YA Trends and Boomlets
I love working with writing partners, who for years have helped me keep my work on track. Since 2015 fellow VCFA graduate and middle grade writer Susan Korchak has been my steady once-a-week partner. I’ve also met Mindy Ohringer, a writer of poetry, short stories, essays, and adult fiction, for writing dates on Friday afternoons. And now in Portugal, I’m meeting up with YA writer Diana Pinguicha, whose first language is Portuguese but who writes better in English than 95% of native English speakers. (My husband, a sociologist, says the same is true of many of his students from China and Korea as well.)
When Diana and I get together, we also talk about YA trends. As a younger writer, she doesn’t know what things were like ten to twenty years ago when I first reviewed YA fiction for MultiCultural Review and then wrote (or rewrote) Gringolandia as the option book for the small press that published my adult novel. Until series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games attracted adult readers and film adaptations, and turned kdlit authors into millionaires, a lot of YA was for the school and library market. Books like mine sold steadily if they fit into the curriculum either because of their literary merit or their interdisciplinary connections, or both. Gringolandia, for instance, found its place in the global studies Common Core, in the 10th grade unit on Human Rights.
Today, YA fiction continues to be used across the curriculum, but much more sells in bookstores. And trends come and go faster than they used to. Particular fantasy tropes may draw from hit films and TV series, which, of course, has put me at a huge disadvantage ever since a dispute with my cable company in October 2016 led me to cancel my TV package. Different kinds of magic have their heyday, then disappear. In the contemporary genres, rom-coms are hot, but only certain kinds of rom-coms. For instance, when I was querying my YA historical, I saw numerous calls on Manuscript Wish List (#MSWL) for stories along the lines of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Pro Tip: If you’re trying to write on trend, and write quickly (because slow writers just can’t do this), check out #MSWL on Twitter, but also see what kinds of pitches go viral on Twitter pitch parties such as #PitMad.
A lot of writers chasing trends, and a lot of agents and editors looking for on-trend manuscripts, also means a lot of books coming out with similar settings, general plot lines, and themes. Since I don’t read a lot of fantasy, I don’t see some of the most intense and fast-moving trends, but I do pay attention when it’s my favorite genres of historical and contemporary, especially books with international settings. My Pirate Tree review list for 2019 already includes MG and YA novels set during the partition of India and Pakistan (The Night Diary), the Holocaust and World War II (What the Night Sings and White Rose), Malaysia in 1969 (The Weight of Our Sky) and in part Ireland in the mid-19th century (Last of the Name) and the Dominican Republic today (Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle). As I pull together my list for the rest of the year, I’ve noticed a boomlet of books set in Russia during and after the fall of Communism.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Katia Raina, the author of one of those books, Castles of Concrete. Born in the Soviet Union, she witnessed the end of the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s at the age of 16, making her another writer whose skill in her second language vastly exceeds many in their first. Castles of Concrete portrays 15-year-old Sonia Solovay, a Jewish girl new to Moscow and eager for a bold new life that includes romance with a handsome rebel who expressed anti-Semitic beliefs. Due out in June 2019, it will be followed in August by British author Julie Mayhew’s Mother Tongue, set in the aftermath of the Beslan school massacre.
Although the massacre, and the death of 18-year-old protagonist Darya’s younger sister Nika, forms the backdrop of Mother Tongue, the main focus of the novel is Darya’s quest to escape her dead-end life, her dysfunctional parents, and the ghost of her sister by moving to Moscow. Like Sonya in Castles of Concrete, Moscow represents a bold new life, as exemplified by both teenagers’ changing wardrobes, but the city is also full of temptation, cruelty, and violence. The end of Communism has not led to general happiness but to outbreaks of ethnic hatred. Sonya’s boyfriend bullies a Jewish classmate, and Darya’s younger brothers along with other teen boys and one lonely teen girl form a militia to beat up and threaten town residents who look like the perpetrators of the massacre. Whereas in Darya’s small town, the factory where her father works seems little changed from the time of Communism, Moscow is a city of oligarchs, con artists, and prostitutes, and the American journalist covering the Beslan massacre one month is in Moscow the next, investigating young women whose bodies have been floating in a river. While Sonya discovers her Jewish roots, Mayhew weaves Eastern Orthodox practices and traditional folktales, proverbs, and jokes into her novel.
After these novels, I know of at least one other highly anticipated title for the fall, J. Kasper Kramer’s The Story That Cannot Be Told, published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. It weaves folktales and history into the main story as well. And several authors I know are writing fantasies that draw from Russian and Eastern European legends and lore. Coming from that heritage, I’m excited about these books, but I wonder why so many at this time. Is it a way of remembering the 30th anniversary of a significant historical event? Or as the influence of Russia grows and spreads throughout Europe, the U.K. and the U.S., is this an acknowledgement of a new force in our lives?