School Library Journal conference talks genre-bending, mental health

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The School Library Journal (SLJ) Teen Conference that took place last week was an online conference to highlight the biggest upcoming YA books, and important issues that affect teens. With an opening keynote by The Raven Boys author Maggie Stiefvater, the day started out inspiring.

“The whole point of being a commercial writer is that most people who pick up that book should find something they like in it,” said Stiefvater, who encouraged listeners to “turn your nos into not yets.”

After the keynote, the day split into two main YA discussions: “Mental Health in YA” and “Genre-Bending SFF in YA.”

“Mental illness is all around us,” said Beware That Girl author Teresa Toten at the “Mental Health in YA” panel, arguing that “it’s got to be reflected in all our literature as a very common, regular part of life”.

Panelists Teresa Toten, Susan Vaught, Nyrae Dawn, Jennifer Niven and Stephanie Kuehn discussed novels that dealt with mental health issues and answered questions.

For Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy author Susan Vaught, it was important to “show people out in the world living their lives… irrespective of these things going in their lives, life does go on… having a challenge like mental illness doesn’t mean that the person disappears.”

Vaught noted that not everyone’s experience regarding mental illness was the same, but that “the most important piece when it comes to own voices is that people writing in their own voices don’t need to be drowned out by people writing outside of their own voices.”

For writers writing outside of their own voices, Vaught suggested that “listening to people who truly live in that situation and are willing to talk to you freely is probably the best option”.

To All the Bright Places author Jennifer Niven, the conversation about mental health in YA was a very important one, because “books on mental illness do the most important thing: they remind readers they’re not alone.” Niven was surprised by the reaction All the Bright Places received. “I thought all this time I was writing it for me, but it turns out I was writing it for them.”

On the Genre-Bending SFF panel, authors Kate Elliott, Sarah Rees Brennan, Traci Chee, Rachel Lou and Amanda Sun discussed the importance of genre-bending and how it manifested and affected YA.

According to Tell the Wind and Fire author Sarah Rees Brennan, YA authors have many options when it comes to choosing a genre to write in, as the YA label spans most genres.

“We can write about anything we want,” said Brennan. “By using all the different genres all together, we can just talk more about life.”

“Genre is an artificial way of defining stories,” said Court of Fives author Kate Elliott, who believes genre-bending is a marketing ploy designed to sell books. Though genre tells readers what to expect from a book, going into that story fulling anticipating a certain result is why genre-bending can be a tricky thing.

Elliott believes genre-bending is easier to do with fantasy stories.

“I consider fantasy to be the original genre of storytelling,” said Elliott, “All stories are already embedded in fantasy’s DNA.… a certain amount of blending keeps a culture/genre healthy. In still other words, diversity is our strength.”

Diversity, both within and without the genres was the key word during the conference. In most of the publisher booth chats, conversations about inclusion and diversity in publishing were happening, with a positive outlook for a bigger range of diverse books – especially for LGBTQ+ books, as that seemed to be the main focus of queries being presented to the publishers – coming up in 2017.

If you would like to view the panels yourself, or get more information, head to the SLJTeen Live website. To view the panels, you will have to register for free to gain access to the conference archives.

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About Author

Mandy Rosas

Mandy Rosas is a UK student of English Literature and Creative Writing. She is passionate about all things books, and hopes to work in publishing in the future. Until then, she enjoys reading way too much and obsessing over fictional men – both in books and in TV series. She runs the blog Bookworm.

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