Beth Kephart is an American author of non-fiction, poetry, and young adult fiction for adults and teens. She has written and published fifteen books, and has received several grants and awards for her writing. She was a National Book Award Finalist for her book “A Slant of the Sun: One Child’s Courage,” and her book “Small Damages” just last month was named the Armchair BEA Young Adult Novel of the Year. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is a writing partner in the marketing communications firm Fusion Communications, and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Beth to discuss young adult fiction with her for Polyphony H.S.
First off: What is your definition of ‘young adult literature’?
I am not a huge fan of trapping any genre inside a definitional box. Young adult novels share, at the very least, this one thing: a primary protagonist who is both a teen and is living and learning from the events as they unfold. This is not to suggest that every YA novel is a first person/present tense narrative. But it does suggest that YA novels are alive with a certain urgency, and that they are enlivened by questions that are relevant and pressing to younger readers.
How do you think your writing style has developed over the course of your YA fiction days?
Every book is new; no book is crated inside a preconceived idea of style or set of boundaries. My earliest YA books were perhaps more simple in their structure and scope. Undercover was inspired by my own high school days as an undercover poet, a quasi Cyrano character. House Of Dance, my second, was born of the loss of a friend, and Nothing But Ghosts by the loss of my mother. By the time I was writing my fourth YA novel I was looking around the world for inspiration and to different time periods—to Juarez, Mexico (The Heart Is Not A Size), to Centennial Philadelphia (Dangerous Neighbors), to a mental asylum known as Byberry (You Are My Only), to Seville (Small Damages). I recently released a YA book told in a boy’s voice, about 1871 Philadelphia (Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent). I have two novels pending—one takes place in 1983 Berlin and one in future Florence, Italy. I am doing more and more research as the books emerge, and exploring more complex plot lines and entanglements. I want to challenge myself every time. I don’t ever want someone to think that just because they have read a Beth Kephart book they know all that it is in my heart and mind.
Why did you start writing for young adults?
I was asked to write YA literature by an editor who had read my earlier work and who was familiar with both my teaching of young readers/writers and a presentation I had given as the chair of the National Book Awards Young People’s Literature Jury in 2001. It took me a year to agree. I’m very glad that I did. I love the editors, readers, teachers, librarians, and other authors I have since met.
Is there something specific that differentiates regular fiction from ‘YA fiction’?
Every book must be evaluated, first, as a book, and not by its label. There are some extraordinary YA novels and some extraordinary novels for adults. Novels for adults often take their time in the development of themes. They presume a more patient reader. But novels for younger readers can be and often are just as nuanced, complex, and intriguing as anything one would find on the adult shelf. Read The Book Thief. Read Patricia McCormick. Read Ruta Sepetys and Rita Williams-Garcia and David Levithan and A.S. King and so many others. It’s a wide, bold, beautiful genre.
As someone who has written multiple books across multiple genres, do you find pieces of other genres (either literally or metaphorically) transcend into your fiction?
I never box myself in when I work. I never imagine a readerly subset. I am working as hard as I can to make the books as interesting as I can—to myself and to readers. I’ll use unexpected POVs, challenging landscapes, brand new science—if that is what the story needs. Poems filtered through Undercover, and in the paperback I write an afterword entirely through poems. Prose poems feature in You Are My Only, as my character recovers from a nervous break. History stands strong in the vast percentage of my work. A mystery prevails in Nothing But Ghosts.
Here is the most important thing. I know teens. I teach them. I hang out with them. I raised a beautiful, intelligent child. I don’t write down to this YA group, in other words, don’t simplify, don’t presume anything is “too hard.” Some have criticized me for that. But I write for the teens I love. And often their teachers, librarians, and parents find their way to my work as well. Most people call my books crossover books. My heroines and heroes are just as intelligent as the young people I’m blessed to know.
What do you think other age groups can learn from young adult fiction?
YA is perhaps the most experimental genre being produced today. Anything goes, anything happens, any structure, POV, time zone, idea of play can be deployed and often is. YA is also, as I noted earlier, endowed with some degree of urgency. These are things any writer, of any genre, can be inspired by.
You have spoken in the past about adults as young adult fiction’s primary (but clearly unintended) readership. Why do you think this is the case?
I don’t want to say “primary” readership. But clearly many of those buying YA books, if you look at the stats, are not teens. The adults who talk to me about YA and their love for it say that they began to read YA so as to better understand what their children were reading…then fell into the faster pace, or into the self-discovery themes, or into the fantasy. YA, some say, is a “quicker” read. I don’t necessarily think that is always true, but it is a reason some give for the genre’s popularity. Good books get read.
Do you think young adult fiction is respected in the greater ‘professional literary community’? Why or why not?
It depends on who is reading what, and on who has the floor when the debate is on. I don’t know any informed reader who does not respect the great YA books or their authors. I also know, have encountered, have rolled my eyes at those who tell me that I haven’t been writing “real” books ever since I began writing YA. To those I say, choose your books well, then come back and tell me what you think. There’s a lot of very bad YA, certainly. There’s a lot of very bad everything. But the best of the best deserves respect.
Why does young adult fiction need to be written?
YA literature is literature. And literature must be written to expand our worlds, to increase our compassion, to help us understand and negotiate the idea of both family and other.
Peter LaBerge is a Genre Editor from Connecticut. He will attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Read more about Peter here.