Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Longer "Silent All These Years."

The Explosion of Young Adult Fiction and Its Impact on the Future Voices of Women

My IRL friend Marni is a young adult. She is also a fan and author of YA literature. We spend a lot of time chatting about pop culture and entertainment, but particularly we talk about the current explosion of interest in YA literature and the general dismissal of it, writ large, as a substantive genre of literature. Much like romance, YA gets a bad rap for being fluff. "Those books are for children/teens," people will say with a wave of their hand, as though C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and even -- to some extent -- Tolkien's Lord of the Rings aren't all successful and enduring series with primary appeal to younger readers. FN1.

There are a lot of things I find remarkable about the virtual explosion of the YA market in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight. One is simply how many books there are for young adults, so many more than there were when I was that age. After reading all the original Nancy Drews, Babysitter's Clubs, and Sweet Valley Highs by age nine, I moved right into adult fiction, toting copies of Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove and John Jake's North and South into my sixth grade reading class. There simply weren't a lot of young adult books available, and though I read my share of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine, they didn't hold a lot of appeal for me.

The thing I find the most thrilling, though, about the recent uptick in YA novel publishing is the explosion of role models, characters, and voices for young women. Though I've been thinking this for about a year, I was watching this video inspired by Josephine Angelini's Starcrossed series, and it really finally hit me. FN2. I was watching an all-female rock band named DemiGoddess in a video they made and shared with the world.  In it, they sing a song they wrote about a female protagonist superhuman that reclaims an infamous female character of Greek literature in a series written by a woman.  It was like a tiny explosion of women reclaiming and rebuilding stories about women from the past for women, inspiring other women to create further works capturing women's voices as the primary storyteller of a world where women can both fall in love and save themselves.

When I was fifteen, there weren't shelves and shelves of books like this.  I survived for a long time on the works of female musicians, '80s pop stars and rockers and '90s riot grrls like Madonna, Joan Jett, Johnette Napolitano, Chrissie Hynde, Kathleen Hanna, Kim Deal, Tanya Donelly, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair, and Tori Amos. They were my voice; I couldn't find a corollary in books, television, or film. FN3.

I had to search for female protagonists in literature to identify with, to be inspired by.  While I eventually discovered the works of Dorothy Allison, Virginia Wolf, Connie Willis, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, bell hooks, and Toni Morrison (all of whom I still recommend), those writers didn't reach me until I was in my early-mid twenties.  It took a long time for me to find my voice, to tell my story, to know it was important and valuable.

When I go to bookstores now, I run into tons of twelve and thirteen-year-olds hauling stacks of books written by women about female protagonists to the cash register. When I go to the library, they haunt the same bookshelves.  These girls are growing up with a vision of the world that tells them their stories matter. They are superheroes.  They are smart, strong, magickal, powerful, capable.  Their voices are worth hearing, and as a consequence, they will themselves demand to be heard.

In ten or fifteen years, these girls will graduate from college and enter the workforce.  They will have careers and incomes and purchasing power.  And their experiences with these books will tell them that their stories deserve time and exploration.  Their adventures are every bit as important as their male counterparts.  Their lives are valuable. Their knowledge is powerful.

And they will have learned it from writers like Josephine and Marni, like Beth Revis and Lauren Kate, like Jennifer Lynn Barnes and Leigh Fallon, like Suzanne Collins and Sophie Jordan and Sara Zarr, Melissa Marr, Jeri Smith-Ready, Margaret Stohl, Kami Garcia, Maggie Stiefvater, Stacey Jay, Victoria Schwab, Carrie Ryan, Sarah Rees Brennan, Kelley Armstrong, Alyson Noel, Melissa de la Cruz, Richelle Mead, P.C. Cast, Laini Taylor, and probably tons of others I am forgetting. FN4.  And yes, even Stephenie Meyers and J.K. Rowling, who helped expand and relaunch earnest interest in the genre, even if one wrote a less than perfect female protagonist and the other wrote primarily about a boy, because there are strong female characters in those stories, too. FN5. And those stories are quickly being turned into movies and television series, which will inspire more and more stories, echoing forever forward.

These young female readers, as grown women, will be creating and managing and participating in media and the marketplace of ideas, and they will expect, as a matter of course, that their ideas, stories, desires, and experiences be treated with dignity and respect and given equal opportunity to flourish.  This was the thought that gave me hope when I saw the heartbreaking documentary Miss Representation, a film about the continuing shortage of women in positions of power, the biased view we see of women in media, and the disproportionate lack of coverage for women's stories and issues. FN6.  These young women are hearing a different message every time they pick up one of these books.

When I was fourteen, Tori Amos had her first hit with "Silent All These Years." Twenty years later I still remember the desperate urgency that made me cling to that song, lying in my bed and listening to its words over and over again:

I got something to say, you know, but nothing comes.
Yes, I know what you think of me. You never shut-up.
Yeah, I can hear that.
But what if I'm a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it?
Hey, but I don't care 'cause sometimes, I said sometimes,
I hear my voice and it's been here --
silent all these years...

My scream got lost in a paper cup.
I think there's a heaven where some screams have gone...

Years go by.
Will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand?
Years go by.
If I'm stripped of my beautyand the orange clouds raining in hand?
 Years go by. 
Will I choke on my tears till finally there is nothing left?
One more casualty.
You know, it isn't easy, easy, easy.

But what if I'm a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on it?
Hey, but I don't care 'cause sometimes, I said sometimes,
I hear my voice...
I hear my voice...
I hear my voice.

And it's been here: silent all these years.
I've been here, silent all these years.

If I were to hope for one thing for the daughters of the world present and future, it would be that they wouldn't spend so many years in silence, reaching for their own voice, wondering if its been stolen away to some heaven that holds the silenced screams of generations of women past.  My brother recently told me my sixteen-year-old niece is hard at work on her first novel.  She is sixteen, but she already knows her voice matters.  I see the same thing over and over when I go to book readings -  crowds of women and girls, all clamoring for more stories about themselves and the people they hope to be.

When I look at the stories crowding Young Adult fiction shelves today, with all their flaws and foibles, I still see something revolutionary: an overwhelming sense that women have stories of heroism and adventure to tell and to hear. These writers may be sparking the most important feminist change in media today, one that will continue to bear fruit long after these books leave the New Release shelves.

So I'll let the haters who dismiss the growth in YA fiction as a trend hate all they want; I'm a historian, and I think history will bear me out. Right now YA fiction is sparking a subtle feminist revolution that we will feel the tremors of for decades to come.  These writers are creating a more equal world by virtue of their contributions, by responding to a need young women didn't even know they had because they lacked the language to express it.

Viva la revolution, my young readers! Your story gives me hope, and it is the story I hope to hear next.
FN1. I find it irksome that someone would dismiss the Harry Potter books because the protagonist is a child and teen; the series will likely last a millenia over. Over 450 million individual books have been sold, more than any other series of books. If generations hence there are archaeologists trying to determine what people were reading and thinking during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you'd be foolish not to realize the trial and tribulations of a small bespeckled wizard would be high on the list. You can knock plebeian literature all you want, but I always think it is worth remember that Shakespeare was written for the masses, as was Jane Eyre. Sometimes what makes literature great is not its rich lyrical writing or thick subtext, but that it moves people of all kinds the world over. The Boy who Lived will, indeed, live -- long after the critiques who have dismissed him have been returned to dust.

FN2. You can see the video that inspired this post below.

FN3. Okay, maybe BTVS. And also possibly Felicity, a little. But both those shows were created by men.

FN4. This isn't to say there haven't been authors doing this for years (two that immediately spring to mind are Tamora Pierce and Ursula La Guin, who deserve their share of high praise and glory) but more that the sheer volume now sends an overwhelming message that women's stories are valuable, in the same way that having to hunt for a female author and/or protagonist in the past sent the message they were not.

FN5. I remain decidedly Teams Hermione, Alice, and Bella Should Go To College.

FN6. Trailer available below. I highly recommend seeing it if you can.

19 comments: said...

Silent All These Years is one of my favorite songs, which got me over to read this post. And I'm so glad I did! It's nice to hear about authors I don't know and a market I don't typically read, along with props for some authors I love, like Connie Willis. Thanks for posting!

Ines said...

A very good point you make. :)
I've been considering the fact that there is so much YA novels today and there were practically none when I was a teenager (I should know as I went looking).
I think your point will be proven true - I feel it took me forever to come to terms with who I am (and how strong) as that is not what used to be encouraged in books before (nor in my culture). It was recognized that some women were strong but those were the exceptions - now, I talk to my friends and see them look at the world through the eyes of modern female "warriors" (but it took us forever to get there and it isn't recognized outside our female circle).
As you put it, and I'm hoping it comes true, today's girls will be recognized once they are women for the future warriors for good.

Cindi Madsen said...

I was talking with some other readers abt the limited YA books we had. This was such a great post. Girl power!!

Cindi Madsen said...

My friends and I were talking abt this exact thing, & how amazing it is there are so many great YA novels now. Such a great post. Girl power!

samberg said...

As I am currently ripping through the second book in Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" at breakneck speed, I wholeheartedly concur with this post.

Also, thanks for the tips on other authors to try out.

Athena Franco said...

Such a great post with a powerful message.

Little Willow said...

Great post! Kudos to all of the authors who create strong female and male characters alike, who tell wonderfully engrossing stories that make us smile, laugh, and cry, especially when those stories and those characters are reflections of ourselves.

saperle said...

Ever since I read this yesterday I've been thinking about the YA books I loved best from age 9-13 and have come to the conclusion that I really lucked out and the vast majority of the books (mostly but not exclusively scifi & fantasy) I loved were about girls or, at minimum, written by women and had large roles for girls if they weren't the primary character. These included -

About girls:
Matilda - Roald Dahl
A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Girl with the Silver Eyes - Willow Davis Roberts
The Freak - Carol Matas
A Touch of Magic - Lois Duncan
Gone Away Lake - Elizabeth Enright
The Dream Catcher - Monica Hughs
Who is Frances Rain? - Margaret Buffie
the Young Wizards series - Diane Duane
Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
The Baby Sitters Club series - Ann M. Martin

Written by women (male main characters):
The Dark is Rising series - Susan Cooper
The Giver - Lois Lowry

In fact, the only two ALL TIME favourite books from that age of mine that weren't about or by females are The Chrysalids by John Wyndam and the 'My Teacher is an Alien' series by Bruce Coville but both had solid female secondary characters.

I kept up with YA once I was past that age (and thus got into such gems as the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman) but I do recall a bit of a drop-off in really amazing, girl-centric novels like these, and was also hugely disullusioned when I graduated into 'grownup' scifi and fantasy novels and they basically weren't about and by women almost ever (it took me a few years to find Octavia Butler, Sherri S. Tepper and others like them.) I'm glad to see the trend of awesome girls in YA being written by women come around again, and hope this time it translates into more women-centric adult literature in coming years as this batch of young people grow up.

Diana said...


Thanks for reading. I love Connie Willis, too! She's one of my top five fav authors.


Diana said...


Yeah, I'm with you. My friends and I are embracing the genre and loving it, even though we are well outside the "young adult" portion of the audience at this point. It's wonderful to think there will be so much more for girls and young women than there was for us.


Diana said...

Cindi Madsen,

Thanks for stopping by and reading. Girl power, indeed!


Diana said...


I really enjoyed "The Hunger Games." I'm really hopeful the movies will be good.


Diana said...

Athena Franco--

Thanks for stopping by and reading!


Diana said...

Little Willow--

I agree there are some good strong female characters out there written by men (His Dark Materials) and there are some wonderful male characters that I admire and identify with.

I'm just surprised and happy that there are now at least and equal proportion of SciFi/Fantasy/Horror protagonists genderwise, when those genres -- beloved by many girls and women -- have long been dominated by men writing about men for men. When you look at the way representation in media reinforces negative stereotypes about women, it gives me hope that this explosion of YA novels will help counter some of the more mainstream negative representations.

That said, I particularly welcome a strong female character written by ANYONE. Hence my deep love and reverence for Joss Whedon.

Thanks for reading!


Diana said...


I loved Anne of Green Gables, BSC,
The Baby Sitters Club series and especiallyThe Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. But when I look at the books I read, so few of them had women as the predominant character, particularly in SciFi/Fantasy/Horror. My hope is that the high number of female written, female centered YA books in those genres will breed a generation of fans of those genres that clamor for adult books focused on the same fantastical themes. I have nothing against general literature, but I love space and monsters and robots and the like, and it is nice to think there will be more demand, and therefore more books, like the ones Ursula Le Guin and Connie Willis write.

Thanks for stopping in!


Kelly Andrews said...

I sure hope this is true! I'm excited to see what will happen.

Eatworm said...

Hurrah for mentioning Tamora Pierce and Ursula Le Guin. I grew up with strong female protagonists like Alanna and Kel (Alanna: The First Adventure & First Test) and try to spread the secret (or not so secret) awesomeness of TP's book wherever I can locally. Loved your post! Also may I mention I love Patricia Brigg's Mercy series for a kickass female lead.

Diana said...


You know what they say: hope dies last. :)


Diana said...


Thanks for the Mercy recommendation. I wasn't familiar with Patricia Briggs, but I am always looking for more books with strong female characters and talented female authors.

Thanks for reading!