Realistic Stories: The Next Big Thing?

I’m often asked – whether while working at Kaleidoscope or at conferences or in general conversation – what’s the next big thing going to be in children’s and young adult literature?

I have to admit, my most common answer is: “Time Travel, I just know it’s coming back.”

But that’s mostly so that I can chuckle.

This month, realistic stories month, I realized that the truth is – when it comes to children’s literature – anything could happen; but when it comes to contemporary YA fiction, there really isn’t going to be a next big thing because contemporary YA fiction has always been the next big thing. I mean, think John Green and Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan. These authors thrive because they write realistic fiction, or contemporary YA fiction – stories about the turbulence and experience of teen life. These stories, realistic contemporary fiction are the bread and butter of the YA shelves. They tell the story of the teenage experience whether it be happy, dark, tough, romantic, angsty, funny, mysterious, sometimes a little surreal but always tense and full of tough decisions.

Contemporary YA fiction is teen life – these are realistic stories and these will always be the next big thing. Just as long as literature continues to shift and change with the times, teen life will always captivate the teen audience. Self-centred? Perhaps, but what can you expect? Teens are still learning, they are seeking out similar experiences, models and entertainment or even wish-fulfilment and escape.

Take a look through YALSA’s Best Fiction for YA for 2014, and even skip back to 2013 or 2012. These lists showcase the highs and lows of being a teen in the contemporary moment – what is it that shapes teens today. I’m not going to delve into the fantastical or speculative today, though the trends in those genres are certainly interesting, I’m merely going to commend on contemporary issues in YA Realistic Fiction.

There are an abundance of books exploring the boundaries of “gender” and pushing against rigid gender and sexuality norms – in fact, I think that with such books as Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing or Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s Freakboy the simple “problem story” construction is bypassed and teen characters live their everyday lives – and in doing so they rewrite what it means to be themselves outside of societal norms. Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine takes place in Iran and jumps right into the story of two girls in love and the dangers they face everyday because of it – complex identity questions layered with cultural tensions and family motivations – a very intense book worth a read by anyone who takes any of their freedoms for granted.

As I mentioned last week there are plenty of books, and I think there probably always have been plenty of books, dealing directly with bullying. Donna Cooner’s Skinny,  for example, has her protagonist undergo gastro intestinal surgery to escape brutal external bullying which has manifested into a secondary internal identity – a cutting look at bullying and it’s effect (no pun intended). The List by Siobhan Vivian walks through the lives of 8 high school girls who have made it onto the list as either the prettiest girl in their grade, or the ugliest. It turns out that no matter which list you are on your identity is being challenged, you are being forced into a role – you are being bullied. Intense and interesting read. Nielsen’s Henry K. Larsen made it onto the list, one of my personal favourites that deals with bullying in a very realistic way – Henry’s brother was a victim of bullying and this story follows Henry and his family after “the incident,” the lovely thing is that Henry also faces bullying, actually many characters in the novel do – even the adults.

Stories of love and loss seem to constantly adorn the walls of the Best YA Fiction – Sean Beaudoin’s Wise Young Fool features Richie, a young “rock star” who landed himself in Juvie, telling his story of loss, love and lust to the reader, a fantastic glimpse into the mind of a teenage boy.

Actually, there have been an increasing number of books that deal with the multiple dimensions of being “boy” or breaking out down the “boy/man” identity construction. Shawn Goodman’s Kindness for Weakness has the younger brother taking the fall for his older brother and landing in prison – his character is put to the test. It’s a heartbreaking story, not incredibly unfamiliar but one of many that naggle at the corners of masculinity. Reality Boy by A.S. King features a child reality TV star whose career took a turn for the worse when he pooped (it’s hard to write that and not giggle) on T.V. Now he deals with bullying and also his own self-control and anger issues – what’s lovely about this book is his yearning to connect and not the outside world’s constant nagging him that he should.

And then there are the hilarious stories of life as a teen – Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle is the hilarious story of Nate who ventures from his small town home to New York to take a chance at becoming a star. Andrew Smith’s Winger is the story of Ryan navigating boarding school – which can be tough and hilarious enough – he just also happens to love his roommate. Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil follows in the footsteps of The Big Bang Theory when a group of nerds are invaded by … a girl.

And here I am – I know that there are many books on the list that deal with falling head over heels in love for the first time, books that tackle sex and body image and secrets… There are books about unlikely friendships, old friendships, struggling friendships, relationships of all different kinds – between siblings and parents and even teen and animal relationships. There is more sick-lit that I haven’t gotten to – but I believe one of my fellow Book Warriors will get to that soon!

Really, my meager list here only scratches the surface of the many wonderful Realistic Fiction books out there for YA this year. It seems that the expanse of topics that contemporary YA fiction can cover is ever growing – there is no story too dark or too funny to tell and I am of the belief that this is a very good thing. That authors are writing these difficult to tell stories, lighthearted and traumatic alike, means that teens are not being underestimated. Reality is the scariest thing sometimes, and it’s certainly a story worth telling.

Really, this is why the only predictions I can make are for other genres of fiction. Realistic fiction can take any form and it will always be popular because it will always connect with readers on a basic, very real level. We’d like to see more diversity – and perhaps we will, but I don’t think that that’ll be the next big thing per se, simply a trend that is called for, needed. Teens everywhere live very turbulent realities every day, they are still learning and discovering and experiencing things like loss and pain and love for the very first time – and therefore there needs to be, and there are a healthy selection of stories about real experiences – and they will remain relevant, important and forever the next big thing.