A timeline of 2019’s 5 biggest YA controversies
Even as it makes groundbreaking strides in representation and inclusion, YA remains a genre prone to controversy.
Perhaps it is the nature of the reading level: readers on the cusp of adulthood — although research shows that many full-fledged adults read the genre too — who are grappling with real issues while finding their voice and hoping that their reading material doesn’t misrepresent whatever that voice is. Over the past decade, the genre has emerged as a safe haven for many marginalized communities; over the past year, it’s met the ire of many who have alleged hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness.
As YA continues to evolve, the drama surrounding it will continue to build and change. We rounded up the 5 biggest controversies to hit the genre in 2019 — all of which say something about how the genre is moving forward.
January 2019: Blood Heir postpones publication
Once upon a January, on-the-rise YA author Amélie Wen Zhao locked a six-figure deal for her work Blood Heir, a magic-infused retelling about the lost Romanov princess, Anastasia.
The book was set for a June release, but the author and her publisher Random House Children’s Books decided to pull it due to some Goodreads and Twitter backlash, which accused the book of “blatant black bigotry”; commenters (many of whom hadn’t read the book) lambasted the book’s treatment of enslavement the book.
Zhao explained on Twitter that she did not want to harm a marginalized group of people, especially being a “third-culture” kid raised in Beijing living in “Trump America.”
“The narrative and history of slavery in the US is not something I can, would, or intended to write, but I recognize that I am not writing in merely my own cultural context,” she stated. On her website, she had in the past mentioned her intent to bring to life “a diverse cast, many of which are beloved and dear to a third-culture kid like myself … a tawny-skinned minority of a Russian-esque princess; a disowned and dishonored Asian-esque assassin; an islander/Caribbean-esque child warrior; a Middle-Eastern-esque soldier.”
The decision to reschedule publication was met with mixed reaction. Some observers applauded Zhao for her cultural sensitivity; others prompted her to not give into mob-induced pressure. (In April, Zhao and her publisher announced publication would move forward in November with modest revisions.)
February 2019: Publication of A Place for Wolves is canceled
Author Kosoko Jackson’s book A Place for Wolves may have made a place for a love story between two queer American men but in its depiction of the war in Kosovo, ignored the perspective of another significant minority group more directly related to the story’s background conflict.
The Goodreads community expressed frustration with its alleged historical inaccuracies leading Jackson to pull the book from its original March publication. “I’ve never been so disgusted in my life,” one reviewer wrote on Feb. 22. “There’s something so gross to me about centering our pain and experience in a real-life tragedy that really wasn’t about us. I would like to see this story written by someone who deeply understands it, who feels the pain of their friends and family, who actually was displaced, or threatened [during the Kosovo War].”
Jackson, who has a history as a “sensitivity reader” for prominent publishers in the YA world due to his own position as a member of two marginalized groups (the black and queer communities) even apologized via Twitter for the “problematic representation and historical insensitivities.”
June 2019: Kathleen Hale is a Crazy Stalker publishes
YA author Kathleen Hale debuted her first thriller, No One Else Can Have You in 2014, and infamously targeted the author behind a bad Goodreads review of the book — a scandal that spoke to a larger issue of the relationship between authors and readers on the literary website. Hale went so far as showing up to the initially anonymous reader’s house (!) and publicly attacked the critic, but was ultimately rewarded with a book deal about it after penning her stalking journey in The Guardian.
Kathleen Hale is a Crazy Stalker features essays by the author about the grand nature of stalking in our culture today. The novel published in June; among other press, Hale received a divisive BuzzFeed profile and received criticism for glibly working off of her stalking controversy. As Vox writer Aja Romano tweeted, “branding her new book around her infamy…is such a clear indication that she’s learned nothing from all this.”
November 2019: Sarah Dessen and the “Common Read”
Northern State University alumna Brooke Nelson joined her school’s “Common Read” selection committee a few years ago, and revealed in a recent story in the local Aberdeen News that she advocated against including a book by Sarah Dessen from becoming the required read for freshman in 2017.
“She’s fine for teen girls,” Nelson, now a graduate student, said to Aberdeen. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So, I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah.”
Aberdeen News quoted Nelson’s statement piece regarding the curriculum’s 10th anniversary. Dessen posted a screenshot of her comments on Twitter, adding that she felt hurt by them. Fans and fellow authors made the article go viral, eventually leading Nelson herself to hear about and comment on the ill nature of the quote. Authors Roxane Gay and YA author Siobhan Vivian tweeted replies that directed expletives toward Nelson. (Dessen, Gay and Vivian all deleted their initial tweets.) The borderline cyber-bullying took on a life of its own, and Dessen decided to write out a social media apology in response: “With a platform and a following, I have a responsibility to be aware of what I put out there,” she tweeted.
Ongoing: Bans Against The Hate U Give and Other Socially Conscious Titles
On the other side of this conversation is progressive books facing resistance from outside the industry. Since its groundbreaking 2017 publication, The Hate U Give has been a prime example. It’s faced intense resistance from schools and communities since 2017. Two years ago, a parent from Katy, Texas advocated against the book for featuring drug abuse and profane language, even though other titles with just as much of both (or more) remained uncontested on the school districts’ shelves. Last year, South Carolina police also called for the book’s ban in high schools due to its police brutality narrative. Such sentiments continue, as the American Library Association included Angie Thomas’ YA best-seller (she’s spent years in a row (!) at or near the top of the New York Times list) in their 2019 list of “most challenged titles.”