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YA Is More Than Just A Genre, It’s A Resource

MTV News spoke with authors Jennifer Niven and Nicola Yoon about the responsibility of being a YA author in a world that mirrors the dystopian ones they write about

From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.

In the months following Donald Trump’s presidential win, teenagers have been among some of the country's most vocal activists. From organizing school walkouts to running for office, young people are adjusting to the dystopian world they’ve inherited in different ways. That includes turning to books for comfort. Young adult authors — who are also learning to navigate life under a Trump administration — feel the weight of this responsibility.

Jennifer Niven ( All the Bright Places; Holding Up the Universe) and Nicola Yoon ( Everything, Everything; The Sun Is Also a Star), both Los Angeles–based writers whose best-selling books are currently being made into films, understand the magnitude behind their words, especially during a time when their readers feel confused, scared, and oftentimes voiceless. Whether it’s offering answers to questions about growing up or providing a brief escape from reality, the world of YA is more than just a genre — it’s a resource for young people. (The No. 1 YA book in the country right now was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.) Teaching ways to cope while living in the Trump era, for example, is one way in which YA literature helps.

We spoke with Niven and Yoon over the phone about how politics is influencing their work, representation within YA, and the ways in which the world mirrors a dystopian novel now more than ever before.

[ This interview has been edited and condensed.]

On what they were like as teenagers and what they read growing up:

Niven: I loved to read, of course, but I was also into music and musicians. I feel like so much of my writing influence came from song lyrics and the people I was listening to. I wanted to be a rock star more than anything [ laughs], so I think that was part of it, but I took inspiration from so many things. My mom [Penelope Niven] was a writer. She and my dad had so many books around the house because he was a teacher, so I grew up in this wonderful house of books. Probably my favorite book in high school was The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury — I just loved him and tried to emulate his stories. [Mine] were sad rip-offs of his [ laughs]. I just read voraciously and I read everything I could get my hands on.

Yoon: I was an incredibly shy teenager and I was a math geek. I read romances along with the sort of high school required reading. The first book [in which] I ever really saw a girl that looked like me was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. But other than that, I read the Harlequin romances, Nancy Drew. I read a lot of Robert Ludlum — The Bourne Identity, spy thrillers, even though I really didn’t understand them. It was an eclectic mix.

On how YA lit has changed since they were in high school:

Niven: We had YA books, but now it’s just so much more defined. Now it’s an actual genre. It’s such a broad category and there’s so much brave, original content and it’s really exciting to see it. It’s so necessary.

Yoon: There [are] so many books now aiming to portray the young adult experience instead of belittling the young adult experience. There were books before, but I don’t think there were as many. There wasn’t a category, so it’s a bit easier to find these books now. It’s basically a marketing category. If you go to your bookstore or online, you can search for “young adult.” The books now deal with such a variety of subjects with such depth. We’re definitely taking kids seriously and treating the process of growing up with the respect that it should have. We see a lot of lip service saying that kids are the future, but then also belittle them at the same time in the culture. But young adult [literature] is not doing that. We’re saying, "You have legitimate questions about the world. Here are some thoughts."

On the greatest challenges teenagers are facing in 2017 (and whether they’re currently being reflected in YA):

Niven: There [are] so many things that they’re facing today — mental health issues, bullying, anxiety, prejudice. But I think it all basically comes down to [the fact] that so many of them are being told that they don’t have a voice and they don’t matter. And that can go into any of those categories I just named and more. One of the things that we try to do in writing YA — and I know this is true of my fellow authors — is to remind them that they’re not alone, that they do matter.

I do think that they’re being reflected and I’m so grateful for that. It’s really amazing to see what’s out there and all the honest, brave, quality, wonderful writing that’s covering such a diversity of issues.

Yoon: Given the current administration, I think it’s easy to feel like you’re under attack for being different in any way from what people traditionally think is the “norm.” The attack on immigrants is something people are feeling and it’s distressing.

There’s Angie Thomas’s book about the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a brilliant and important book. There [are] books by Adam Silvera, which talk about the struggles of coming out. There are lots of books that are dealing with real topics, and books like that can give people a real sense of hope. I literally say that those books can save lives because if you’re in sort of a bad situation, walk into a bookstore, [and] open a book, then at the end, if the character survives and makes it through, maybe it’ll make you hold on a little bit more and say, “I can make it out of this town,” or “It can get better.” So I do think that books that deal with these subjects save lives. And I also think books that don’t deal with these subjects save lives. I think you can save a life in two different ways. I think you can save them in a metaphysical way too. So if there’s a book where the main character is gay and is the boy wizard who saves the world and it’s not necessarily about coming out, I think it can save your life in a different way. Just to show you a reflection of yourself as a hero.

On finding parallels between now and circumstances in their books:

Niven: It’s kind of chilling. I feel like every day I’ve woken up in a dystopian universe. It’s very strange. I feel like if you look at the bullying that goes on in Holding Up the Universe and All the Bright Places, it feels like it’s going on on a much larger scale right now. The ignoring of how someone is feeling and who this person is — it saddens me, because I feel like so many of these teens already feel like they don’t have a voice and I feel like now it’s just multiplied. It’s so much bigger now. You fall into this despair where you’re just like, what can I do? And the thing is, I can just keep writing and making sure they have [a voice].

Yoon: The main character [in Everything, Everything] is half-Japanese and half-African-American, and that was a deliberate choice on my part because I wanted my little girl to see herself in the book when she grows up. My husband’s Korean-American, so, basically, my daughter looks just like Maddy in Everything, Everything. And according to the census, this is going to be a majority minority country by 2042. The world is going to look like my little girl. And we’re going to have to figure out a way not [just] to come to terms with that, but to be open and just let that be a part of our life because it’s coming anyway. It’s inevitable.

On why we’re fixated with the idea of dystopia and what that means for YA:

Niven: In some ways for me, it feels like the end of a world. I lost my mom two years ago and the only reason why I’m glad she isn’t here — every day I’m so deeply in grief about the fact that she isn’t here — is because she would not be able to believe what’s happening right now. It would just be so terrible. And I was thinking, it really does feel like I’ve left one world and entered another. And I don’t know what that means for YA other than you’re going to see more and more of this reflected whether it’s in actual dystopian novels or in realistic contemporary or sci-fi. It’s impossible to ignore this. The world is changing whether we like it or not — and we don’t like it. But it’s changing in front of our eyes, and I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to see it reflected. I’m really glad about that, because when the election happened, I felt so voiceless. I felt like someone had taken away my voice and all the things I believe in. But then you remind yourself, OK, I’ve got a voice. I’m gonna use it. I feel a responsibility to do that and I know other authors feel that same responsibility.

Yoon: You know, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. Right now, the dystopias are feeling like real life. I think it’s natural to try to take our current circumstances and try to push it toward a logical conclusion. It’s sort of an easy way to address some big questions in an oblique way. Sometimes it’s easier for people to palate those discussions when we’re not facing them head-on. And then dystopias are just sort of fun. What is the worst-case scenario? And how will I survive it? What powers do I need? Part of me honestly thinks that it’s, like, almost a response to 9/11, which seems like a weird thing to say, but I think America in general felt so powerless and it did feel dystopian. [The idea of dystopia is] sort of a way to try to get control back. If the worst thing happens and we still survive it, then there’s something soothing in that.

On feeling a sense of responsibility to young readers:

Niven: I try to write the bravest, [most] honest stories I can. And now I feel this need to do it even more so. I feel that if we write these brave, honest stories about the issues that are affecting teens and we give them this voice at a time when so many of them feel voiceless, this is what we can do — writing these stories that remind them that they are wanted, they are necessary, that they matter, and that they’re loved. I also try in my social media to create this very safe, positive space online just because I know there’s so much that isn’t online. I want them to know that with my books and with my social media, they’re there and are free to be themselves.

Yoon: I get letters all the time from people who say [I have] helped them in some way. I can’t tell you how much that has meant to me and what that continues to mean to me. Books did that for me, too. Whether or not you need to escape whatever’s going on around you or whether or not you need to see another point of view or another way of life, these books are important for that. And kids are naturally philosophical. They’re trying to figure out the world and their place in it. As a writer, I want to sort of help guide that conversation and be part of it. I want to say, “Hey, look at this point of view here, and look at this, and maybe consider this.” That’s what growing up — and, honestly, being alive — should be all about. Questioning it and trying to figure things out.

On practicing self-care:

Niven: I try to do what I can. I’m donating monthly to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. The Women’s March. I’m trying to do what I can in those ways. But I think beyond that in terms of self-care, I think it’s really important — now more than ever — to honor yourself and take care of yourself. So if there’s something I just don’t feel up to doing, I don’t do it. And if there’s something I think would be really, really good for me, and I think, Oh, I don’t have time, I do it. It’s so important to talk, to let things out, to not keep them all pent up inside where you can be anxious and stressed. It’s also important to reach out to the people you really love and remind them of how much you love them and why and spend time with them. Lose yourself in the things you love, like books. My mom always taught me to put as much love into the world as I could, and that’s something that makes me feel really good and is a kind of self-care for me.

Yoon: After the election — I’m not gonna lie — I was pretty stunned and just sort of very sad. I didn’t write for a few weeks after. Not that I didn’t have anything to say, but I didn’t know how to say it. And now I do practical things. I will not read the news until after I’m done writing for the day. I won’t get on Twitter because it’s so overwhelming. But at the same time, it’s important to stay engaged and to do what you can to help and to resist, and also to take care of other people who are having a harder time. So I definitely practice self-care by pushing my [social media] engagement until later — not first. [Before,] I was waking up and checking the news right away and it was too much. I would just get [online], something shocking would happen, and then 30 minutes later I’d get on again and something brand-new [and] just as bad would be happening. It was too much stimulus and negativity. I turned into a grumpy person and I am not a grumpy person.

On the work that still needs to be done:

Niven: So many teens are being overlooked and ignored. When All the Bright Places first came out [ Editor's note: All the Bright Places includes themes of mental illness and suicide], there were a lot of adults who were taking issue with it because they were saying that teens shouldn’t read about this right now, they shouldn’t know about it, they should discover this later. The thing is, their children are the ones writing to me saying, “No one is paying attention to me and I feel like no one cares.” It’s so, so important that we remind them that they’re not alone, that we do care, and that they matter. We need to see them and really hear them.

There are endless stories. I feel like there’s not a limit on what we need to be talking about right now. There’s so much and I’m so heartened because I know so many talented writers who are out there doing the same thing and there are some things I don’t have. I wouldn’t be as good at telling a story about this or that, but there are other people who [are]. And I think that’s really wonderful to know right now. One reason I read is to tell myself that I’m not alone, but it’s also to read about experiences I haven’t had, to read about lives I haven’t lived. I think that’s also one reason I write.

Yoon: We need more LGBTQI representation. There’s probably a need for more disabled representation, body type representation — all of those things need to be written about more.

Books breed empathy. It’s easy to hate what you can’t understand. There’s so much fear out there right now and it’s completely unfounded. If you can pick up a book and read about Black Lives Matter, if you can pick up a book and read about someone who’s different than yourself and you can get into their head for 300 or 400 pages, it’s hard for you to hate that and be afraid of that. So these books are definitely more important. It’s these marginalized communities who feel attacked right now, so that’s why I think it’s important to amplify these stories. I defy you to hate someone after you’ve spent 400 pages in their head.

On YA matters so much in 2017:

Yoon: We’re trying to make a better world for the kids reading these books. And hopefully, the books will help them become the adults that will help make a better world so there aren’t kids that are feeling afraid and attacked, so there aren’t kids who are being bullies and are irrationally afraid of what doesn’t look like them. It’s important for both sides — for the majority and the minority.

Read more from Dystopia Now! here.