Interview | YA authors Ally Condie and Tamora Pierce
In June, the Wall Street Journal published an article characterizing Young Adult literature as "rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity", which naturally caused quite a stir among teens, parents, teachers and authors. So when we heard that Anderson’s Bookshop would be hosting two popular YA authors this week, we thought it was a great opportunity to hear what they might have to say about the controversy.
I sat down with Ally Condie (Crossed, released November 1) and Tamora Pierce (Mastiff, released October 25) to talk about the state of YA literature, what teens get out of literature and what adults may have forgotten about adolescence.
In June, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon called “Darkness Too Visible,” which characterizes Young Adult literature as “rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity” (suggesting, of course, that this is a turn for the worse). How would you respond to this description and evaluation of the genre?
Tamora Pierce: snarls
I figured as such.
Ally Condie: I think YA is in a great place right now. So much variety.
TP: The reporter just wanted to make trouble and she succeeded.
AC: One of the books mentioned in that article, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is one of my favorite reads of all time. I wish it had been out when I was teaching high school. I can think of a lot of kids I would have loved to give it to.
TP: And that’s true of a lot of the “problem” novels and the darker stuff—there are kids who need it.
On a number of levels, I agree. But I also do think there has been a sea change in YA lit in the past 20-25 years. I’m curious to know why you think that is.
TP: Publishers have realized that, unlike the previous time period, American teenagers are both smarter and require more topical material than they had been giving them before that. For one thing, they’ll read thicker books. Besides, has anybody looked at the news or read the newspapers recently? We live in a dark time. Books are as dark as what is available to teenagers through the media every day.
AC: I think the YA genre has exploded across the board—we see more dystopia, more paranormal, more contemporary, more “issue” books than ever before. As Tamora said, there’s an increased willingness to read thicker books as well. So, to clarify what I was saying earlier—I think teens are reading more...of everything. And that’s partly because there’s so much more offered.
I think the presence of these books can be a good thing—they present some of the less “mainstream” experience. And while there is a good chunk of the literate population that has a rosy life, it’s not the case for everyone.
TP: And we have a responsibility not to lie to them. Our books have to contain reality, however we hide it, otherwise they won’t read them. They also want to understand the experience of those with color, of LGBT people, of those suffering from abuse. And even when that’s horrendous, as in Lauren Myracle’s Shine, they still want to understand it so they can achieve justice for everyone else.
AC: And I think the worst feeling in the world, for a teenager and for anyone, is to feel completely and utterly alone. Books can take away that feeling. Especially if they deal with hard things that someone might not yet be ready to talk about.
Do you think that people such as the writer of that article are mourning the loss of an innocence that adolescence never really even had?
TP: And the second worst feeling is to feel disregarded in material. They’re being told that “this, someday, will be yours” and what this reporter was saying was “We don’t want to give you the tools for it, and we don’t want your parents to give you the tools for it. I think she was yearning for that Leave it to Beaver universe that didn’t actually exist.
Do you think that, as YA authors, that helps you stay in touch with, say, your inner adolescent?
TP: I just think I’m not very mature.
Do you write for teens as a way to remember those times of your life?
AC: YES. For good or for ill, it’s very easy for me to recall those feelings. And honestly, aren’t we all still sorting through some of them now? Being a teen is past for me. Worrying about the world and my place in it is not.
TP: I write for them because they’re full of possibilities, they’re full of passion and energy and you grip that fire and it comes back up as a connection to you. And then you return it back to them. There’s this circuit, and you feel alive.
AC: It’s probably why I taught and coached at high school and why I keep my teaching license current—that energy, like Tamora mentioned. I love being a part of it, telling stories about it.
TP: They’re deciding who they want to be, they’re creating themselves. This is our chance to tell them that they have a voice in creating themselves. They don’t have to listen to “do not” and “you have to” and “you should.”
One thing left out of that article is that none of the violence, rape, incest or whatever isn’t present in a vacuum. It’s part of a larger story in the books, one in which the reader is either left with a sense of hope or at least empathy, right?
TP: Yeah, it’s all there for a reason and it all unfolds out of very real scenarios.That’s what I read YA “problem” novels, because usually they end with a sense of hope. It’s not like adult novels when everything goes to hell in a hand-basket and no one gets out alive.
AC: Yes, the “incident” is usually part of a larger whole, as Tamora said.
What impact do you think the WSJ article might have on teens?
AC: Teens find out a lot from other teens. And a trusted adult or two (who may or may not be a parent). So I think they’ll still find books the way they always do—word of mouth, etc.
TP: Very true. Only until the teen gets a hold of the book, at which point they think for themselves.
In closing, can you recommend two or three YA books (besides your own, of course!) that have touched you or that you’d recommend to teens?
TP: Sarah Beth Durst’s Drink Slay Love (humorous vampire); Mike Mullin’s Ashfall (dystopian science fiction); Elizabeth Bunce’s Starcrossed.
AC: Well, this is a given, but I always recommend Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I also loved Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. Both these stories help you to stand in someone else’s shoes (as advocated by Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird). Or, they help you understand why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling, if it’s you that’s been through something painful too.
Tamora Pierce will be at Anderson’s Bookshop (123 W Jefferson St, Naperville; andersonsbookshop.com) Tuesday 8 to sign Mastiff, Book 3 of her Beka Cooper series for Young Adults. Wednesday 9, Ally Condie will be at Anderson’s to sign Crossed, the sequel to her acclaimed dystopian novel for young adults, Matched. Both events start at 7pm.