excellent discussion between Coe Booth and Matt de la Pena about their different processes for determinimexican white boyng the most effective & honest balance of authentic language in their novels.  Matt shared his instinct to “calibrate” authenticity and his efforts to find the right amount of Spanish to include in several of his novels while Coe discussed her firm insistence on maintaining the language patterns, grammar, and vocabulary specific to the Bronx setting & culture portrayed  in stories like her debut novel, Tyrell.  


Issues surrounding authenticity were a major theme as they panel returned to topic later, touching further on concerns about cultural appropriation.  All of the authors emphasized that writing about a character or world outside their own experiences & identities (especially in terms of race, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.) was a challenge and one that must be approached with care–and a great deal of intense research.  Coe Booth, however, added the critical insight that sometimes when a story is told by someone outside a particular identity or community, the publishing world then leaves no room for writers within that identity or community to publish their stories.    

Before opening up for audience questions, the panel discussed a range of related topics including the lack of complex adult characters and realistic relationships between teens & adults in young adult fiction, the appeal of contemporary realism fiction without a romantic relationship, and their own acknowledged failures or struggles in writing.

The audience’s questions provoked conversations about the lack of coverage of still taboo topics like abortion, the challenge of writing fiction that feel contemporary but avoids becoming dated within a few years, teens’ continued attraction to ‘sad books,’ and the recent rash of big screen adaptations of young adult fiction.

Near the end, the authors were also challenged to name books that pushed them to rethink or change their views on life.  Titles mentioned included The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Drown by Junot Diaz.

For more information, investigate the #yalit14 hashtag on Twitter or investigate any of the featured author’s websites and/or Twitter feeds!

-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Tankborn by Karen Sandler and Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

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Kelly Dickinson

I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.