At Books&Books in Coral Gables, the teens wore top hats and waistcoats. They carried pocket watches and dog-eared copies of Scott Westerfield's paperbacks. The members of YAthenaeum, a "community of readers and writers of all things Young Adult," met at Miami's coolest indie bookstore for the Teen Reads Forum.
When asked, "Why do you like to read?" the number one response = to escape from reality, experience another person's life, and learn that "villains can be conquered." Scott Westerfield joined the conversation, adding, sometimes it's not about escaping. It's about being transported (either from the "noise" of your everyday life in school...or the cramped space inside an airplane).
What makes teens pick up a book? Yes, the cover art is "really important." But first lines matter most. Scott says, "The writer makes a promise that something interesting is going to happen." He quoted the first line from Charlotte's Web ("Where's Papa going with that ax?") The audience agreed. Weird is always better than boring. And when it comes to endings, the writer better deliver. Readers want to feel what writers describe. Even if the rest of the book is stale, a strong ending can change a reader's view of the entire story.
Local teen novelist, Alex Flinn, said, "Every teen story is a step. A YA mystery isn't just about solving a mystery. It's about growing up...and helping people see someone make changes in their life." Every choice in a YA novel has a consequence. This is the age when you start questioning the world ("Why do bad things happen to good people?") When writers tackle big issues, readers see: It's okay to make mistakes.
With the giant boom in YA literature, Scott believes, "It's fun to be at the beginning of something that's wide open." He turned to the audience and said, "The world doesn't know how to handle you guys yet..."
On Saturday, I spoke at the Boynton Beach Library. We worked on a writing exercise together and the teens shared their journals with me. Sonida wrote, "I'm like MC Hammer. You can't touch this." Her diary came with a bookmark shaped like a wolf. She talked about being strong, even when there's violence all around you. I said, "When you write something on paper, it's like taking a burden off your back."
Sonida asked if my next book has "violence" in it.
"Yeah," I said. "It does."
She grinned. "Excellent."
It reminded me of a conversation from YA-LitChat, earlier in the week. How "dark" is "too dark" in teen literature? I truly believe that scary stories create a safe place for readers to explore their fears. We can't censor these kinds of stories--not when the Sonidas of the world need them so badly. They're out there...listening.