AWP in DC! Feb 2-5, 2011 – ENTRY THREE: Young Adult Novels

The annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs took place this  year at the Marriott Wardman Park and Omni Shoreham Hotels in Washington, D.C. My special interests were historical fiction, such as my novel Well Considered, and young adult novels (my work in progress).

The first YA panel, “Writing the Young Adult Novel”  featured five authors:

Stephanie Greene

Stephanie Greene ( twenty children’s and young adult books including The Lucky Ones. Her novels are aimed at middle school age children. Her latest is Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley.  A starred review in The Horn Book, said: “Impulsive, big-hearted, prone-to-enthusiasm middle-child Sophie Hartley is back in another lively chapter book full of humor, believable family dynamics, and characters who think and talk like real people. …  themes of identity, ambivalence about growing up, and friendship …” 

Sarah Aronson

 Sara Aronson ( Head Case, about a teenage quadriplegic. Sara says there is no room for preaching or nostalgia in YA novels. You have to connect to their desires. She remembers as a child reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but also Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and The Outsiders. YA novels should be edgy and have a truer, darker side. YAs are suspicious and critical of adults, and parents are occupied. Youth face a world of crime and injustice. Write in the present tense. Everything is big in YA novels. Don’t worry about trends. By the time you finish your book, they will be over. Don’t put in brands, etc. that will date the book. Protagonists are not powerful–adults are. YA books are about the protagonist overcoming his flaws.

Helen Hemphill


Helen Hemphill: teen books, Long Gone Daddy, Runaround, and Deadwood Jones. ( Helen said that most YA novels use first person present tense. They use simple and compound sentences, but complex sentences are rare. She said that teens are not reflective, and that you can use the F-word. 


Carrie Jones

Carrie Jones ( Need series (paranormal fantasies),  Girl, HeroLove (and other uses for duct tape), Captivate ( #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list in the “Children’s Books—Chapter Books” subcategory), and other novels. Carrie said writers must overcome their old age; remembering is not the same as experiencing. YA novels are character driven. No teenagers had a fun teenage year; they were full of humiliation. You were unpopular. Think of all the things that were humiliating. The book has to start fast–the first line. 

Zu Vincent

 Zu Vincent ( The Lucky Place, The Christmas Box, Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia, Through the Wardrobe, and others. Zu said that YA books are edgy and funny. They are on a smaller canvas, and have immediacy; the narrator is not looking back. Characters are discovering, not reflecting. Adults are kings and queens when they treat us well; ogres when they don’t.

Tami Lewis Brown

 Tami Lewis Brown, is author of Soar, Elinor!, about Elinor Smith, a Long Islander who took her first flight in 1917 at age six, became a licensed pilot at 16, and was later voted “Best Woman Pilot in America.”

     The second panel I attended on the subject was, “Pushing the Boundaries in Young Adult Fiction.” This panel included Swati Avasthi, H.M. Bouwman, Alexandra Diaz, Jeri Ready-Smith, and Michele Corriel.

Swati Avasthi

 Swati Avasthi ( is the author of Split about a teenager escaping domestic violence. She advised to try to mimic the teen voice, and said, “Teens are digital natives; we are digital immigrants.” They use random accessing, and multi-tasking is easy for them. Visuals are important to them (as in video games, TV, movies, comics).  

Jeri Ready-Smith

Jeri Ready-Smith  is an author of romantic and urban fantasy.  Her novels include WVMP Radio, an adult urban fantasy series about vampire DJs, Wicked Game, Bad to the Bond, Bringing on the Night, Shade, and Shift.  Jeri said that young people cannot escape violence, and that YA books should have emotional immediacy and intensity and heightened reactions–swings to extremes. She said that young adults are narcissistic and not interested in current events. She said that sex is less graphic in YA novels. Action slows down, and what happens is from the neck up. She said, “Don’t set out to teach a lesson,” and that “Young adults want to be understood.”

Alexandra Diaz

Alexandra Diaz (, is author of   Of All the Stupid Things, which is listed as one of the ten best books for LGBTQ teens published in the last five years.  Diaz said that when she was growing up, she wanted to hear about sex, and that teens are going to have sex. Banning books doesn’t work–it just increases their sales. She said that LGBT books should not be labeled as “issue books,” and that homosexuality is completely normal and is not going away. In a teenage novel, “anything goes,” and publishers want books that push boundaries. “You have to trust your readership.”       

H.M. Bouwman

H.M. Bouwman   is the author of The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap, a fantasy novel for children grades 5-8. Heather says, “Just because they’re a story doesn’ t mean they’re not real.” Heather says that middle-schoolers are concerned with external plot, not character development. In Harry Potter, the character is not complicated. He is well-adjusted. Action is external. Children need a lifeline to pull them through the text. For young adults, age 8-12, there is usually one plot. They are uncomplicated. And they are not interested in current events.

Michele Corriel

Michele Corriel ( is the author of Fairview Felines, a new Middle Grade novel about a boy who wants to start a middle school newspaper. Michele says that YA books are like adult novels: they have character development, and a beginning, middle and end. They have tension and resolution. Even the simplest children’s books do, such as “Where the Wild Things Are.”

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