Patrick Ness' BEA 2015 Panel 'Talking to Teens About Tough Topics' Is a How-To Guide on Avoiding The After-School Special
Young adult novels have tackled serious personal and societal issues since long before John Green put teenage cancer en vogue with The Fault in Our Stars. But Friday at BookExpo America, young adult author Patrick Ness talked at BEA 2015 about how to avoid turning books that include tough topics into "issue books" that feel more like an after-school special than literature. BookExpo America, or BEA, is a massive publishing conference to showcase upcoming titles by the biggest (and smallest) publishing houses.
Ness was discussing his upcoming YA book The Rest of Us Just Live Here on a BEA panel called "Talking to Teens About Tough Topics." He was joined by What We Saw's Aaron Hartzler, A Step Toward Falling's Cammie McGovern, Traffick's Ellen Hopkins, and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls' Lynn Weingarten. When discussing what not to do in books that face difficult issues, he coined the term "CBAITs," which he pronounced see-baits: Crappy Books About Important Things. He said:
You don't want to read a sermon even if you agree with every word of it.
Ness argued that writers who decide the Important Thing, capital letters, first are starting off on the wrong foot. First should always be the story and an emotional truth. He added, "Books about teens do not need to be important; they just need to be true."
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is what he called a "vaguely cheerful" story that he doesn't like to categorize by the "tough topic" it includes. In YA there are lots of "chosen ones," he says — everyone from Katniss Everdeen to Tris Pryor and Harry Potter — but Ness wanted to write a book about the other guy. He quipped:
What if you were the guy in Buffy's class who just wanted to eat lunch and make it through the day without the school blowing up?
Hopkins, whose upcoming book Traffick is the sequel to her 2009 teen prostitution story Tricks, agreed with Ness on what not to do when writing books about important issues. Hopkins said she avoids preachiness by centering not on the issue itself, but on the characters in her fictional world, who she often bases on real people and stories. She said:
"Spend time talking about how those people are, not what is happening to them."