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24 July 2009 @ 06:14 pm
YA SF is alive and well. Really.  
So there's this notion that comes up at pretty much every convention I go to with a YA panel (and which has also come up in the comments to this post) that's beginning to truly frustrate me, and that I think needs more than the comments section of the post to address. And that notion is:
Teens are not reading (and publishers are not publishing) young adult science fiction.
This seems to be a misperception among those who read adult science fiction in particular. (And I am talking about science fiction here, not fantasy, because thanks to J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer it's hard not to be aware teens read fantasy.) I've had countless conversations with people who bemoan the lack of science fiction for young people. In many of these conversations, it comes out that the people I'm talking to are aware of the YA written by Scalzi, Doctorow, and maybe Westerfeld (all excellent writers, yes), but have this notion that ... that's pretty much it.

I don't know, but I think the problem may be that for the most part, adult (meaning, adult-the-genre) SF readers tend to have a sort of tunnel vision about YA SF, and only see those books published by the YA imprints of dedicated SF/fantasy lines (as well as seeing only books published by YA SF writers who also write for adults). When most of the YA SF out there is in fact published by the YA imprints of mainstream houses. That's a function of the way the YA genre markets itself--mysteries and romances and SF and fantasy and sometimes graphic novels all hang out side by side. In other words, to find the YA SF, we can't only look to SF/fantasy publishers. (Excellent, again, as some of the books by these publishers are.)
So can we please, please, please put this notion that there is no YA SF and that teens don't read it to rest? Please?
Because I'm getting really tired of having this discussion.

Here's an off-the-cuff list of YA and middle grade SF published in the past few years that I pulled up for the comment thread mentioned above:

- Feed by M.T. Anderson
- Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard
- The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
- The City of Ember and sequels by Jeanne DuPrau
- The Shadow Children books by Margaret Peterson Haddix
- Siberia by Ann Halam
- Taylor Five by Ann Halam
- Rash by Pete Hautman
- The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd
- The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
- Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
- The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
- Unwind by Neal Shusterman

There are others, of course. Some of these books are bestsellers. Some of them are bestsellers that outsell the books in the adult SF/fantasy section. Some of them are award-winners, too.

The knowledge of these books is neither secret nor hidden.

So can we stop having the "why is there no YA SF?" discussion, and move on to having discussions about the YA SF that's being published these days--discussions of its trends and strengths and weaknesses and what we all do and don't like about it?

Because that just sounds way more interesting, to me.
lindajsingletonlindajsingleton on July 25th, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)
While I agree that all of these titles can be classified as science fiction, I've personally run up against resistance to a YA submission because it's clearly about aliens.

Feedback has inferred that some editors don't want "alien" YA's. Now you might point out that several of the titles listed here have aliens, but SMEKDAY for instance is middle-grade not YA (in my opinion -- and I loved that book).

I think it's the high end/other planet science fiction that seems difficult to find/sell in YA novels. Maybe because a lot of the "adult" SF already has characters that are in their teens, even if the stories aren't written in a YA style. I really don't know.

I've been thinking a lot about this recently because of a YA I've had trouble selling. So I looked around at books that could be SF.

For instance, the GOLDEN COMPASS and SUBTLE KNIFE, which has a world parallel to ours but different. When they use the knife to go to other worlds, they never say "planets." If they did it would have been classified as science fiction, instead it's considered fantasy.

And Annette Curtis Klause wrote a really great book called ALIEN SECRETS, which I think did very well. But she's more famous for BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE and SILVER KISS, about vampires and werewolves -- classified as paranormal fantasy.

Even Stephanie Meyers who is a star with TWILIGHT doesn't have the same following for her novel THE HOST. Her fans of TWILIGHT often read it but they don't love it the same way.

Still I'm not disagreeing with you. I agree with what you say for the most part, I just have had experiences to make me consider whether to pursue science fiction, at least with "aliens." Futuristic/apocolyptic YA are actually VERY hot. I personally love HUNGER GAMES and LIFE AS WE KNEW IT.

So I hope you're more right than I am, actually, because my agent is still shopping around my alien romantic YA and I'm proud of this book and know my fans will enjoy it. But I'm also considering changing the word "planet" to something like "realm" or "other world" and calling the characters something other than alien. I'd rather rewrite than not see this book published (and really, it's some of my best writing.)

I can't complain much because I'm still selling paranormal YA. My DEAD GIRL IN LOVE just came out and I have one more book under contract with Flux (about a psychic goth girl). I just really hope my SF YA sells, too (It's sort of like Romeo and Juliet, but set in high school with aliens...or maybe NOT aliens if I rewrite).
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
I'm all for having discussions about "why does this kind of YA SF sell better than that kind." It is interesting--fascinating--that there's so much dystopic future YA SF, and so much less aliens-and-spaceship based SF. One of my theories is that the trend is toward biotech as the main skiffy element instead of physics, but I don't really know.

What I'm tired of is people telling me there's no YA SF out there, and then having never heard of any of the rather extensive YA SF that is out there. As a YA writer/reader you know these books are out there--but a remarkable number of adult SF readers don't even seem to be aware of most of the titles out there.

And then those readers complain that teens aren't reading SF--sometimes on panels at conventions, in front of other adult SF readers--when really, they are.

Now if adult SF readers want to complain "teens aren't reading/publishers aren't buying the types of SF I like best," that would make more sense. But my experience has been that too many of said readers honestly don't even know these books are out there.
lindajsingletonlindajsingleton on July 25th, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
True. There's often too many generalizations, sort of the bestseller mentality, that the only books that exist in any genre are the hyped bestsellers.

Maybe a book like HUNGER GAMES can change this, since it's headed for a movie and will be well-known. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of CATCHING FIRE and it's amazing, too. I even started/plotted my own futuristic book which I may or may not finish, depending on my time and enthusiasm for thir project.

Good luck with all your writing!
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
I think it's more a genre issue than a bestseller issue--adult SF/fantasy readers are used to reading in their section of the bookstore, and somehow aren't seeing beyond it ...
Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
I wonder if what you're really running into is "only boys read science fiction with aliens." Which is crazy talk!
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
It suddenly occurs to me that The True Meaning of Smekday is an excellent recent "alien" book!
Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
Definitely -- though as Linda points out, it's middle grade instead of YA.
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
She did already point that out ... what I get for posting way too early!
lindajsingletonlindajsingleton on July 25th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
I haven't heard anyone mention boy vs girls with science fiction. Mostly I agree with Janni it's more of a genre thing. SF is considered more of an "adult" genre.

One thing I love about YA is that it isn't just ONE genre. They aren't simply one genre but often combine SF-romance-mystery-fantasy, etc. I love the surprises you find in YA books -- also the fast-paced, tight writing.
Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Definitely agree, but I'm just wondering if people still tend to think of alien/spaceship SF as more of a boy thing (it certainly is still perceived that way in adult SF, by and large) and don't see romance fitting with their preconception. I also really do think it's interesting that much of the SF that seems to appeal to current YAs is more on the cultural demise or biological change scale. But, then again, that's really most of what's being published for them, so who can say they wouldn't like the other stuff?

Someone could get a thesis out of this!
lindajsingletonlindajsingleton on July 25th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
Forget a thesis -- I just want my agent to call with a "Sold!" for my "must kill my alien boyfriend" set in high school novel.
Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)
That sounds fabulous! I hear editors whining all the time at conferences about how they don't get enough YA SF subs--someone will buy it.
The Muse, Amusedpenmage on July 26th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)
It's true! I am actively looking for YA SF subs, and getting not very much of it. To be fair, I am the only one in my group who is looking for SF. But I am still looking!
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 27th, 2009 04:12 am (UTC)
What's your take on the trend toward biotech and dystopic SF, and away from aliens and spaceships? Do you think it's it a function of how the subgenres themselves sell (or even, how books in each are written), or more one of what writers are writing and submitting?
The Muse, Amusedpenmage on July 26th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC)
I am an editor, and I am actively looking for YA SF.

Though to be fair I think I am the only one in my group. But it is definitely something I am looking to publish.
lindajsingletonlindajsingleton on July 26th, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
My agent is Jenn Laughran with ABLA. If you have any questions, my email is ljscheer@inreach.com
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)
Any Vermont students casting about for topics? :-) (I'm guessing finding a topic at all is less challenge than choosing just one ...)

I think the fact that we're shifting to biotech (something that's happening to some extent in real-world research, too) is fascinating, and not entirely a bad thing, much as I also want to get into space ...

Edited at 2009-07-25 03:50 pm (UTC)
M. C. A. Hogarthhaikujaguar on July 25th, 2009 11:38 am (UTC)
I admit I was so confused by this post I have no idea what to say to it. It's like there's a small pond and a fish in it that doesn't seem to realize there are... other fish in it? It's not that big a genre, how can anyone not see what's in it?

Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
I think it's because YA is shelved and marketed very separately from adult SF/fantasy, and it is marketed as YA first, genre second.

But it puzzles me too. The books are right there. Yet I've either been on or in the audience for several panels where their existence is unknown now, and have had multiple more casual conversations at cons where the same is true. And one gets tired of having the same discussion over and over again ...
Sharon Lee: drosselmeyerrolanni on July 25th, 2009 12:29 pm (UTC)

I was just sitting around with the Amazon wish list yesterday and noticed that most of the SF I have tagged is YA.

I fear there are Certain Notions which are accepted as Truth, even in the face of evidence -- witness the question Why are There So Few Older Women in SF? Seems, from reader comments, that there are quite a few. Either the people asking the question aren't reading widely in the field (I count myself among those -- very little time anymore to read), or they're simply repeating an oft-heard gripe or the "So Few" is the problem -- in which case we need to know "fewer than what".
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
Accepting the gripe and not actually looking around? That could be.

It's sort of part of the larger problem of so much of congoing fandom not really having ever been in the YA section of the bookstore at all, or knowing what YA even really is ...

Edited at 2009-07-25 03:24 pm (UTC)
some guy named Larrylnhammer on July 25th, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Accepting the gripe and not actually looking around?

I've been assuming that. The question in my mind has always been "intellectual laziness or willful ignorance?"

Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
I think though, that just as in adult SF publishing, it'd be hard to argue that there's as much science fiction as fantasy out there. Fantasy is dwarfing SF across the board, and at least when I've been in these conversations, that's usually what people are expressing concern about. Some of the books on your list go back several years; I'd guess we could come up with an off the cuff list of notable YA fantasy from the last few months that would be as long. :)
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
Definitely--there's definitely a lot more fantasy out there (of course, there's a lot more fantasy than most YA subgenres, at the moment :-)). But while in adult SF/fantasy readers seem to know the SF is out there, and just worry that there's less of it, in YA the adult readers seem to think the books don't exist at all--it's like they literally can't see anything written by someone who doesn't also write books in the adult section, or at least published by an imprint that also publishes books for adults ...
Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
I think part of it as that editors say they don't see very many YA SF submissions--which adds to the feeling there's not much around. I do think there's room for plenty MORE.
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
Definitely I think there's room for more YA SF, too, though I can't speak to what sort of receptions different subgenres would get ... I get the impression, at least, though, that most houses would at least look at a YA SF book ...

Didn't know editors were claiming they weren't receiving much YA SF. I wonder if some of the YA SF writers are also sticking to adult houses with YA imprints, instead of going to mainstream YA imprints as well, maybe?

Edited at 2009-07-25 03:51 pm (UTC)
Gwenda Bondbondgwendabond on July 25th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
I definitely think that's a factor. I also think people tend to write with the market in mind, at least to a certain extent, and there's so much more fantasy, that makes it more likely for people to write their fantasy projects instead of science fiction ones.
A. A. McNamaraaamcnamara on July 25th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
It is an intriguing phenomenon.

I think you know my conviction that dystopian and apocalyptic fiction is a different genre than SF, but yeah. Different discussion, that one.
Janni Lee Simner: critteralienjanni on July 25th, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC)
Which would be one worth having, yeah. I do know that a book like The Hunger Games feels much less SFnal than Unwind does. Maybe it's partly about whether the skiffy elements are part of the dystopic elements, or whether it's merely a future with lots of social change but not much change in technology?
Becky Levinebeckylevine on July 27th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
Thank you for this list. I have a teen who DOES love sci-fi and it just seems to be buried somewhere else than the shelves we look at. It's pretty hard for a 13-year-old boy to walk up to the PINK!!!! YA shelves in most bookstore and take the time to sort through the covers for something else. He has read a Neal Shusterman and loved it. I'm going to get some of these & get him to check them out. :)
Becky Levinebeckylevine on July 27th, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)
Oh, and we love Smekday here. I haven't been able to get him to read Jenna, even though I think he'd really like it. Still working on it! :)
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on July 27th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
Jenna is interesting ... I think it's very much marketed to mainstream audiences, even though I also think it's one of the more clearly SF books out there.
whereistheluvwhereistheluv on July 27th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
I'm so happy to read this. My current WIP is YA SF. No aliens though. It's about genetically altered teens who were created to be sleeper agents. I have been very concerned about it's prospects once it's completed because I was afraid that using the term Sci-fi would make people think aliens and then run far away. While it's contemporary I don't think it can be called Urban Fantasy since everything outside of the ordinary that happens is based on science rather than magic. Plus it's definitely not a boy book, with a 16 year old girl protagonist and romantic subplot.

It's interesting, I've read several of the books on the list, but only really considered two of them SF (Jenna Fox and Unwind). I'm not sure why I thought of The Hunger Games and The City of Ember as sort of urban fantasy only. I think maybe the way that all YA is mixed together adds to this perception for me too. How funny that I had been thinking and worrying that there wasn't much YA SF out there even though I've been reading it!
Janni Lee Simnerjanni on July 27th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
aamcnamara does make the point above that dystopic fiction can be considered separate from SF, which may be part of it ... though Ember, with the construction of that underground city, feels more clearly SF to me than Hunger Games. But the lines definitely do blur ...

Good luck with your WIP! :-)