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EW Fest: 5 things we learned at the YA authors panel

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Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

The YA panel at Saturday’s EW Fest had an all-star roster of authors: Moderated by author and editor David Levithan, panelists included Holly Black, Maureen Johnson, Gayle Forman, Nicola Yoon, and Maggie Stiefvater. They discussed everything from influences to the state of YA — and with varying ranges of experience (Holly Black’s first novel was published in 2002, whereas Nicola Yoon only made her debut in 2015), the group could really speak to the way YA has changed from being the pariah of all genres, to the epicenter of pop culture (ever heard of The Fault In Our Stars?… Yeah).

Here are 5 of the most interesting things we learned at the panel:

Early YA authors weren’t exactly received well by other writers

At Black’s first children’s writers conference, a woman literally turned her back after finding out Black wrote YA. Johnson had a similar experience at the BookExpo of America conference: No one had any interest in speaking to her at a party, and she was completely miserable (a feeling that definitely translates well to a teen audience). The story has a happy ending, though: “I was standing next to an equally sad-looking man, and we started talking about how much we hated the party,” Johnson said. Turns out that man was none other than fantasy author Terry Pratchett.

YA authors write for everyone: teens, adults, and especially themselves

While the perception of YA is that it’s geared specifically toward teens, that’s not necessarily true anymore. Plenty of adults — possibly even more than teens — read and love YA. So writers, then, don’t need to write only for that demographic. “I write for people who are questioning,” said Yoon. “Questioning the world, and how they fit into it. Readers are naturally curious people… Anyone who’s questioning the meaning of life can find things in all books, but especially in young adult books.”

“I write and edit for an audience of one,” said Forman. “I love writing YA because teenagers are allowed to feel their emotions.” She said it’s a myth that adults no longer feel strong emotions like teens — adults feel plenty, but society sometimes looks down on them for expressing those feelings. In YA, emotions are both true and valid.

Johnson loves writing for teens, even if they’re a tougher audience: “Adults are dumb,” she explained. “You can sneak a lot past adults, but teens will spot it.” Added Stiefvater, “Teens have a really good b—s— meter.”

It’s tough to decide which — if any — cultural references to include

Black’s first book came out in 2002, but her second wasn’t until 2005. In that time, she explained, “Cell phones went from something only rich people had, to something everyone has.” She had to figure out how to include technology that’s become ubiquitous with characters who she didn’t initially expect to have phones.

Forman agrees: “Cell phones are a nightmare. It’s a nightmare to always have people reachable narratively. I’m really tempted to set books in 1990.”

Levithan recalled an author he was working with, as an editor, who wanted to include an extended metaphor about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s relationship. He worried that the next year, when the book would actually come out, the original “Bennifer” would no longer exist — and the book wouldn’t make sense anymore. They cut it. “Now every time I see that author, I’m like, ‘Don’t you feel good that we cut that out?'” he said.

Any pop culture you absorb — books, TV, movies — can become inspiration

Yoon read a lot of Harlequin romances growing up in Jamaica — and loves the movie Harold and Kumar. Stiefvater read the Chronicles of Narnia and hand-me-down, pulpy thrillers from her flight surgeon father, both of which she says still factor into her current work. Forman loved Jackie Collins’ Hollywood tales, and John Hughes movies like Sixteeen Candles. “That was amazing,” she says of the Molly Ringwald-starring film. “The weird, kind of dorky girl gets the cute guy? I didn’t know that could happen! That swam in the back of my brain and eventually came out in my books,” she said. Johnson’s influences range from Agatha Christie mysteries to American classics like The Great Gatsby and the work of Ernest Hemingway. “It’s a weird grab bag,” she said. Black was always drawn to high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and Interview with the Vampire, and ’80s movies like Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. For Levithan, it was Weetzie Bat, My So-Called Life, and the music of The Smiths. “The Smiths fans became the writers in my high school, for sure,” he said.

And writers have great book recommendations:

Looking for your next read? These authors have some ideas for you:

Stiefvater: A 52-Hertz Whale by Natalie Tilghman. “It’s a strange, nontraditional YA book told all in emails,” she explained. “And it’s a fast read, so you can force it on anyone.”

Yoon: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. “Bring tissues. You’ll cry,” she promised.

Forman: The Truth Commission by Susan Juby. “It’s experimental… it’s written like a term paper, with footnotes,” she said of the novel about kids in art school. “It’s hilarious.”

Johnson: Tell The Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees Brennan. It’s not out until next spring, but Johnson urged everyone to read it when it comes out: “It’s an amazing retelling of A Tale of Two Cities.”

Black: Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson. “It’s about race! It’s about class! It’s about a pandemic flu! It’s awesome,” she said.

Levithan: Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman. This one’s about dealing with mental illness, and it’s autobiographical — based on the true story of the author’s son. “I started it and I was like, ‘What is going on?'” Levithan said. “That’s usually a sign that I’m liking a book.”

Watch the full panel above and check out more videos from EW Fest below!

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