By Kellie Larsen Murphy

Stretching the Boundaries of Young Adult Literature

Kellie Larsen Murphy
Kellie Larsen Murphy

YA books are not just for kids anymore. It’s not only due to J.K. Rowling or The Hunger Games, but also the result of some incredible writing and great storytelling. July’s writing show introduced us to two of those authors, Kat Spears and Kristen-Paige Madonia.

Kat Spears has worked as a bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter (not the artistic kind). She holds an M.A. in anthropology, which has helped to advance her bartending career. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and three freeloading kids. Her first YA novel, Sway, will be published in September by St. Martin’s Griffin.

Kristen-Paige Madonia is the author of Invisible Fault Lines (2016) and Fingerprints of You (Simon & Schuster 2012) as well as short stories published in The Greensboro Review, Five Chapters, and the New Orleans Review. She was the 2012 D.H. Lawrence Fellow and now teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia, James Madison University, the UNM Taos Creative Writers’ Conference, and WriterHouse.

Regan Blume
Regan Blume

Moderated by Kristi Tuck Austin, the evening opened with a poem, “If Love Could Kill”, written and read by Regan Blume, a Youth Advisory Board Member and regular attendee of JRW’s weekly Writers Farmhouse.

Kristi Tuck Austin opened the panel by commenting that both of the guests’ works featured unexpected YA subjects including a pregnant teen (Fingerprints of You) and a story told from the eyes of a seemingly unlikable teen boy, Jessie (Sway). She asked both how they defined YA fiction in today’s world.

Kat Spears
Kat Spears

Ms. Spears commented that YA is now a desirable way to market a book. Publishing companies know the majority of YA readers are young women. The books themselves are written from the perspective of a teen, and adult characters are secondary. She also told the audience she likes writing from first person, which lends itself to YA fiction.

Ms. Madonia also said that “crossover YA” is a popular buzzword in NY publishing/marketing circles. Crossover YA is considered books for teens that adults read. Ms. Austin noted that 55% of YA books are purchased by adults aged eighteen-early forties and not as gifts!


Historically, the ALA has banned books aimed at kids for the following reasons:

Kristen-Paige Madonia
Kristen-Paige Madonia
  • Sexually Explicit
  • Language
  • Material Unsuited for Young Adults
  • Violence
  • Homosexuality

Ms. Austin asked, “So why should YA authors include these things?”

Ms. Madonia said simply, “Because it’s reality.” She also felt it was important for young adults to be able to see themselves on the page and, for those who didn’t, to find greater empathy for others through the pages.

Agreeing, Ms. Spears pointed out that issues in YA literature have changed. At one time, divorce was the only real “hot button” issue found in YA books. Today, YA casts a wider net. She quipped, “If I didn’t let my child read inappropriate literature, we wouldn’t have these honest conversations while he’s still listening to me!”

Kristi Tuck Austin
Kristi Tuck Austin

Referring to the Hunger Games series, Ms. Austin asked, “How much violence is too much violence?”

Both authors noted that their books don’t include a great deal of violence;  however, Ms. Madonia commented that scary topics are justified if they fit the characters, backstory, and world created by the author. Ms. Spears did wonder aloud why our country is more likely to allow children to see/read gratuitous violence as opposed to sex. Along these lines, Ms. Austin reported that a friend had sold a novel which will be marketed as middle grade YA because it does not contain sex or language although it does include violence. The authors did admit that sometimes their editors will pull scenes from the novel they are not comfortable with.

The panelists were emphatic that authenticity and understanding the audience is the responsibility of the writer. YA literature should not be patronizing. As a teacher and writer, Ms. Madonia encourages “shoving it all out the door as long as you can.” She encourages taking all the voices to create the most lively story you can and let the editors worry about the rest. She reminded the audience that writing is “art vs. business” and to keep the business out as long as you can.

Language in YA fiction is also a hot topic as teens today are more exposed and more versed than ever. Ms. Austin asked, “What are the limits?”

Ms. Spears believes there are not bad words but bad concepts. She is not a fan of giving curse words power. Ms. Madonia does not have an issue with language in YA although since her second book is being marketed to 12 and up, it is more of a conversation than in Fingerprints of You (14 and up). She has approached the publisher for guidelines and been told that while some words for this age group should be limited, others are off limits entirely. Publishers argue that editing the language allows a book greater readership and wider distribution.

Madison Hoffman
Madison Hoffman

Sex is also an issue in YA fiction. How much? Safe sex? Consensual? Lemon of Fingerprints of You makes a bad decision and ends up pregnant. Although the sex scene is in the book, Ms. Madonia feels it was authentic vs. gratuitous. She also believes young readers can self-censor and writers should trust their readers.

While there is no sex in Sway, Ms. Spears’ characters talk about it, sometimes in a vulgar way, but she feels strongly that Jessie shows respect for women.

Ms. Austin asked, “To what degree are YA authors molding morality? Creating role models?”

While neither author felt their lead characters began as role models, both show openness and change. They believe readers should be able to relate to the characters and “Sweet Valley High” type books don’t ring true with today’s readers.

Diversity is also a part of Spears’ Sway and editors liked it. However, she feels it’s important that it feels “real” and does not become stereotypical or a parody. She writes from where she came from and noted that some dialogue in Sway is verbatim from an actual conversation she had (she’s free to use it as person is no longer alive).

Maeve Oliver
Maeve Oliver

Although both authors do push the boundaries in their YA fiction, they have positive relationships with their agents, editors, and publishers, saying it comes down to mutual trust.

The second half of the show was a Q&A where young writers and Youth Advisory Board members Madison Hoffman and Maeve Oliver interviewed the panelists. Madison asked Ms. Madonia about whether her book was inspired by an event and her opinion of trend writing. In the reverse role, Ms. Madonia questioned Madison about the inclusion of adult characters and language.

Read Brown
Read Brown

Maeve interviewed Ms. Spears and asked about whether she researched for her character with Cerebral Palsy and the importance of music to Jessie. Ms. Spears asked Maeve about how difficult it was to read an “unlikable” character. She also asked her whether it bothered her that the adults were “untrustworthy.”

This month’s writing show closed on a high note when Read Brown, a 9th grader from St. Christopher’s and Youth Advisory Board member read his work, “A Chocolate’s Life.”

All the panelists, young and adult, reminded those of us in the audience just how smart and entertaining YA fiction is today. It was another great show for JRW!

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