I always find it intriguing to see what forms of entertainment today’s young people are digesting in our culture. For most of us, that brings to mind the newest Vine video, social media app, or Nicki Minaj song in the Top 10. But what about books?
Every since Harry Potter, we’ve seen a surge in YA fiction (often followed by movie releases), like the Twilight series, the Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent, or the more recent The Fault in Our Stars. In a world with so many entertainment options, what is it young people are actually reaching for on the shelf today? And with steamy adult books like 50 Shades of Grey surging mainstream… will this trickle down to the teen market?
I asked YA author Jackie Lea Sommers these questions, not only as a new author, but as a college admission counselor and a youth ministry veteran who has her thumb on the pulse of current youth culture:
Jonathan: Tell me a little about your interaction with today’s teenagers and how you would describe today’s teens compared to a decade ago.
Jackie: I’ve been working in college recruitment for nearly a dozen years now. As an admission counselor, it’s my job to come alongside college-bound high school students and their families to help them with their college choices. I was involved in youth ministry for over a decade as well. In my own experience, teens are less and less insulated these days. They’ve seen it all, heard it all. They or their friends or someone they know have been touched by things like death, disease, and other tragedies, by hot-button issues like bullying, LGBT issues, sex, and addiction.
Jonathan: What do you think young people are looking for in their reading today?
Jackie: Trends in YA reading show that teens are looking for contemporary realism. There’s still definitely a place for fantasy and science fiction, but they’re really wanting to read stories about real teens facing real issues—things that they themselves could face.
Jonathan: What are some examples of books you see today’s teens enjoying the most?
Jackie: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has been a runaway bestseller, focusing on teen cancer and grief. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a favorite this year; it approaches topics like death, family, and homosexuality masterfully. Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory is another one that deftly tackles hard issues, this time PTSD. To me, the connecting theme of all these books though is the incredible characters, fictional people that teens can relate to and champion.
Jonathan: In this CNN article, What Teens Will Be Reading Next, the author predicted, “The big trend near this age group continues to be New Adult, with much more sexy, adult story lines.” Have you noticed this trend?
Jackie: Most authors I know—and many booksellers—differentiate between YA and New Adult, with New Adult books generally have sexier scenes and an older cast of characters, usually college-aged. That said, I think even the YA market is demanding sexier storylines. There was a time when sex in books for young adults was considered more scandalous (I’m thinking of Judy Blume’s 1975 book Forever …, which was the target of censorship). For the most part, I believe that time is behind us.
Jonathan: As a YA author, how are you responding to this trend?
Jackie: Writing Truest, my debut novel, was an interesting experience. I come from a conservative Christian background and am still very much involved in the Evangelical culture. As a believer, I had to sort through a lot of my thoughts on profanity and sex and their place in a YA novel. I am struck by the gospel: it is a raw, savage story filled with the ugly sinfulness of man—and yet, it’s the most beautiful story I know. I hold that close to me as I write fiction.
Jonathan: That’s awesome. What’s next from Jackie Lea Sommers?
Jackie: My first novel Truest will be published by HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books in September of this year. I’m hard at work on my second novel at this time. I blog regularly at www.jackieleasommers.com about faith and creativity, especially writing, and especially writing for young people.
Jonathan: Thanks Jackie. We really appreciate your insight!