Give a teenager a mic, and you’ll get a mouthful.
That’s the premise of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s teen-feedback day at the meeting of the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee. An acknowledgment of the essential disconnect between the compilers of the annual list and its audience, it’s an opportunity for actual teenagers to tell the often mostly middle-aged librarians what they think should be highlighted as excellence in teen fiction. There’s a teen-feedback day twice a year, at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference and also at its Midwinter Meeting. I recently sat in at the teen-feedback session on a snowy afternoon in Philadelphia.
While the room wasn’t quite SRO, accessible seats were hard enough to find that the margins of the room were packed with librarians and publishing professionals eager to hear what the teen readers had to say.
And they said a lot.
Ninth-grader Carson compared Anna Collomore’s The Ruining, a modern update of The Yellow Wallpaper, to The Shining. "The Ruining actually convinced me I was going crazy," she said. "I was reading it, and I was terrified, and I thought it was fantastic."
Liv, an eighth-grader, read Catherine Fisher's The Obsidian Mirror. She was less enthusiastic: "I thought it was no better than OK. It had a lot of good ideas…but it had way too many conversations that were never brought up again,” she said. “I felt like I didn't know any of the characters, and I couldn't relate to them because I was disconnected. I appreciated the twist ending, but I don't believe the novel deserves to be [on the list]. Hopefully the next one will be shorter." Laughter.
Ron Koertge's Coaltown Jesus, was universally reviled—not a single kid had anything good to say about it. This was painful for a lot of members of the committee to hear. "We really liked it," one told me ruefully later that day.
Saskia, in the 11th grade, was particularly articulate in her dislike for The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson: "The story was really imaginative. I like the way it was a futuristic city that was really deeply rooted in the past, but I also think it's really unrealistic. People 400 years from now I think wouldn't allow ritual slaughter. The way it was written also really bothered me, because every metaphor is explained in a paragraph after it’s stated, and it drove me crazy,” she said. “The arc of the story was also a little too long—it wasn't the length of the book, it was that there was so much stuff. It was just too much." Ouch. I’d really loved that one.
But for every slam of a beloved book, there was an enthusiastic endorsement of another, like eighth-grader Lola's praise of Maureen Johnson's The Madness Underneath: "I think it should be on the list," she said. "I read the first book at like the end of sixth grade, so I've been waiting for two years [for this one]. The suspense kind of killed me. The second book was really good; I thought it just filled me up, you know, I was just so happy with it, and I really loved the ghost zapper fighter thing. It's really different, and anyway I love it."
Before their afternoon at the microphone, the teens roamed the exhibit hall, picking up pencils, calendars, mouse pads and of course galleys. Publishers kept aside special stashes just for the teens and beamed as they were snatched up.
It all brought me back to 10 years ago, when my teen-librarian colleague and I took a group of avid readers to Boston for teen-feedback day. We started working with them a good year and a half before the 2014 Midwinter Meeting. “Don’t summarize the books,” we coached them. “The committee members have read the books already. Tell them what you think of how the books work.”
We gathered every month or so for pizza, cupcakes and snacks, and lots of conversation. The kids filled out review forms that served as a structure for note-taking. And they practiced no-holds-barred commentary that frequently became heated. Emily dismissed Melvin Burgess’ Doing It, about, well, doing it, as “porn on the page.” Ben responded that kids who “actually read the whole book” would find a thoughtful and even moral story. Jean-Paul, who had a knack for the pithy statement, measured one book’s success by saying that he “read it more times than anything since Dr. Seuss.”
They all came home from Boston with a galley by an unknown author that quickly became a new measure of excellence. “It’s good,” John said, “but it’s not Looking for Alaska good.”
We kept the group going—no one wanted to stop—and got the kids involved as a review committee for YALSA’s Teens Top 10 to maintain momentum during the six-year gap between ALA’s Boston meetings. A whole different crop went down to Boston in 2010, where Marissa lamented that publishers “seem to think that all teens want to read about is depressing stuff,” which drew chuckles.
We recently held a reunion of this group, offering—what else—pizza, cupcakes and galleys. Three of the young women, a music-education major, a community college student and national guardswoman, and a mechanical-engineering major, giggled over their glowing reviews of Twilight. A food-science masters candidate confessed that she hadn’t yet read Mockingjay. An expectant father groused about the lack of character arc in Wonder. All the ex-kids who had gone to Boston 10 years earlier still had their galleys of Looking for Alaska. All are readers.
I am certain that Saskia, Lola and the rest will be the same in 2024.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor of Kirkus Reviews.