YALLWEST Tess Canfield on how Young Adult fiction is breaking barriers

Cover Image - YALLWEST
WordsTess Canfield

Since Harry Potter and the Twilight stories, Young Adult fiction has had a huge impact on our culture. But with the success of books like The Hate U Give, YA fiction is changing the stories we tell in thrillingly diverse ways. Tess Canfield spent a day at YALLWEST in California to find out what this new movement looks like and why it’s set to sweep everything in its way.

Illustrations by Tyler Spangler.

"She just walked by, oh my God," a guy says grasping his boyfriend's arm. "I’m still shaking, I can't believe I just met her," a girl gushes into her phone. "I'm trying not to cry," says another, tears running down her face and two long braids running down her back.

This isn't a Taylor Swift concert, although I’ve seen no less than five Reputation t-shirts already. This is Santa Monica High School on a Saturday, where 25,000 people have assembled to celebrate... books.

I’m at YALLWEST, a festival celebrating authors and books for young readers. In its fifth annual year, it features over 100 authors and presenters who range from New York Times Bestsellers to TV, film, video game and comic creators. Here you learn quickly that YA is shorthand for Young Adult, a genre written for readers between 12-18 years old, and it offers much more than vampire love stories.

The sub-genres in YA vary from contemporary to science fiction & fantasy via romance, historical, horror, thrillers, mysteries and more. But in YA books, the main character is also within that 12-18 age range, and unlike a coming-of-age story in general fiction, where a narrator looks back on youth from a place of experience, YA characters figure things out in real time.

The reader and the character are generally on the same page (pun intended) and share a similar level of maturity, making the emotional connection more accessible and authentic. The authors at YALLWEST prove it works, because emotions are running high.

I pass by a Drag Dress-up Booth on my way to see the morning Keynote, and I’ve never seen so many slogan t-shirts and totes. There are plenty of Harry Potter references, but “Strong Women Read,” “Black Books Matter” and the rainbow-colored ‘“ALL MEANS ALL” stand out most. As a reader and writer of YA, this doesn’t surprise me; if there’s one thing consistent about the genre these days, it’s the community’s fierce commitment to inclusion.

Some 2,000 people have RSVPed for the keynote: Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, and Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin and Odd One Out. Both write contemporary books featuring Black characters, but Angie in particular is a superstar in this community. The Hate U Give debuted at the top of The New York Times YA bestseller list and has stayed in the top ten for 114 weeks. The story focuses on a Black girl who witnesses a police shooting of her unarmed friend, and it was made into the first major Hollywood film that illuminates the Black Lives Matter movement.

Though I know how diverse this community is, I’m still struck by the predominantly Latinx, Black and Asian audience gathered from across California to see two southern Black women talk about their books. In a world where most festivals and conferences have gone the way of SXSW, charging hundreds of dollars per ticket to different shades of white people, it’s refreshing to see a free event that offers access to some of the best minds we have right now.

Nic Stone appears to the side of the stage and speaks to Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series and co-organizer of the event. The crowd erupts at the sight of her and phones are held aloft. It’s not quite like Beyoncé’s homecoming (it’s only 10 am) but enough that Nic slinks back to the side.

When Angie and Nic appear on stage, they discuss four topics: resilience, integrity, self-love and excellence – RISE. The kids hang on every word. Angie says she had no idea if anyone would publish The Hate U Give, explaining, “If you say 'Black Lives Matter' to three different people, you'll get 30 different reactions." I ask two eighth-graders from Bakersfield sitting behind me why they think adults should read it, they answer in unison, almost like it’s planned. “Because it relates to everyone.”

After the keynote, I’m eager to see what other panels are buzzing about. Topics range from the predictable Paths to Publication to the existential If We Read to Escape Reality, Why Do We Write About It?. I’m most curious to experience the wide diversity of this community, so I check out Stronger, which examines the idea of the “strong female lead.”

It features seven women of different backgrounds that represent various YA sub-genres, and they begin by discussing what strength means for women. “Why does strength have to look like traditional masculinity?” former TV star, talk show host and memoirist Busy Philipps asks. “If a woman is perceived as strong, why does that mean she has to be unemotional and aggressive? Women tend to be more empathetic and outwardly loving, and I’d argue it takes much more strength to display those qualities in times of distress.”

Natasha Ngan, author of NYT bestseller Girls of Paper and Fire, segues into the lived experience of women. Her book is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world where young women are forcibly taken for a ruthless king’s concubine.

“What’s it like to live in a world not built for you?” she asks. She points out how often stories about sexual assault – in books and movies – are written by men. “It was important for me to write about rape culture from the perspective of a survivor.”

Busy agrees the narrative needs to be changed, but having worked in film and TV she is not sure this type of media is really more accommodating. “I think there's opportunity in literature,” she says. “I think that's our back door.”

I consider the wealth of movies Hollywood makes from YA books. Love, Simon – based on Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Beautiful Boy – based on Nic Sheff’s memoir Tweak and his dad’s Beautiful Boy. And of course, The Hate U Give. If you scroll through Netflix, the list of films and series born in the YA genre gets even longer, unafraid to talk about suicide (Thirteen Reasons Why), body-image (Dumplin’) and protagonists of color (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before).

So why does it feel like most people still pigeonhole YA as sparkly vampires and bubblegum romance?

Perhaps the answer lies with whom I’m questioning: adults. The next panel, The Bestseller Problem, discusses the irony of writing books for children, while authors’ careers largely rely on what adults – who are often the gatekeepers – think of their work.

Nic Stone says perhaps the most freeing statement of the session: “I don’t give a hot damn what adult reviewers think about my books for children.” But the other authors admit it’s not always that easy.

C.B. Lee, who writes YA science fiction & fantasy, explains, “I am a queer woman of color; my existence is inherently political.” Later she adds, “It’s not like the world has changed. We’ve always been here. It’s just that now people are finally seeing us.”

But when she says “people” she’s referring to “adults” just as I was when I wondered why “people” didn’t get how rich and varied YA can be. Kids and teens aren’t experiencing the shifts in the world the same way adults are, because they’re experiencing it all for the first time. To them, this is what it is and always has been.

The last panel of the day highlights authors from immigrant families discussing what makes their stories American. Visibility emerges as a clear theme. Erika L. Sánchez discusses I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter – her experience informed the book, but living in Trump’s build-the-wall era shaped its narrative. “Honestly, I wrote the story not knowing it would be so relevant,” she explains. “I wish it wasn’t so relevant. I grew up feeling invisible and now I feel like we’re hyper-visible, and not in a good way.”

Author Tahereh Mafi also speaks to the paradox of wanting to be seen, but being terrified of what that visibility might mean in today’s political climate. She started her career writing science fiction & fantasy, but switched her focus in 2019’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea – a story about a 16-year-old Muslim girl in the year after 9/11.

"I think I was waiting for someone else to do it. I had been writing for ten years before I realized it had to be me – the one to write a contemporary book about a hijab-wearing Iranian American girl who wasn't terrorist adjacent." The moderator, Cookie Everman, shakes her head in agreement: “People can’t believe these experiences are real because they haven’t gone through it.”

I think back to earlier in the day, when Busy Philipps mentioned literature being a back door for women. What’s clear to me from my time at YALLWEST is that literature isn’t just a back door for women – it’s a back door for the queer community, people of color and anyone who has been “othered.” And if there’s any community who can relate to feeling othered, it’s children. Children, who live in a world not designed for them, who are so often fetishized and capitalized upon, who are trying to find a voice, and who are wondering how to become visible.

If literature provides a back door, these teens are sneaking in through it, demanding to be seen and heard. Right now, this group is quietly leading the charge and as broader society finally accepts its own diversity, perhaps we’ll take notice. But as Cookie Everman says in the day’s closing remarks, “When you’re kicking open the door, you’re going to get splinters.”